This is Part 1 in Fairfield Taxpayer’s initial series on this subject. Part 1 will address “What is a Strategic Plan?” and why we agree that having one would be good for our Town. Parts 2 and 3 will address the basic questions that every Strategic Plan should answer: “Where are we and how did we get here?” and “Where should we go and how should we get there?” Finally, Part 4 will recommend some “Next Steps.” In addition to defining what a strategic plan is, Part 1 will describe a number of useful organizing principles for the strategic planning process.
What exactly is a Strategic Plan?
A strategic plan is ultimately supposed to explain where we should go and how we should get there. Strategic plans are common in the business world, where all public companies are expected to be able to explain how they will create value. However, strategic plans can be equally valuable in all other human affairs, from an individual to a nation seeking to achieve certain goals. Every person and every organization actually has a strategy, whether they know it or not, but without an explicit plan, that strategy is merely implicit in the decisions they make that affect their future, and without a plan, some of those decisions and choices may be suboptimal or even counterproductive. So, the most important word in our definition is “explain,” because a good strategic plan requires explicit answers to those basic questions. A strategic plan does not guarantee success, but it should at least facilitate better and more consistent decisions by stating clear objectives and priorities, and by helping us understand better how different means are likely to serve our chosen ends.
If Fairfield has prospered for 376 years without a strategic plan, why do we need one now?
The short answer is that the world has changed in some important ways, five examples of which are as follows.
Given these and other changes, Fairfield might be able to continue to prosper without a strategic plan, but maybe not. At the very least, perhaps Fairfield can do even better with a plan than without one.
How do we create a strategic plan?
A strategic plan for Fairfield can only be created by engaging all interested residents, businesses and other stakeholders in a systematic and collaborative effort to analyze all of our major strategic options (including the status quo) and their likely consequences. This is far more easily said than done because our ability to anticipate consequences depends on our ability to predict the future, which we all know is subject to enormous uncertainty. Accordingly, there will inevitably be disagreements about the future costs, benefits and risks associated with various options, with some participants strongly opposed to change and others strongly in favor of it. Even though there will never be perfect agreement on all the potential consequences or on their relative importance, participants should at least come to understand better the forces that will determine our future, and what, if anything, we might be able to do about them. Over time, because a strategic plan should be regularly updated to reflect changes in the circumstances and assumptions upon which it was based, the people of Fairfield and their elected representatives should end up far better informed and able to make better decisions and choices than they would have without a comprehensive and systematic planning process.
Some Basic Organizing Principles
It is helpful to begin with some basic principles about strategic planning in order to manage better both the process and everyone’s expectations about what to expect from it.
1. Perfection and precision are not possible. As the old sayings go, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” and “Man plans and God laughs.” Since we cannot presume to figure out precisely where Fairfield should go and how it should get there, our pragmatic objective should be, as one expert said, to agree on “a sense of direction around which to improvise.” In other words, because we can’t be certain how the world will evolve around us (e.g., will the State continue to struggle and lose jobs and residents, or will it rebound?), we must remain receptive to opportunistic course corrections based on new information and developments, including changes in our priorities.
2. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Because everything is ultimately connected in some way to everything else, it is easy to get lost in the complexity of strategic planning, which can lead to “analysis paralysis.” Accordingly, particularly in the early stages of planning, it is important to seek agreement on what the most important issues are and then focus on them. There is always plenty of time to come back later and consider the secondary and tertiary issues. This principle applies equally well to companies, success for which usually depends on perhaps three or four major decisions. Most good strategic plans boil down to just a few very important choices. 
3. The first big step is to figure out where we are and how we got here. In the business world, the “where we are” part is usually addressed in part by what is called a “SWOT” analysis, which refers to the identification and analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. We will need a similar analysis for Fairfield as part of a broader examination of what is happening in our region, in our State, in our country and in the world that can affect our Town. Some examples across this wide range of strategic influences include: the condition of neighboring towns like Bridgeport; the health of the New York City metropolitan area in general; the ability of the State to improve its fiscal condition and address its increasingly critical infrastructure needs (e.g., Metro-North); and the potential consequences of climate change for our coastal areas. This essential first step creates a foundation upon which to evaluate and prioritize various strategic issues and options.
4. Once we understand better where we are and how we got here, the next step is to define our goals, which will require us to agree on how we want to define and measure success. This step is much easier in the private sector where everyone (usually a board of directors acting on behalf of the shareowners) generally begins with the common goal of optimizing the long-term financial value of the company. In the public sector, this step is much more difficult, because there are so many different ways to measure success. For example, some towns might consider themselves successful only if they are able to preserve their character by preventing any further development, while others would consider themselves successful only if they are able to do the exact opposite.
