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Facilitating a Priority-Setting Exercise

By Kim Hodgson, Community Consultant

This is the fifth blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches that will be written by various HC Link staff over the next while.

Community groups and coalitions often request the services of an HC Link consultant to assist with strategic planning and priority setting. This is an exciting and often challenging activity for groups; they’re eager to deliberate and decide on where to put their energies, but at the same time, it’s easy for groups to become thoroughly muddled about what, in fact, they are comparing and ranking.

This is where a good facilitator can help you design a decision-making process that makes sense to your group, is transparent, and where decisions made can be justified and documented.

New partnerships and collaboratives may approach priority setting somewhat differently than those groups that have a long history and a list of initiatives and activities underway and completed. So where to start?

In the case of a new partnership trying to decide which activities support their newly crafted vision, mission and strategic directions, I always start the broader “buckets” – in this case the strategic directions or broad, overall objectives. It can be helpful to ask the group if there are particular strategic directions (i.e. communications, fundraising, partnership development etc.) that they feel are more important to focus on sooner than later. In some instances, the group will decide that there should be a particular emphasis on one or two, but more frequently, there’s agreement that all of the strategic directions need to be addressed.

In the case of existing partnerships that have a history of planning and implementing activities, it can be helpful to take stock of what’s working well or not, prior to generating ideas for future activities. This can be done through Appreciate Inquiry as outlined by Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition Executive Director Lorna McCue. This focuses the group’s attention on what is working well and what could be.

Generating Ideas

The next step is for the group to generate a list of activities that will support each of the strategic directions. Several methods or processes work well for generating these ideas, including the "1-1-2-4-all" exercise from Liberating Structures that Andrea Bodkin has written about previously in her blog on Priority Setting . The Appreciative Inquiry approach has this step built into its process.

Some groups like to generate activities by doing a mini-visioning exercise around the question: If we are successful in what we are doing in 3 years, what will be in place?” What do we need to do to get there? What activities need to be put into place? Are these activities the same activities that we are doing now? If not, what should we be doing?

Sometimes I have one group generate possible activities for one strategic direction, or sometimes everyone participates in a “free for all” – writing down any and all activities that come to mind. Regardless, the intent of this process is for the group to generate as many good ideas as possible.

The next step is to have participants present their ideas to the rest of the group, and visually group like ideas together. The group decides which strategic direction the activity supports, and we simply tape an index card or a piece of paper with the name of the activity under the relevant strategic direction.

In many cases, the group will come up with new ideas and activities that aren’t directly related to their current strategic directions or objectives. It’s important to capture these ideas in a way that shows that they are innovative, but don’t fit easily into previously agree upon areas of focus. The group can then decide if it’s worthwhile to broaden their objectives to include the suggested activity, or put it in a “parking lot” for consideration at a later time.

Determine how activities relate to each other

As ideas come forward, it’s common to find that one idea is a discrete activity within a larger activity i.e. “social media” and “webpage development” are components of a “communication plan.’’ In other cases, discrete activities support a common initiative (like “communication plan”) but one activity naturally occurs before another, e.g. development of key messages likely happens before writing media releases etc. The clearer a group can see how the possible activities relate to each other, the easier it is for them to do the final prioritizing. Otherwise, people are in the baffling predicament of having to compare, rank and choose from very different suggestions, e.g. "encourage more non-organized sports for youth 12 – 15 years" vs. “establish a Twitter account”.

Only when you have a the ideas/activities visually pieced together so that it makes sense to everyone should you proceed with having people cast their vote. I hope that by understanding these potentially confusing, “tricky parts” of priority setting that you’ll be able to carefully craft a priority setting exercise for your group that is logical, clear to all, and that ultimately gives the group clear direction for moving forward.

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