Process, Data, Maps - The 3 Things that connect Urban Planning and Strategic Planning

Insights from my first three months in Strategic Planning

Williams Blog Data-2.png

Three months ago I joined The Spark Mill team. I remember being nervous on my first day, unsure of what it would be like to be back in consulting but eager to start making connections between my urban planning work and the strategy consulting we do at The Spark Mill. As a graduate student, my last two years have been spent immersing myself in planning theory, learning about urban planning methodologies, and pushing for the experiences of black women in urban environments to ensure they are more visual in the planning profession.  Considering my background in planning, it has been the lens through which I view our work, and I have been able to make a number of connections between the strategy work planners do on daily basis and our work at The Spark Mill.   


Whether you are working with a group of residents to design a park, or working with an organization to understand their long-term goals, you can expect the process to be messy. Like urban planning, while certain models can be applied to make the process easier, there is no “one size fits all” approach here at The Spark Mill. Especially when working on plans that will ultimately shape the lives of people.  There are visioning sessions, multiple iterations of a deliverable, and countless opportunities to engage with key stakeholders; much like a comprehensive planning process. While these processes may make stakeholders feel uncomfortable and deal with undesired ambiguity, the process can result in a strategic plan that drives meaningful change within an organization, or in the case of urban planning, become a blueprint for a city that is vibrant and inclusive and meets the needs of all of its residents, especially those that have been marginalized.   


Data, both quantitative and qualitative, are important in any strategic process. At The Spark Mill, I have been able to witness how our survey data, interviews from stakeholders, and other client materials allow us to get a holistic sense of an organization. As urban planners, we are constantly encouraged to collect data from various sources, being sure not to over rely on quantitative data in our work, as this can limit the less formal and less technical understanding of how people exist in cities. Strategic consulting is the same – it is important for us to collect information from key client documents as well as to be on the ground engaging with an organization’s stakeholders.

3.     MAPS, MAPS, AND ROAD MAPS (not in GIS) 

Maps provide a depiction of relationships between various elements and can be used to capture themes and create a vision for the future. Geographic Information System, or GIS, is urban planning’s bread and butter and allows us to analyze and show spatial relationships using local and regional data.  At the end of a planning process, GIS can be an effective way to help community members understand the impact of a process spatially in both the present and overtime, much like a strategic planning roadmap which guides an organization’s work into the future. 

While all urban planning requires strategy, it is important for planners to also be aware of the informal processes that residents lead in their communities, processes that may not be driven by formal data and community meetings but are equally important to a community’s fabric. It is also important for consultants to read in between the lines and make connections between the practices we observe from our clients and the information we gather.

I look forward to continuing to use my planning lens in our work at The Spark Mill, especially as we expand deeper into community engagement which requires us to be creative, nuanced, and open to gaining a true and meaningful understanding of real community engagement in order to better help our clients.




Down with Generic Mission Statements - Up with "Essential Intent"

I’m over generic broadly-stated mission statements.  Aren’t you?  

I  mean, come on.  How many of us have come across (or perhaps even written) mission statements that say:  “We want to be the premier service provider in our industry as we serve our customers with integrity, innovation, and  quality.”  Ugh.  That doesn’t articulate mission - it generically embraces mediocrity!

On the other hand specific quarterly goals don’t always float my boat either.  While they may be clear, they don’t always help see the big picture about why you exist.  Wells Fargo gave their banking employees very concrete goals - we saw how that worked out for them!

What if instead of generic mission statements and disconnected goals, we created an "Essential Intent" for our organizations that clearly spells out what it looks like for our organization to “win."

Some examples of Essential Intent might be:

  • Every opioid addict in the City of Richmond to have access to treatment by 2020
  • Every veteran to have access to quality housing by 2022
  • Every Richmonder will be within 2 miles of healthy food options in the next 10 years
  • Every start-up in Virginia will have a stage appropriate place to go for help in 5 years
  • High-speed internet is available to every Virginian by 2025

In his book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says “essential intent” is a clear statement that is more specific and measurable than a mission statement and at the same time more inspiring than quarterly goals.  When we boil our work down to essential intent, we make the “one decision that makes 1,000 decisions.”

Essential intent offers clarity to our work and teams that both inspires and focuses us on that which is essential.  Essential intent clarifies what it looks like for our organizations to “win.”

Imagine how that kind of clarity would transform your daily work! Not only does it give clarity to what is essential, it also gives permission to STOP DOING that which is NOT essential.  Yeah, those TPS reports that don’t contribute to the “win,” stop doing them and stop making your employees do them.  Why pay people to do work that isn’t essential to your organization’s “win?"

Just imagine how your work, your team, your organization would be different if we made "the one decision that makes 1,000 decisions”.  When we articulate and then act on our Essential Intent, not only does the organization “win”, but our clients our customers, our guests, our community wins.

5 Tips for a Successful Staff Retreat : The RRHA Story

One of our favorite things at The Spark Mill is working with organizations who are willing to do the hard work of investing in themselves to improve their impact on the world.  This is one of the reasons we love working with Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.  

