Strategic planning provides a structured approach for determining what goals an organization should pursue to accomplish its mission over the mid-term and long-term (five or more years), and how it can most effectively achieve these goals. In December of 2018, the Board of the California Tahoe Conservancy, a state agency, adopted a new five-year Strategic Plan (download by clicking the hotlink). The Plan lays out five goals and 22 supporting strategies that the organization will pursue to fulfill its mission of restoring and enhancing the extraordinary natural and recreational resources of the Lake Tahoe Basin, to the tune of a $14 million annual budget. For the Conservancy, the update of its Strategic Plan provided an opportunity to integrate social-ecological resilience throughout its work and workforce. This post examines the Conservancy’s strategic planning process and outcomes, and demonstrates how the organization’s programs and staff have integrated four key principles for building resilience. These include fostering complex adaptive systems thinking, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance (per Biggs, Schlüter, and Schoon, Principles for Building Resilience, 2015).
The Conservancy’s process took one year. The first phase of work involved reflecting on accomplishments and shortcomings from the past five years, and then exploring potential futures and areas of uncertainty. The exploration relied on an analysis of trends within the organization; external trends in the region, including how the Basin’s institutional configuration had evolved in recent years; and developments in State of California law and policy. The second phase involved drafting, deliberating, and refining goals, strategies, and performance measures; and assessing and mitigating associated environmental, economic, and political risks.
The five Strategic Plan goals include:
- Steward Conservancy Lands and Protect Basin Communities from Wildfire
- Restore the Resilience of Basin Forests and Watersheds
- Provide Public Access and Outdoor Recreation for All Communities
- Foster Basin-wide Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainable Communities
- Strive for Organizational Learning and Excellence
While not part of strategic planning, subsequently the agency has begun developing an annual operational plan for each of its program areas, which guide how the agency will enact the strategic plan goals from month to month.
The plan’s second, fourth, and fifth goals best illustrate the Conservancy’s fostering of complex adaptive systems thinking.
- The second (p. 21-2) focuses on restoring the social-ecological resilience of the Basin’s forests and watersheds to a variety of disturbances amplified by climate change. One cannot separate people from the landscape in Lake Tahoe. The Lake’s famed clarity and surrounding emerald forests attract over 24 million annual visitors and underwrite a $6 billion economy. Hallmark Conservancy initiatives like the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership and Greater Upper Truckee River Watershed Partnership therefore aim to restore the resilience of forests, creeks, meadows, and wildlife, as well as public safety, public health, cultural landscapes, and recreational trails and amenities. The partnerships recognize the imbrication of these values, their inherent agency and dynamism, and their non-linear interactions.
- The fourth goal (p. 25-6) focuses on completing a vulnerability assessment and climate adaptation action plan for the Basin. Again, the work refuses to isolate components of the landscape, and spans not only forests and the Lake and public health and recreation, but also water, energy, and communication infrastructure.
- The fifth (p. 27-8) focuses on the organization’s capacity to manage complex, multi-jurisdictional resilience initiatives. This involves identifying the requisite skill sets and investing in corresponding professional development.
The Conservancy’s ethic of encouraging learning comes through most clearly in its Guiding Principles (p. 15-6). In particular these include:
- Informing decision-making with the best available science.
- Taking climate change into account in all planning and investment decisions, including designing projects and programs with enough flexibility to respond to future impacts.
- Monitoring and adaptively managing projects to increase scientific knowledge, improve project outcomes, and provide the greatest possible value.
And again, the fifth goal emphasizes ongoing professional development, as well as breaking down internal silos and building the literacy of all staff about the programs and operations on which their colleagues in different divisions. This emphasis on interdisciplinary and strategic fluency allows staff to identify linkages and forge synergies across programs and partners that would like go unnoticed otherwise. To ensure that reflection upon practice improves subsequent actions, in a double-loop of learning (Chris Argyris, Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, 1976), the fifth goal’s final strategy requires continual assessment of the effectiveness of programs and contributions, and the Conservancy’s collaborative leadership capacity. The first three categories of performance measures (p. 29-30) provide anchors for this assessment.
The Conservancy’s approach to its programs and projects demonstrates its commitment to broadening participation. The strategic planning process exemplifies this in microcosm. Developing the plan involved:
- the Conservancy’s eight-member Board, which includes local, state, federal, and public members;
- a 19-member stakeholder working group consisting of peer public agencies, research institutes, non-profit organizations, business associations, and foundations;
- a series of public Board meetings including intensive day-long participatory workshop;
- all 39 Conservancy staff, including nine work teams, an executive team, and a budget team.
Beyond the plan, the Conservancy regularly involves stakeholder groups in the design and implementation of its initiatives. The aforementioned Lake Tahoe West project, for example, involves a 12-member Stakeholder Science Committee and 12-member Stakeholder Community Committee; and the Climate Adaptation project involves a State Agency Partners team as well as Peer Partners Group.
Comfort with complex systems, continuous learning, and broad-based participation lend themselves to polycentric governance. The Conservancy readily recognizes that it is one institution in at least two major networks.
- The first, the Tahoe Interagency Executives group, consists of over fifty federal, state, local, and tribal agencies, and coordinates implementation of the Basin-wide Environmental Improvement Program (a capital investment program for environmental restoration that has completed more than $2 billion of projects since 1997).
- The second consists of the agencies and committees that make up the executive and legislative branches of the State of California. The Conservancy works closely with around two dozen sister agencies, as well as the Governor’s Office, State Assembly, and State Senate.
Accordingly, in the plan the Conservancy enunciates six major roles that it plays, depending on the circumstances (p. 14). The fourth role consists of collaborative leadership, where agencies and organizations establish common goals and provide non-hierarchical (i.e., peer-to-peer) direction and guidance for how to achieve them. Similarly, Guiding Principle six emphasizes collaborative implementation of high-priority, multi-jurisdictional projects; and eight emphasizes cultivating public-private partnerships to create efficiencies and secure funding for transformative initiatives. Goal 5 (p. 26) also foregrounds polycentric governance by calling for the Conservancy to better align the work of peer State agencies as a key mechanism for achieving shared State and Basin mandates (see diagram on p. 9) and improving its own effectiveness. And again, the process performance measures (p. 30) provide a basis for evaluating the opportunities for and quality of collaborative governance in Lake Tahoe.
The Conservancy’s strategic plan builds resilience by fostering complex adaptive systems thinking, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance. The main components of the plan – from mission and vision through guiding principles, goals and strategies for the Conservancy’s array of programs and projects, and performance measures – mutually reinforce one another. Over the next five years, the Conservancy will annually assess how well it is implementing its plan, and how well the plan itself is functioning. In this way, it will further institutionalize its own organizational resilience and its support of Basin-wide social-ecological resilience.
Reflecting upon your own organization and landscape, How have you used strategic planning to foster and institutionalize social-ecological resilience?
Coda: I led the Conservancy’s strategic planning process and served as its lead author. If you want to talk in greater depth about our process and/or product, drop me a line and we can chat over Skype! 🙂