Realizing Unprecedented Success: Tools for Optimizing Your Plan

November 2004

Working Your Plan

After outlining the basic elements of a strategic plan and discussing a process that engages your key stakeholder groups, we now concentrate on the tools necessary to assist you in the implementation of your plan. As my father told me, "plan your work and work your plan." Now it’s time to create a process to "work your plan."

The critical ingredient in implementing your plan is leadership. As a leader, you need to both give and receive help in the planning process. The planning process begins with the board of directors and is expressed through you as the CEO. The trustees define the camp mission and articulate the values. Your main responsibility is to follow the mission in context of the values. Your behavior determines the degree to which the staff will live the values so you need to be passionate in your work as plan implementer!

The implementation phase of planning is akin to taking a newly created musical score and presenting it to members of your "orchestra." The musical score (strategic plan) is presented, and rehearsal (implementation) begins. Each musician (staff member) has particular talent and comes to the stage with unique gifts and expectations. Your role as "conductor" is to draw the best from each musician; each musical section (stakeholder groups); and entire orchestra (camp).

Preparing for the Journey

Harlan Cleveland, in an article entitled "Leadership the Get-It-All Together Profession" identifies attitudes indispensable to leaders. The most relevant include:

  • a lively intellectual curiosity
  • a genuine interest in what other people think
  • a feeling of special responsibility for envisioning a future
  • a hunch that most risks are not to be avoided but to be taken
  • a mind-set that crises are normal
  • a realization that paranoia and self-pity are reserved for people who don’t want to be leaders
  • a sense of personal responsibility for the general outcome of your efforts

Use this list of leadership attributes as a template in your work in implementing your strategic plan. Share these attributes widely with others to set the stage for your work and the expectations that lie ahead.

Dealing with Barriers

The journey from point A to point B is never linear. Too many organizations fail to grasp that strategic plan implementation has both up and down cycles. Barriers are those impediments or hurdles that you must tackle in order to meet the goals of your camp plan. Last month’s article made reference to the information dynamic and how information will not stand still while you execute your plan. Shifts in market dynamics, including customer feedback, create barriers to the prescribed plan. Like lowering the water level of a lake, the once smooth shoreline gives way to newly exposed rocks that will be traversed. The rocks were always there but only now become visible!

The key is to anticipate these barriers and forge ahead on your journey. When facing barriers, take the following action steps:

  • Articulate the nature of the barrier, its impact on your plan, and the likely outcome if you choose to ignore the existence of the problem.
  • Generate additional facts and ideas relative to the problem.
  • Examine the problem from several different perspectives including that of the camper, parents, co-worker, or competitors.
  • Be sure to involve key stakeholder groups in exploring solutions. DO NOT minimize the problem to others.
  • Seek outside consultation if needed.

Remember, successful people — and organizations — keep swinging the bat until they make contact. Most camps have a wealth of talent on board and among their staff. Do not hesitate to tap those resources in addressing barriers. Another valued resource is the American Camp Association talent pool along with research material available to member camps.

Strategies for Implementation

The overall goal of plan implementation is to develop and sustain a process of camp programming that reflects your camp values and goals. You will be successful if you stay focused on the future not on the present realities. As Wayne Gretzky, the outstanding hockey player was once quoted as saying, "Most people skate to the puck — I skate to where the puck is going to be." In order to accomplish this, you need to provide all members of the board and staff with a road map, which is your plan, allowing them to maintain a focused approach.

It’s a human characteristic to feel anxious about the unknowns in the future and mourn the loss of the familiar. Camps are often very adverse to change. You, as a leader, must acknowledge this fact as you set about to institute change. You’ve already created a one-page road map, your "dashboard" containing the mission, vision, values, pillars of excellence, and major initiatives. This is an excellent reference to disseminate widely among camp stakeholder groups. This document is a key building block to your strategic plan initiation.