A few examples of “key performance indicators” (KPIs) that we could adopt to measure our success, in no particular order, are: property values; public health and safety; school performance; voter turnout; credit rating; environmental sustainability; and civility and friendliness.
In our consideration and choice of KPIs, it is important to remember, as Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” This simply means that some important objectives, like Town character, friendliness and civility, are not easy to measure in quantitative terms, but that does not mean they are any less important than the ones that are easy to quantify. And since, as Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets done,” we don’t want to focus more than we should on quantitative goals at the expense of what could be equally important qualitative goals.
5. Once we have defined our objectives and decided how we want to measure our performance, the next step is to look at our major strategic options, by which we mean the things upon which a future historian might focus in describing 50 years from now how Fairfield had changed or not changed. Some examples of big options are as follows:
6. A circular and iterative process. Strategic planning is not a linear process in which we can start at the beginning and proceed straight to the end. It is instead a circular and iterative process that benefits enormously from a flexibility and willingness to go back and reconsider and revise earlier conclusions based on the knowledge and insights gained in later steps. Over time, good plans become better and better from backtracking and reconsidering earlier assumptions and choices. For example, a better understanding of the consequences of various strategic options, or simply an important change in environmental circumstances, may result in a need to circle back and change the goals and priorities that were initially adopted.
7. Keep an open mind. The planning process will work best if everyone is willing to consider all the relevant possibilities, even the ones that do not initially seem feasible. One expert on planning said it this way: “Never test the legitimacy of the ends by the visibility of the means.” Another variation on this maxim is: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Accordingly, we should be willing to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom, particularly when they are presented as reasons why a proposed change should not even be considered.
8. Conflicting opinions. As noted earlier, it is inevitable that people, for many valid and legitimate reasons, will have very different ideas about what is best for our Town. Unlike most companies, for which there is widespread agreement that decisions should be made in the best interests of the shareowners, it is not even clear who in any town or city are the people for whose benefit that town or city exists.
Some differences of opinion can be traced to narrow self-interest, like a real estate developer who advocates for higher residential density to create short-term business opportunities with no regard for the long-term consequences.
Other differences of opinion reflect a lack of agreed knowledge, and these differences usually diminish during the planning process as everyone learns more about the facts and how they relate to one another. A great example of the benefits of agreed knowledge is the table at the end of Part 1, which provides 18 years of historical data for Fairfield. Just getting everyone to agree on the facts often brings their opinions much closer together.
Differences based on values are much more difficult to resolve, extreme examples of which appear every day in the world news about the efforts of various political and religious groups to impose their beliefs on others. To resolve such differences in our constitutional representative democratic republic, we rely on open elections in which leaders are chosen by a majority based primarily on the values and priorities they espouse, and in which minority rights are protected by law. As we all know, this does not guarantee that everyone will always be happy. 
9. Suggested rules of engagement. Even though planning requires choices between competing values and interests, and even though it is therefore inherently political, this does not mean that it must necessarily be adversarial, contentious and divisive. Indeed, one of the great advantages of strategic planning is that it allows a consensus to be formed in a rational and systematic way. It is not necessary to resolve all differences, and no one is expected to abandon their beliefs and values. However, everyone should be willing at all times to challenge their own as well as others’ views by the standard of what is in the best, long-term interests of the Town. Along the way, we should not underestimate the benefit to our community and its quality of life merely as a consequence of being willing and able to engage constructively with one another on where we think our Town should go and how we think it should get there.
10. Data and judgment. Data have increasingly become the gold standard by which we resolve differences of opinion. For example, Federal Reserve Board members have recently been saying that they are “data driven,” as if they can presume the data they get are: (a) accurate (despite the fact that newspapers report almost daily that one economic series or another has been revised substantially up or down); and (b) not subject to a wide range of interpretations. Most data are inaccurate, unreliable and ambiguous. Only in retrospect – and the more time that has passed the better – does it seem that historical data are solid and unambiguous, and that the conclusions and outcomes with which they are associated were obvious and inevitable. One could not ask for a better example of this ambiguity than the debates over the meaning of standardized test scores in our schools. In the end, we must make judgments based on imperfect information.
11. Correlation is not causation, and other logical fallacies. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Close correlations, whether positive or negative, may or may not suggest causality , and may or may not warrant additional careful research. A closely related fallacy is, “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” (after this, therefore because of this), and we have identified several others below that are worth keeping in mind in a town-wide debate.
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