Workplanning at Scale: STAIRS to Success


June 26, 2017

Workplanning at Scale: STAIRS to Success

By William Sparks

Senior Vice President ACDI/VOCA

William Sparks is senior vice president at ACDI/VOCA. He is a winner of the InsideNGO Operational Excellence Award and author of two books (Process Mapping Road Trip and Throw Out the Ratings). He will be presenting the STAIRS methodology at InsideNGO’s Annual Conference in Washington, DC on Friday, July 21. His session will be livestreamed. Purchase your virtual seat here if you can't join us in person!

“Wait, what was that? How many people are coming to the meeting?”

I waited for the reply over Skype. The connection was spotty, and I was sure that I had misheard the answer. This was an initial planning call for a workplanning session at our project in Sierra Leone. From my office in Washington, DC, I was conducting this call to work out the logistics: dates, venue, and…number of participants.

“Yes, William, we have about 130 people attending.”

The year was 2012. I had conducted training sessions for groups this size. I had given presentations to groups several times this size. However, I had not conducted a workplanning session for a group of this size. Trainings and presentations are simple for large groups because the information is primarily going in one direction, that is, from speaker to participants. In a workplanning session, information is traveling in all directions and must be captured into a single coherent plan.

Adding an additional layer of complexity, over half of the participants would be stakeholders from outside the project. Donor representatives, community leaders, organizational partners, and program participants – around 80 in all – would be attending. They wouldn’t have a common practice or terminology around defining strategies and action items. Before we could create a workplan, we would need to harmonize various styles.

I was excited about the opportunity. Our organization wanted to define a collaborative workplanning method. Many of the workplanning sessions I had seen in our and other organizations was conducted by a subset of the management team. A few guests, usually technical experts, might be invited. If additional staff or external stakeholders were involved, it was typically to react to a drafted workplan.

We established three goals for our new approach. First, it could be conducted with large groups comprised of both staff and stakeholders. Second, the approach could be conducted by anyone with fundamental facilitation skills. And, of course, this approach had to produce a functional workplan.

Our work over the next year resulted in STAIRS, now one of ACDI/VOCA’s Signature Tools. The room setup is easy. We need a large room with plenty of empty walls, reams of copy paper, rolls of painting tape, and boxes of markers. No tables are required. Participants work on the walls to increase collaboration and cross-sharing among smaller groups. A lead facilitator provides instructions and support to the smaller groups as the complete the ten steps of STAIRS:

  1. Design – participants explore the design of the project to ensure a common understanding of the underlying strategy, assumptions, and intended results.
  2. Recommend – participants share their experiences and perspectives around each of the program areas of the project. This results in FAD recommendations: Fixes to existing activities, Add new activities, or Drop ineffective ones.
  3. Phase – activities are divided into blocks of implementation steps. Each block or phase represents a key milestone in the completion of the overall activity.
  4. Sustain – participants identify local stakeholders and methods to ensure that activities are sustained beyond the current project cycle.
  5. Measure – indicators are selected for each activity stream to monitor the process and assess outcome results.
  6. Target – participants identify the specific targets or goals for each of the measures to determine the scope and size of the activities by geographic areas.
  7. Cross Cut – for project priority areas (ex. gender, youth, environment), participants identify specific leverage points across the activity streams.
  8. Define – informed by the above (recommendations, sustaining, measures with targets, and cross-cutting topics), participants define the steps within each phase and the number of days to complete each phase.
  9. Schedule – the steps and number of days are converted into a calendar, and various activity streams are sequenced together.
  10. Budget – the number of units needed for primary cost drivers are determined across the activity streams.

Prior to the workplan session, the management team reviews and modifies the ten steps to their specific needs and number of days. Four days is recommended, but it has occasionally been modified to as little as two days (although skipping several steps).

We piloted our approach in several countries across many regions, including Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and the Philippines. We facilitated and observed the process. We also collected extensive feedback from participants and the management team. Several insights and recommendations emerged:

  • Teambuilding was an output. Although our focus was on generating a workplan, the interactive structure of STAIRS encouraged people to share experiences and listen to other perspectives. Participants saw STAIRS sessions equally as both a teambuilding and planning session.
  • Strategy needed to be defined in advance. We developed STAIRS with the assumption that our projects already had a high-level program design. This was usually true. However, in those cases where this had not been done yet or the existing strategy was undergoing a major change, the senior team needed to define this prior to the session.
  • Stakeholders gained appreciation. External stakeholders aren’t typically aware of the many intricacies, legal regulations, and extensive steps to conduct project activities. Seeing the process from the inside, stakeholders expressed an appreciation and greater understanding for what a project could realistically achieve and the behind-the-scenes work that staff complete.

We have trained project managers and technical staff both in HQ and in the field on the STAIRS methodology. The sessions they lead are vibrant, productive, and fun. Now, when a project calls about a workplanning session, we say:

“So, you will have 130 participants…that’s all?”



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