Let’s look at nine strategies for plan implementation. If you apply these tools, you enhance your role as a leader, actively engage key stakeholder groups in the process, and provide outcomes worthy of your camp’s values. Keep in mind that "creative tension" exists between reality and vision. Your goal is to lift the reality toward the vision. The nine strategies are:

  1. Raise awareness and understanding.
  2. Create a climate for creativity, innovation, and renewal.
  3. Develop cohesiveness among staff.
  4. Gather strategic data.
  5. Adopt a "personalized" plan for achievement.
  6. Design prototypes.
  7. Scan other industries for information and opportunities.
  8. Measure progress regularly.
  9. Apply your power of persuasion.

Raise Awareness and Understanding
Remember that planning is a team sport. It provides you the opportunity to integrate your talent bank of staff, board, campers, and community. You need each other along the way since the planning challenges for today’s camps can be monumental. Unlike the days of old where stability and program maintenance reigned, you are preparing, instead, for rapid change, innovation, cross-functional outcomes, and an entrepreneurial style of operation!

The best tool for raising awareness and understanding is teaching. Good leaders never pass up an opportunity to teach. Turn every interaction with your staff into a learning event. Camp environments, by their very nature, are super-charged learning laboratories. I continue to be astounded to hear, from former campers, of the role camp played in their character development. These values gained at camp have stayed with them for their entire lives.

Create a Climate for Creativity, Innovation, and Renewal
Conventional wisdom can be an important ingredient in camp management. However, if you are going to create a framework for innovative change that meets the needs of a growing diversity of customers, you need to put conventional wisdom aside and develop an environment of creativity, innovation, and renewal. Creative thinking is essential to the future success of any organization and is not a special gift that only some people possess. The essential question is: How can we manage change in a way that is more about sustainable competitive advantage and less about camp survival? In other words, we have to think less about "just getting by" and move toward being "on the cutting edge" of the camp market. Once you have determined what your competitive advantages are, you set about implementing your innovations and camp renewal begins.

Develop Cohesiveness Among Staff
I often conduct group staff interviews for clients as part of the planning process. The purpose is twofold — first, to gain information regarding individual perceptions of the organization and second, to gain insight into the level of cohesiveness on issues between staff. Three useful questions to ask are:

  1. What is it like to be a staff member in this organization?
  2. What is it that people — campers, management, and peers — need most from you?
  3. What is it that you need most from other people to perform your jobs well?

The outcome of these interviews helps identify common goals and team norms and encourages staff to get their cards "on the table." I am always amazed at the insights of both seasoned and relatively new staff about their organization. Information gleaned from these interviews can assist you in building stronger, more cohesive teams among your staff. It also gives the leader insight into how staff perceptions align with your strategic plan.

Gather Strategic Data
Most organizations gather lots of information. However, that information may not be providing significant value to your camp’s strategic planning efforts. Before embarking on data collection, you must clearly understand the purpose for which the data are collected. Your goal is to collect and evaluate "strategic data" across divergent constituent groups that directly shed light on strategic decision making.

Focus group opportunities are an excellent way to learn first-hand the desires and concerns of campers and their parents. Early in my consulting career, I conducted focus groups on behalf of clients — gathering the data and reporting out the findings as part of my technical assistance. I now train board members and managers to lead groups themselves. The information gathered continues to be valuable, and there is the added dimension of direct feedback and enlightenment by camp board members and managers. The method of data collection also gives people a greater sense of plan "buy in" resulting in better understanding the need for change!
Several tips to consider when collecting information are:

  • Divide your constituents into "segments" using age, sex, cultural background, interests, and other criteria.
  • Consider electronic surveying linked to your Web site.
  • Hold community forums to both inform groups of your camp offerings and to learn about particular interests.
  • Practice "industrial tourism" (e.g., obtaining ideas from information gleaned from competitors).

Collecting relevant data based on your strategic decision needs will greatly aid your planning process. Promote "inquiry" — the art of asking questions — among all of your leaders.

Adopt a "Personalized" Plan for Achievement
Begin each month by setting down what you want to accomplish. List two or three projects — identifying actions to be taken. Ask yourself what you need to change. Make a list of contacts who will serve as key resources in assisting you to achieve your project goals. "Stretch" your action steps toward your overall vision but keep it reachable.

You and your team want to concentrate time and energy in the most productive direction — that which brings about the best outcomes — and creates sustainable momentum. Tackle the smaller more easily accomplished issues by first addressing action items that meet the characteristics listed below.

