The Use of Teams in Strategic Plannning

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In Sulam, we talk a lot about teams – the leadership team, the planning team, our transformation team, etc – as they are critical to the work that we do.

A team is more than a group of people tasked with a certain job. In other words, it is more than a different word for a committee. An effective team is diverse – not just in terms of age, stage of life, or level of observance, though those are not entirely irrelevant; but more importantly, an effective team is made up of individuals who have different ways of thinking, of absorbing and analyzing information, and of solving problems.

The team approach becomes even more critical when we recognize that the generation of Jewish leaders coming up now has little interest in, or patience for, traditional committee work. They are used to operating in teams in their professional lives, and expect nothing different in their volunteer lives.

In a congregation that operates with a traditional committee structure, the board appoints a committee, often made up of representatives of different constituencies. Those representatives usually feel the need to prioritize their own group (e.g. preschool families, seniors, empty nesters, singles, teens, etc.) over the needs of the community at large. The focus is on meeting the needs of each constituency, and making compromises when necessary due to limited resources.

A team approach works differently. Rather than selecting team members based on the demographic group they represent, they are selected based on their people skills, their ability to work through conflict, and their capacity to solve problems effectively and efficiently. The old joke that a camel is a horse built by committee is much less relevant to this kind of team, which is built much more intentionally and with an eye toward addressing a particular issue. Teams also work more autonomously. Its members are empowered to complete their task using methods they decide on. They are held accountable for work product, not process.

Let’s look at the differences:

The Sulam Strategic Planning Team

In Sulam for Strategic Planners (SSP), we encourage leaders to begin by building a planning team made up of people who will be committed to the process and to the team, who are not afraid of conflict, who have the best interests of the kehilla at heart, and who can work autonomously and hold themselves accountable. In our experience, it is the quality of this team and its leadership that, more than anything else, will determine the success or failure of the strategic planning process.

For these reasons, we make sure to take time at the SSP startup meeting to get to know our fellow team members. We ask each member to complete a personal profile which asks about their family, educational background, professional experience, and Jewish background, and then we share responses. Though some may see this as a waste of time, we see it as essential because leadership comes from the team.

Within the planning team, we also suggest creating three smaller teams – a data gathering team, a mission/vision team, and a communication/writing team, each of which have a specific set of tasks within the larger planning process. Planning team members self-select for these smaller teams based on their skills and interests. Like the larger team, they work autonomously and are held accountable for what they produce, not how they produce it.

Sulam Task Force Teams

As the planning process progresses to the task force phase, we encourage planners to use the same team building process for assembling the task forces, which will be responsible for producing the specific strategies and recommendations that will form the heart of the final report.

The task forces work independently for approximately 8-12 weeks, reviewing and analyzing data, reading articles and reports, consulting with individuals, creating a vision for their area, and eventually writing strategies and recommendations.

Like the planning team that gave birth to them, these task forces need to create a culture of mutual respect and trust in order to be effective in their work. They need to learn how to actively listen to one another, respectfully disagree, effectively delegate, and hold each other accountable.

It is important to note that while the task forces are encouraged to work autonomously, that does not mean that the planning leaders simply appoint the task forces and leave them alone until their reports are due. It is the responsibility of the planning team to set up the task forces for success. That means taking the time to collect the relevant data from the situation analysis, prepare a set of goals, and provide a list of the expected deliverables and when they are due. Most importantly, it means explicitly linking their work to the vision of the community that is emerging.

We provide each task force team with a shared set of facts, a shared vision, and some overall strategies, but we empower them to develop their own approach. The SSP Steering Committee maintains the right to do their work without being micromanaged by the board and they empower their task forces the same way.

Going Forward- Increased Capacity for Building Teams

If planning is successful, the hope is that the congregation will be able to continue to create new teams as needed (for example, affinity groups or teams to address a social justice issue). Rather than ask them to check with the board on their tactics, they will be empowered to get results. In his Relational Judaism Fieldbook, Dr. Ron Wolfson argues that congregations need to be able to let new ideas “bubble up” and let members create the teams for which they have the energy. Leaders help support those teams, but the goal is not to try to control them. The goal is to let them blossom.

Planning works to stir the pot and begin a change process. The ability to allow leaders to create their own teams, define the scope of their activities, and put together the skills they need, will prove invaluable for keeping change going.

To learn more about the power of teams in congregational life, you can read John Wimberly Jr.’s 2015 book, Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things Done.


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