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How to herd cats: Compression Planning ® 101

Full disclosure: I love Compression Planning ®. As I begin my 21st year working in higher education, I am in love with this process that transforms meetings into working sessions. Actual work is produced. A plan is created. Cats are herded. The sky is blue and it never rains.

Although I was introduced to Compression Planning ® (CP) at the Indiana GPA conference, I did not immerse myself in it until the San Diego GPA conference when I participated in the pre-conference training. Prior to the training, I had read the website, subscribed to emails, and ordered the books, but I didn't fully understand the process until I invested in the training itself. The website (listed below) does include many free resources to educate you on the process.
What is Compression Planning ®?
Founder Jerry McNellis created Compression Planning ®  in 1974 after researching effective leadership and decision making models. CP utilizes storyboards, really sharp push pins, and notecards of all sizes and colors to focus participants on the work at hand. The components of CP include design (prior to the session), explore, focus, concept, action plan, communications plan, and debrief.
The concept of compression planning may seem simple, but the design is key. The CP leader comes into the session having thought through what needs to be accomplished and has designed questions that will spark the planning process. The first storyboard includes information on the background, topic, sets out the overall and session goals, and the non-purpose of the session. In the exploration stage, I find the most valuable design decision is what not to discuss. The non-purpose helps all participants to stay on topic in the session. The non-purpose I use most frequently is past history. Think about how freeing it would be if the phrase, “We tried that and it didn't work” was banned at your next meeting. The non-purpose of the session includes topics that will waste time or divert attention from the purpose. One of the guidelines for exploration is that participants must suspend judgment, allowing all ideas to be presented.  Without these constraints, participants are free to focus on what needs to be accomplished and explore solutions.  Once the session moves to the focus phase, ideas are challenged and merged to develop achievable tasks in an action plan.
How do I use CP?
CP can be used for planning large and small scale projects. Although it's ideal to have at least two hours for a session, I have also used it in 1-hour increments to move us forward on a project. In addition to using it for grant proposals, I have also used CP for community board work, for yearly review of a division, and to determine the future of a program.
I don't always use the entire CP process. For example, I have used the action plan with a grant team to determine how we were going to collect the data needed for our grant proposal. The action plan includes Tasks, Who will Do It/Deadline, and Expected Results. As we worked through the plan, we broke down the exact information needed, participants volunteered to collect it, and we publically agreed to a deadline. After the session, we kept our commitment to each other and fulfilled the tasks. No longer was it necessary for me to beg, plead, and threaten team members to send me their information. Instead, everyone completed their tasks as agreed upon in the session.
Patrick McNellis is the President of The Compression Planning Institute. Their website includes youtube videos, free downloads, and examples on how to implement Compression Planning ®:
How could you use Compression Planning ® in your work?

Jillain Veil-Ehnert, MA, GPC, is the Director of Foundation Relations & Research Grants at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN. Contact her at

GPCI competency: Knowledge of strategies for effective program and project design and development