From Mordor to Hobbiton: One City’s Journey to Simplify, Communicate and Execute a Complex Plan

ARTICLE | Mar 19, 2019
by Liz Steward
Ferndale Downtown

The City of Ferndale is a densely populated city located on Detroit's Northern Eight Mile border. With $20 million of new investment, city leaders have a bona fide “megaproject” on their hands. When it came to incorporating that investment into their strategic plan, they knew they had to engage the community and execute like never before.

Like many cities, Ferndale has had mixed results from past strategic planning. While there have been plenty of successes, they’ve had their fair share of plans being left on the shelf and a lack of alignment between action plans and the big, strategic picture. When describing some of their early efforts, Interim City Manager Joseph Gacioch equated organizing city council goal-setting sessions to “a bit like carrying the ring all the way to Mordor. Frankly, Mordor was more organized than we were.”

So if we extend the metaphor for a minute here, how could Ferndale go from the slopes of Mount Doom to the Shire? Or, for the non-LOTR-nerds, how could they build an efficacious plan that would actually be executed?

With the highest level of investment in their community for over 40 years, the Ferndale city management team were particularly keen to show responsible use of resources and accountability to the public.

Aligning Around the City Vision

The City of Ferndale kick-started their strategic planning with a city council retreat. They brought together not only city council members and the city leadership team, but numerous partnership agencies, in order to get the lay of the land and input from all stakeholders. For the very first time, they moved the retreat out of city hall to a neutral venue where they could let in some creativity.

Next, they conducted a visioning session. Working with a facilitator, they asked city council members to share their perspectives of Ferndale as it was, as it is, and as it should be. They went through that same exercise with city staff to really build and reinforce alignment.

Separately, they ran a mission statement workshop. They wanted to paint a picture of the staff's idea of values, what they found important about working for the organization, and how they contributed. That workshop resulted in the creation of some city council goals and actions that needed to be connected to a vision and a mission statement.

Out of that process came the city’s first official community vision.

A Three-Tiered Plan

From the community vision flowed the definition of what Joseph describes as “critical success factors”—outcome areas that must prosper in order for the City of Ferndale to achieve their vision. These six outcome areas became the top layer of the plan.

Under the next layer of the plan came the initiatives that would support the outcomes—these are the project areas.

At the bottom level of their plan sit the actions. The day-to-day stuff that Ferndale’s departmental directors need to get done. From the action level of the plan, the City of Ferndale report out to their community on how they’re doing.

Going from Plan to Action

With their plan defined, the team needed to execute. They worked with Envisio to address four key challenges:

  1. Prioritization
  2. Organizational alignment
  3. Managing progress
  4. Communicating progress

Prioritization: Breaking the Plan Down

With such a large community investment, Ferndale’s strategic plan is complex. The Master Land Use Plan alone contains 120 items. In order to prioritize and manage their plan, the team first broke it down into bite-size chunks. They then used Envisio as the place for all those smaller pieces of the plan to live together in an organized way. This approach has made the plan feel more manageable and given departmental directors a sense that achieving the outcome areas is possible. And, where previously there was a tendency for every project to be a fire hose of stuff taken on simultaneously, the various city teams are now able to focus on what’s important right now, knowing that there is a plan in place for everything over time.

Alignment: Everyone Pulling in the Same Direction

Having everyone working from the same, central place has been a game-changer for the City of Ferndale. The team has focused on alignment at each stage of their planning and it’s paying off in execution. Every department is plugged into their plan, from City Planning to Public Works to Sanitation, and every project is connected to a top-level outcome area. This has made it easier to keep the team engaged and allocate resources. All budget requests are tied to specific strategic goals with tangible outcome areas.

Joseph described how budgeting and strategic planning sessions have now become focal points for his team: “When we get ready for budget time, my team know to tie their requests to one of our goals. It also helps them to answer questions such as “What am I doing, where am I going and why does it matter?” I really see my team embrace this and it’s exciting.”

Managing Progress: Quarterly Implementation, Reflection & Accountability

Another change that has been working well for Ferndale’s city management team is a cultural and operational shift to focus on quarterly updates. The team has built an attitude of managing their plan one quarter at a time. They do a couple of months of progressive implementation, then essentially clear out the junk drawer. At the end of each quarter, they review what has changed, what was achieved and what was discarded along the way.

So every quarter, they cycle through implementation, reflection and then accountability. At the end, they compile all their information, report up to City Council and out to the community. Then they calibrate for the next quarter.

Using Envisio to manage their progress updates has not only made reporting easier but has helped to highlight everything that has been accomplished and should be celebrated. It’s also surfacing up bottlenecks. In many cases, the team has found that they are identifying problems early and are able to address them through better resource management, re-prioritization, greater collaboration and communication. Turns out that a missed progress update is often a symptom of a deeper problem!

Communicating Progress: Council, Staff and Community

With such a large and complex strategic plan, it can be hard to keep track of all the moving parts. It’s even harder to communicate them.

When it comes to sharing progress with City Council, Ferndale’s city management office have a close relationship with their council members. They provide clear, quarterly reports that help to instill confidence about where they’re at in terms of executing their plans and give council members the tools they need to communicate with citizens when out in the community.

Ferndale’s communications team also put a lot of focus on connecting with the people actually doing the work. Often a forgotten component to community engagement, the team recognize the value of having all of their staff invested in the same story. These are the people going out and working in the community—replacing light bulbs, installing equipment, or putting on programs in the park. If they know where they fit into the overall City strategy, they help to get the broader community invested and engaged.

And for the City of Ferndale, community engagement is all about effective storytelling.

They have a strategic plan with hundreds of actionable items under numerous overarching goals and different stress factors. Trying to figure out how to tell which bit of the story to which section of the community is not easy.

As Kara Sokol, Director of Communications, explained it: “If I were to go out there and say, "Hey everybody, look we have this really cool maturation plan and we're going to do 182 things over the next three years and it's going to be awesome," not a single person would care or engage with that. People care about things that relate to them. So if you don't really care about development or parks or the school system, but you're very invested in sustainability, then that's the piece you're going to want to know about.”

Having an Envisio-powered performance dashboard easily available from the City of Ferndale website allows citizens to engage in the pieces of the city plan that interest them. They can drill down into as much detail as they need, see what has already been achieved and understand how their requests fit into the work and plans already underway.

Perhaps most importantly, the City of Ferndale are able to clearly show how the new investment is being used to benefit the community and that they are accountable to the public for executing the plan.

Ferndale Public Dashboard - Healthy, Connected & Invested Neighborhoods Drilldown

About Envisio

Envisio provides the strategic planning software, performance analytics, and strategy execution team to take civic leaders from plan to action. We help local governments to build trust with their communities and elected officials by visibly delivering on their plans and clearly communicating performance.

Manage all of your strategic and operational plans in one place. See exactly what is being delivered, by whom and when. Create on-demand or scheduled reports and share them in a single click. Use customizable public dashboards to tell your story to your community.

Envisio works with 80+ cities, counties and towns across North America. To learn more, contact Liz Steward at or visit

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