An Experienced Facilitator is Key to Strategic Planning

April 2017

Each spring, the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority hosts a planning retreat for its Board of Directors and staff. “I have been a board member since 1993, and OMPA has always organized an annual planning retreat in April,” said Charles D. Lamb, Mayor of Edmond, Okla. “A few years ago, General Manager Dave Osburn and I thought it would be useful to arrange for a facilitator familiar with public power to lead the retreat discussion. We found that the technical aspects of our discussion left an uninformed facilitator at a disadvantage and did not produce the benefits we needed. We knew Tim Blodgett of Hometown Connections from the American Public Power Association’s National Conference and arranged for him to facilitate our retreats.”

Hometown Connections is the utility services subsidiary of the American Public Power Association. The Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority is affiliated with Hometown Connections, helping promote Hometown products and services to its membership. President and CEO Tim Blodgett and other members of the Hometown staff offer strategic planning and utility governance facilitation services to public power organizations across the U.S.

Through onsite facilitation, workshops, and follow-up consultations for municipal utilities and joint action agencies offering electric/gas/water/wastewater/CATV services, Hometown Connections covers the principles of effective strategic planning and reviews the roles and responsibilities of the staff and governing board in the planning and implementation process. The Hometown staff works in depth with the utility board and staff to develop a realistic, step-by-step blueprint for adapting to specific market conditions, regulatory changes, and the complex expectations of customers.

The OMPA mission is to provide reliable, low-cost energy and services to 42 municipally-owned electric systems. “The planning retreats are an integral part of the Board’s governance process,” Dave Osburn said. “Over the years, several of OMPA’s strategic initiatives have been generated during these retreats. OMPA selected Hometown Connections because of the industry knowledge their staff brings to the table. It is very beneficial for OMPA staff and the Board to hear about industry trends and what other joint action agencies are doing. Tim Blodgett provides invaluable information to these discussions.” Charles Lamb added, “We value Tim’s reports on what other board’s are thinking about various industry challenges.”

All members of the OMPA Board and key staff members participate in each retreat. It is common for other member city staff and elected officials to attend as well. To prepare for the retreat, the Board and staff set aside discussions from monthly board meetings that require a more in-depth discussion and put those on the retreat agenda.

“Tim’s skill as a facilitator is crucial to the process,” Osburn said. “The experience he brings to the meeting significantly improves the quality of the discussions. Board members appreciate his ‘outsider’ view on the issues. He is also very good at letting the participants enjoy a free discussion while keeping them on topic.”

Osburn added, “We have found board planning retreats to be a critical component to guiding the direction of the Authority. Good retreats involve open interaction between staff and the board, provide ample time for in-depth discussions, focus on strategic matters rather than day-to-day issues, are held on an off-site location to avoid distractions, generate definitive actions, and are led by an impartial facilitator with industry knowledge.”

Charles Lamb noted, “Like all boards, we experience turnover from time to time. Retreats are a great way to bring new Board members up to speed.  We follow up all year long on action items generated during the retreat. Some of our most effective programs began as a retreat discussion. As a policy maker and non-technical person, I cannot imagine how we could be as effective without the annual planning retreats. They represent a chance to learn and contribute at the same time.”

Missouri River Energy Services Prioritizes Strategic Planning
As is OMPA, Missouri River Energy Services (MRES) is a member of the Hometown Connections affiliate network. An organization of 60 member municipalities that own and operate their own electric distribution systems, MRES is governed by a 13-member board of directors who are elected by and from the ranks of its member representatives. MRES dedicates at least one Board meeting per year to strategic planning.  The typical procedure is to invite an industry consultant to facilitate and help guide the Board and upper management through a planning exercise during the retreat. Hometown’s Tim Blodgett facilitated the MRES strategic planning retreats in 2015 and 2016.

Prior to 2015, the MRES Board and staff struggled to transform the information from its strategic planning sessions into actionable plans.  Jeff Peters, Director of Federal & Distributed Power Programs, said, “Some of the consultants were able to give us a good perspective from a 30,000 foot industry level but had difficulty bringing it down to the utility level, that is, what does it mean for MRES and its members, and how does it affect us today and into the future.”

MRES decided to change its strategic planning approach.  “First, we knew we needed someone who has not only industry knowledge but public power industry knowledge in particular,” Peters said.  “Second, we needed someone able to help us transform the information into actionable outcomes.  Third, we knew internal staff needed to be much more engaged in pre-planning for the strategic planning retreat in order to use our time in the most meaningful way.  Lastly, we needed a structure to guide our future planning, reporting, and feedback mechanism. We knew about Tim’s experience helping public power boards and staff with strategic planning from some work he did for us several years ago. Tim’s strategic planning process uses models that are sufficiently flexible to address our needs.  So, we decided to invite him back and committed to becoming more engaged in the process internally.”

The MRES preparations began six months before the retreat.  Each person in upper management answered this question: What are the top five issues MRES needs to address to keep members in business and help them thrive.  Internal staff discussed the answers and arrived at a consensus.  Along a parallel path, MRES worked with Blodgett to develop a pre-retreat survey for gathering input from the Board.  The Board survey collected opinions on the top five biggest issues/challenges facing member utilities over the next ten years and what services could MRES provide to help members address these issues and challenges. Blodgett emailed the survey to Board members, gathered the data, and then reported the results to the staff a few months prior to the retreat and then to the Board during the retreat.

The entire Board and senior management participated in the MRES retreat.  They reviewed the mission/vision statements and updated the agency’s strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats (SWOT) analysis.  Blodgett reviewed the services offered by joint action agencies across the United States.  He then helped prioritize issues for MRES to address and possible services to offer member utilities. Following the retreat, staff developed a detailed action plan and presented it to the Board for feedback and adoption.  As a mechanism for ongoing feedback, the staff reports periodically to the Board on the status of the action plan.

“Tim was quite adaptive in his planning/training methods and always kept in mind that the goal was to help us create an actionable plan,” Jeff Peters said. “He has a wealth of knowledge about public power management best practices. Tim is particularly skilled at explaining industry issues and honing in on the implications for MRES and our members.”

Peters added, “Due to his years of experience in planning and public power, our Board views Tim as a trusted advisor. Most importantly, Tim understands the final product must be a realistic, actionable plan and works with the Board to give staff the guidance they need to develop that actionable plan.”

During the 2016 strategic planning session with Tim Blodgett, the MRES Board and staff focused on the critical power and energy services issues anticipated for the next 10 years and together produced a detailed, long-term strategic plan.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

David Osburn
General Manager
Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority
dosburn@ompa.com
405-340-5047

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Jeff Peters
Director of Federal & Distributed Power Programs
Missouri River Energy Services
Jeff.Peters@mrenergy.com
605-338-4042

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