Our work with RRHA started with a board retreat, then moved on to creating a dynamic 5 year strategic plan, and now we’re deep into implementation planning.  As part of an active implementation process, we are engaging the staff in culture change work through customer service and team building retreats. This work is in line with our belief at TSM that it’s critical the plans we help our clients create are infused into the culture of the organization. It takes extra time but in our experience it’s the only way to ensure plans reach their full potential and don’t get dusty on the shelf.

Under the leadership of T.K. Somanath, RRHA is in the sweet spot where change is happening and big things are on the horizon and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with every single employee (around 200 people!) through this project.

So, what’s the secret recipe for a successful retreat?

5 Tips for a Successful Retreat

  1. Get out of the office -- how are you going to leave the ins and outs of work for the day if you are at work? We’ve been fortunate to partner with UR Downtown for these retreats. Lots of natural light and a location in the heart of the city doesn’t hurt.
  2. Take care of your people -- provide a yummy breakfast and lunch, make everyone feel special, and remind them often of how incredible they are and how happy you are to share the day with one another.
  3. Give space to reflect -- it’s not all rainbows and sunshine at our retreats. These are real people doing hard work in difficult times. We make space to step back and look at the big picture, to process and work through the tough stuff.
  4. Value input and hold everyone accountable -- throughout the retreat we record the bright ideas that percolate and ask the group to make personal and group commitments to shift the culture and make RRHA a great place to work.
  5. Have Fun -- Going on scavenger hunts, creating infomercials, using polaroid cameras... a good balance of fun, productivity, and creativity are essential. We don’t really believe you can have one without the other and we intentionally create an agenda that results in a lot of laughing and smiling while we accomplish big work together.  

So far, we’ve completed 3 of at least 12 retreats and have been greatly enjoying our time with the staff. Meaningful change doesn’t happen in one day, but that’s the beauty of building deep working relationships, where together we create sparks, you set them free and watch them fly.

Contact us to find out more about our staff, board, and team retreats.


Laughing is Encouraged: Retreats for Employees

 Retreat participant reacting to an icebreaker activity.

Retreat participant reacting to an icebreaker activity.

There are a lot of expectations on employees when you work for an organization like the Richmond City Health District WIC Office.  No day is just another day at the office.  Your clients are experiencing poverty – some episodic and some systemic, and every client has their own story, requiring different levels of understanding and often completely different approaches to case management.  The City has expectations that weigh on the management, which weighs on the employees.  A team from RCHD WIC recognized this and worked for a couple of months with The Spark Mill to develop a two-day retreat plan that would reinvest in the staff.

The intent of this training was to encourage staff to look at their work and their personal life with a more compassionate perspective and to appreciate other’s point of views, demonstrating an enhanced understanding and acceptance of others. At the same time, supplying them with the necessary tools to improve relationships with clients (and others) and make the work place more harmonious.
— Lizbeth Snead, Richmond City Coordinator WIC Program

The months of planning finally came together in March, at the lovely East District Family Resource Center in Church Hill.   The first day centered on the difficult conversations – What does poverty in Richmond look like? Where does it live? Who are our clients? Who are we? What are we doing well? What would we like to do better?  We talked through the tough stuff, everyone in the room learned something – either about one another, about poverty in Richmond, or about life as a client.

The second day was all about providing tools for self-care, stress management, and general teamwork. The Spark Mill partnered with Richmond Peace Education Center for part of the day to facilitate exercises and conversations around conflict resolution.  The Chrysalis Institute came in for part of the day to explore mindfulness techniques geared towards granting self-compassion.

Whether you are a government agency, small business, faith community, nonprofit, or huge Fortune 500 firm – employee engagement is essential and rewarding.  There is some sort of magic that happens when you get out of your board room and take a break from the daily grind to simply check-in with your staff, invest in them, laugh together, share a meal, use old Polaroid’s and play with balloons! 


Poverty in Richmond and Virginia - Immersive Strategic Retreats

This week TSM staff are spending time immersed in poverty. Which, is a very hard place to look at statistics. 

Tomorrow Sarah Milston and Sara Tandy are facilitating a Staff Retreat as a part of long-term strategic planning for Virginia Poverty Law Center focused on poverty and legal advocacy. Friday, Sarah Milston and Courtney Layman will spend the first of two days with Richmond City Health District WIC employees focused on poverty in Richmond and how to deliver amazing services to most of Richmond's most low income families.

Data must drive our conversations. Here are a few sobering graphics we will be sharing with the teams.

 The map is taken from HOME of VA, “An Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, City of Richmond, VA 2013-2015,” prepared for the City of Richmond, Department of Economic and Community Development, Community Development Block Grant, on-line document at .

The map is taken from HOME of VA, “An Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, City of Richmond, VA 2013-2015,” prepared for the City of Richmond, Department of Economic and Community Development, Community Development Block Grant, on-line document at