The Business of Surveying: Strategic Planning for a Survey Firm

A strategic plan is a document that outlines the results of an organization’s (including a firm, a nonprofit organization, or any other form of organization) process of defining its strategy, or direction, and deciding on the allocation of resources to pursue this strategy.

A strategic plan sets goals, objectives, and priorities. It is a roadmap that establishes a vision on where the organization hopes to be and how it proposes to get there.

One question that invariably comes up is what the life or horizon of a strategic plan should be. There is no definitive answer and many experts have differing opinions. In general, a three-to-five-year planning cycle is a good rule of thumb.

When I assumed the position of Executive Director of several surveying and engineering organizations, one of my first initiatives was to develop a strategic plan. A group of about a dozen key personnel convened to create a platform for the coming years. The document guides a firm or organization through improvements, new programs, and greater value and benefit. Over the years, I’ve facilitated strategic planning for the National Society of Professional Surveyors, MAPPS, the Council on Federal Procurement of Architectural & Engineering Services (COFPAES), the Maryland Society of Surveyors, New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors, Virginia Association of Surveyors, and Subsurface Utility Engineering Association, among other surveying, engineering, and geospatial-related trade associations and professional societies, as well as for numerous individual firms.

A strategic plan is a valuable tool for a surveying firm. The strategic plan of several of the aforementioned organizations is available on their websites and can serve as an example of the structure of a firm’s own document. It should be drafted by a team of firm leaders or principals, but input should be provided by every employee of the firm. I’ve been retained to serve as an outside facilitator for several firms, helping to guide their leadership team through an organized process. It is an assignment I thoroughly enjoy, as I know enough about surveying to be a knowledgeable facilitator, but since I am not engrained in a firm, I am objective.

In many cases, the major development of a strategic plan can be accomplished in a day. A number of documents are collected in advance (such as financial information, any existing plans, and marketing materials) and used for historical background and general reference. A leadership team is assembled for a one-day retreat. The facilitator leads the team through an evaluation process, usually a review of the firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, or “SWOT” analysis. There are no right or wrong answers in this exercise. The goal, however, is to reach consensus.

By identifying the SWOT factors, the team can identify internal and external influences on the firm. In order to address each, the team brainstorms goals, objectives, and major action items to be taken to achieve the desires and intentions of the firm. For a surveying firm, these include revenue and finances; new markets; training, workforce and human resources; equipment; and other factors that affect sustainability and growth.

Once completed, a strategic plan should be accompanied by an implementation plan. That document should include the assignment of responsibilities for each item in the plan, as well as identification of when each item can reasonably be implemented, either through the establishment of a deadline or ranking each as having a short, mid, or long-term timeline for accomplishment.

A strategic plan is not etched in stone. Things happen that will upset the apple cart. The current pandemic is a vivid example. Additionally, it should never be a one-and-done document. Rather, periodic reviews of the adopted plan in staff meetings can serve as a reminder of long-term goals, as well as to benchmark progress, and to make minor adjustments until the next comprehensive review and revision is conducted. When the firm is confronted with a big decision, it is helpful to consider that issue in the context of the plan’s goals and ask, “how will doing this help us meet the goals in our strategic plan?” While the answer may be that it’s not consistent with the plan, at a minimum it helps the firm’s leaders take a step back from day-to-day activities and consider the question from a longer term, strategic perspective.

John Palatiello is Executive Director of the Maryland Society of Surveyors (MSS) and Virginia Association of Surveyors (VAS), and Vice President Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm based in Fairfax, VA, providing government relations, public relations, association management, strategic planning, event planning, and management and marketing consulting services to private firms, associations, and government agencies. He is also national government affairs consultant to the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). He has more with 30 years of experience working in the architecture and engineering; geospatial, mapping and GIS; information technology; construction; transportation and infrastructure, and land use sectors. This article is an edited version of what first appeared in the MSS and VAS newsletters.