  • small or reasonable cost
  • short-time for completion
  • high visibility
  • uses community assets

Once you have demonstrated an ability to make changes consistent with your plan objectives, tackle larger, more significant issues.

Design Prototypes
A truism in the world of leadership says that the farther away you go from your desk, the more you find out. Most camp directors are well connected to their operational culture. However, to properly utilize this plan implementation tool requires that you take on the role of "product designer." Designers understand how to turn ideas into prototypes that lead to a better understanding of a new program and how it might work. The prototype is a trial unit on a small scale for experimentation or testing. It should be introduced without significantly disrupting other camp operations.

The key is to develop a prototype in one area of your camp that is a microcosm of your overall camp offerings. This approach allows you to smooth out operational kinks while moving forward toward a more refined design. Designing prototypes also gets people throughout the camp organization excited about the process, paving the way for a broad transformation effort that will follow.

Scan Other Industries for Information and Opportunities
In order to better understand today’s youth, you need to get in touch with organizations in the business of youth development. Public and private schools, scouting groups, and religious youth educators are sources of valuable information. A secondary benefit of these contacts is the information you impart regarding your camp mission, programming, and counseling opportunities.

For instance, a growing number of public schools have initiated foundations funded with contributions from alumni, local business, and annual fund drives. Monies may be available to take students on extended trips to camps for an "outdoor" or "leadership" experience.

Another relevant youth organization worth contacting is Odyssey of the Mind. Odyssey of the Mind is a world-wide program that promotes creative team-based problem solving for kids from kindergarten through college with over two million youth participating annually. Teams are given perplexing challenges to solve and are judged on their creativity. Regional and national competitions are held with some teams utilizing camp environments to refine their team skills.

Measure Progress Regularly
Measuring your progress is critical in plan implementation. We all need to know when we have "arrived." To optimize this activity, use a simple matrix system consisting of five categories. Each of your strategic initiatives can be tracked utilizing this system working left to right.

Matrix System for Strategic Progress Measurement

By following this five-step process, you will generate a high level of accountability and bring your plan activities into focus. When using this system:

  • Be sure that your objectives are measurable and can be easily quantified.
  • Break tasks into small and manageable assignments.
  • Make deadlines that are reasonable and public.
  • Circulate the matrix for input and discussion.
  • Reward people for achievement.

Apply Your Power of Persuasion
Remember, there are no failures in the business of plan implementation, only feedback. Resist allowing emotion to creep into the process both for yourself and others. This is a learning process! Be sure to take your board and staff on the journey with you.

The sage advice to "manage by walking around" is particularly powerful in your role as leader. Informal and frequent contact with your staff offer an opportunity to address questions and concerns as well as compliment people that are performing well. Ask staff how they are progressing on a particular action item and encourage them to continue to pursue the desired outcome. This form of communication can be useful in raising the bar of performance with those that are not performing at a high level. By focusing on camper needs you encourage your staff to do the same. Your power of persuasion using one-on-one focused communication can dramatically influence attitudes. W. Clement Stone wrote, "There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference, the little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative."

Change Can Be Easy

The implementation of your strategic plan affords the opportunity to apply the values of your camp to day-to-day situations. Most camps are blessed with dedicated staff and boards of trustees who create a strong camp culture. When people working in a strong culture see how the changes "fit" with what they believe, then change is easy. Youmust lead the initiative to assure that recommended changes are understood by all of the stakeholder groups.

Cleveland, H. (2002). Leadership–The Get-It-All-Together Profession. The Futurist. p. 44.
Stone, W. C. (1987). Success through a positive mental attitude. (p. 246). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Bob Ruch is president of Ruch Enterprises, a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership, organizational transformation, and planning. His client base includes camps, human service agencies, churches, hospitals, and schools with over 200 engagements since founding Ruch Enterprises in 1993. He is an adjunct associate professor at Des Moines University where he teaches "practice management" and "economics." A former camper and volunteer counselor, he currently serves on the Board of Camp Manito-wish YMCA, located in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. He can be reached at 515-276-7262 or at

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.