Reinventing your business, Wikipedia-style

March 22, 2011: 12:12 PM ET

The Wikimedia Foundation turned the conventional approach to setting strategy on its head by opening its process completely to its community of volunteers.

By Chris Grams, contributor

(ManagementInnovationeXchange) -- The term "strategic planning" conjures up images of suits in conference rooms diagramming the path to world domination on whiteboards. All too often, strategic planning is an activity reserved for the organizational elite -- executives aided by consultants. The top dogs think up all the big ideas, and the "troops" execute the plan.

Not so for one organization.

Last year, the Wikimedia Foundation, a 50-person nonprofit supporting Wikipedia and related projects, turned the conventional approach to setting strategy on its head. Against a backdrop of slowing Wikipedia contributions and a declining number of active editors, the foundation turned where it has always turned for answers: to its worldwide community of volunteer "Wikimedians."

A few weeks ago, the Wikimedia Foundation unveiled the final version of its new strategic plan. While the vision described within it is compelling, the unique process used to craft that vision contains powerful lessons for leaders and organizations of all types.

Summoning an army of volunteers

In total, more than 1,000 people contributed to the Wikimedia strategic planning project, writing nearly that many proposals to meet the community's challenges and priorities. These volunteers created over 1,500 pages of new content in 50 languages. Since a strategic planning project with just a normal-sized team is often a challenge, you can imagine how difficult it was to effectively corral 1,000 people to complete a strategic plan.

Philippe Beaudette, head of reader relations for Wikimedia and facilitator for the strategic planning project, says that collaborating with the Wikimedia community on strategic planning was originally the idea of Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

"The Wikimedia community would have hung us by our toenails if we tried to develop a strategic plan any other way," says Beaudette.

They began the project by openly soliciting ideas from community members and were quickly overwhelmed with proposals. Some were big, bold strategic ideas. Others were small and tactical. According to Beaudette, soliciting ideas from the community up front was the smartest thing they did during the project. "This got people involved and into the concept, and at the same time it gave us a solid sense for what the community was thinking."

Making sense of 1,000 proposals in 50 languages

The problem was, the team hadn't yet figured out how it was going to use all of these ideas. This quickly became an issue, as some community members began to wonder if the Wikimedia Foundation was going to do anything with their good-faith contributions. The problem of how to analyze nearly 1,000 proposals written in 50 languages, and of how to ensure that every idea was considered, loomed large.

So Beaudette and project leader Eugene Eric Kim of consulting firm Blue Oxen Associates put up a banner on Wikipedia requesting help. Almost 400 million people around the world visit Wikipedia every month, and soon the banner ad drew in an additional 1,000 volunteers.

The team organized a series of task forces around subjects like community health, international expansion, and technology strategy. True to the Wikipedia model, all the work of these task forces was completed transparently, in the open, on the wiki. In addition, each of the task forces was led and manned almost entirely by volunteers, and these volunteers did nearly all of the work analyzing the proposals.

The organizing team helped identify the core contributors for each task force, but anyone could volunteer for any project that interested them. While they were supported by professional facilitators, the community members themselves were accountable for the success or failure of their task forces. Not every task force was a success. In the end, each group analyzed all of the proposals relevant to its area and presented a set of recommendations summarizing their findings.

Synthesizing these recommendations into one strategic plan was the hardest part, Beaudette says. "We had to take all of these great ideas and figure out which of them were actually feasible for us."

Keeping it public at every step

Most strategic planning projects turn into private, closed-door affairs when the team begins to synthesize its ideas. Not this one. Even this phase was a transparent process -- everything was available on the wiki, including early drafts. Beaudette says the team had to rely a little more heavily on internal groups than he would have liked for the synthesis piece, but anyone who wanted to suggest edits could do so on the wiki.

Finally, the brainstorming was completed late last year, and the result is a five-year plan that you can now download.

While few organizations will be ready to open up their strategic planning process as completely as Wikimedia has done, this project is a great example of a new approach to strategic planning from which many organizations can learn. A few key lessons:

"Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

This famous open source community adage even holds true for strategic planning. While you may not be able to go as far as opening your strategic planning project to the outside world, you can certainly involve more people inside your organization. The more people you involve, the more great ideas you'll collect.

The product isn't just the strategy, it's the sense of community you'll create.

While great ideas and a great strategic plan can come out of an open process, don't view the plan itself as the only outcome. By asking people for their ideas and involving them in the process, you encourage them to have some "skin in the game." When people see their own ideas and work reflected in the strategy, they'll be more apt to take ownership and ensure it is executed well. Rather than implementing someone else's plan, they'll be implementing their own.

If you go open, stay open.

If you open up your process for ideas, but don't let people contribute to the creation of the plan itself, you are really just crowdsourcing ideas. By giving your contributors key roles not just in coming up with ideas, but in the construction of the plan itself, you'll show them trust and respect, and receive it in return. Wikimedia put volunteer contributors in lead roles and many of these people continue to run a follow-on project they've named strategic action.

Clearly define the process up front.

Even Beaudette at Wikimedia readily admits they could have done a better job planning for what they would do next after receiving the initial barrage of proposals (a fact the community reminded him of mercilessly). Plan out your project as a series of manageable phases, each with a clear end point and output, and communicate that plan. Contributors will be eager to know where and when they can contribute best. By clearly defining the process, you'll be more organized and show respect for their time and effort.

Leave room to explore uncharted territory.

But don't be too rigid. Sometimes great ideas for how to move forward with the strategic planning process will emerge from the community itself. By being flexible and incorporating contributors' ideas not just into the strategic plan but the process itself, you'll not only improve things, you'll ensure that people stay engaged and interested along the way.

With 86,000 active volunteer contributors and only 50 paid employees, the Wikimedia Foundation represents a revolutionary type of organizational structure, requiring a revolutionary approach to strategic planning. As Philippe said, "We wouldn't have wanted to run the project any other way."

How about you? Would a collaborative approach to strategic planning work for your organization?

Chris Grams is president and partner at New Kind. He also serves as the MIX Community Guide and blogs regularly on opensource.com.

More from Fortune.com:

Join the Conversation
About This Author
The MIX
The MIX

The Management Innovation eXchange is a site dedicated to sparking conversation and progress around the most critical challenges that managers face today: How to create organizations that are fit for the future -- and fit for human beings. The MIX seeks to enlist as many in-the-trenches innovators, progressive leaders, and adventuresome thinkers as possible in pursuit of that goal. Users can submit, rate, and build on each others' ideas -- creating an open platform for management innovation. The MIX is supported by several leading institutions, including McKinsey & Co., Dell, HCL, Red Hat, London Business School, HSM, and the Human Capital Institute.

Email The MIX
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.