Planning to plan? Answer these 9 questions first

A client asked me this morning to review and comment on his organization’s strategic plan template.  A template?  Wait, what? After a bit of (polite) questioning, I learned that this client's organization director is asking several sub-units to draft strategic plans. Once completed, these plans will be rolled up into a master strategic plan.  

I wanted to respond with something helpful but the thoughts racing through my mind went something like... "You can’t template a strategic plan. I mean, sure, there are a handful of broad headers that you could type up but to what end?  Creating a template would exacerbate one of the biggest problems with our typical approaches to strategic planning. And that problem is more focus on the end document than the process of discovery, team building, creative thinking, and cross-discipline input.

Back to my client... he elaborated that he was looking for some thought-provoking questions to include in an annotated outline. The outline would be the basis of a strategic planning meeting agenda and would be during the session to facilitate discussion. Sigh.  Ok, that makes sense.  Based on his request, I jotted down some basic strategic planning guidelines and the kind of questions you should be asking of your team.

Bottom up planning is different and worth trying for organizations really needing or wanting buy-in. It’s not fast or neat or clean but you will get a pretty good sense of what gets people interested and excited about the mission.

Before doing “save as” and creating your spanking new strategic plan file, set some time parameters.  As arbitrary as they might seem, establishing short but reasonable boundaries around the effort is tremendously helpful to participants.  Without sideboards, strategic planning can and will go on forever and eventually be crushed under its own weight  So, I’d suggest that you set a deadline of about a week-- 2 max.  Seriously. You (meaning all the participants in your organization) really do not need more time. Simple and clear beats perfect and polished.



Ok, here you go...

Problem Statement

  1. What are two problems we're trying to solve?  (Sit back and enjoy the range of answers. Giving everyone 2 helps them focus and provides a little wiggle room)
  2. How do other comparable organizations describe the same or similar problem? (Include for a quick compare and contrast exercise.)

Current State and Desired End State

  1. Briefly describe where the organization stands today in the face of this problem.
  2. In an ideal world, where would you be and by when?  Answering this question can and will consume most of the discussion. You can only include this question if there is a pretty good sense of the options. If the problem is truly unsolved, additional research and exploration is needed. A good meeting but just one step back. Another thing... Personally, I recommend that you keep the goals modest and the timelines relatively near-term.  Multi-year strategic plans have very limited practical value.

Stakeholders and Customers

  1. Who or what is impacted by the problem? Try to name the biggies and cut people off before you get too far past 6-8.
  2. Within the organization, who owns the biggest pieces of trying to solve this? (Good list for pulling in future reviewers and collaborators)
  3. Who are you trying to please, support, engage, or help?  These are your customers (even if you’re not “selling” anything.) Spend most of the time you have talking about this group then take another pass through your decisions and tweak from the customer’s point of view.
  4. Besides you, who outside of the organization cares about this outcome?

Opportunities and Limitations

  1. What events can you reasonable anticipate in the set time frame that you want to take advantage of or avoid.  Keep it short and snappy.
  2. So what’s the path?
  3. Given all the thoughts above, provide some sense of the range of options considered.  Which path best takes advantage of all of the resources at your disposal? This is your strategic path.  Write this down—on paper if that’s easiest.

Evaluation Points

  1. What logical evaluation points along the path exist?  Mark these roughly on your calendar and commit to a quick (less than 1 meeting) evaluation of how you’re doing.

Have fun with it.  To me, one of the most commonly missed opportunities with strategic planning is that we all take it too seriously and limit input to only the coolest kids in the office.  Lame.  Instead, even the most modest effort to make it interesting, take some guesses, accept some risk, and integrate as many viewpoints as possible will make this different from the last time.

Oh and encourage participants/contributors not to get too hung up on the language and meaning of strategic.  I’d say that a plan is strategic if it reflects multiple viewpoints and illuminates a path forward-- given the best information available at the time.  A project plan would follow and describe the step-by-step once this approach is finalized.

Follow through or else

Color Grid: Spring 2   by Allison Long Hardy

Color Grid: Spring 2 by Allison Long Hardy

Strategic plans are like dust bunnies. They have a cute name but are an annoying reminder that there is something else we should be doing. They're amassed from the fur, fluff, and fuzz floating around and tend to reproduce in dark corners. Strategic plans are often the end goal of a long process with at least a meeting or two scheduled along the way.

Strategic planning meetings can be great but have limitations. Done well, they...

  • Get everyone on the same basis of understanding around the problem to be solved
  • Lay the foundation for some near-term decisions the leadership team will ultimately have final say on
  • Energize a team in a rut

Sadly, the initial interest and excitement generated during the meeting can flip to disappointment quickly after. The problem usually isn't in the meeting itself, it's the follow through. To avoid frustration and reduce the risk of long-term eye-rolling, there are two choices.

  1. Plan, schedule, and market the meeting as a team building exercise. Then when good strategic thinking happens and written down in the minutes, the team is delighted.
  2. Build follow through into the process at the beginning. Schedule a least post-meeting sessions to bring closure to the plan and, more importantly, get a few (2-3) of the priority actions rolling.  Then, get a meeting on the calendar for one year out as a reminder to all that the plan will be revisited, progress reviewed, and actions refined for the next year.

the two-step: gaining leadership buy-in at work

LOMO No. 13 , Lisa Barbero

LOMO No. 13, Lisa Barbero

Most of us work within organizations where bosses tend to hang out. When we have ideas, one of the first hurdles often is getting our boss to agree—agree to let us expend our own work time, engage other staff, use corporate resources, buy something, sell something, or speak up and out on an important issue.

This connection to our leadership is such a fundamental part of the employment pact that it’s not explicitly written down anywhere. We all just “get” that if you want to do something outside of your specific, immediate job responsibilities at work, you’re going to need to ask.

This is as true for entry level staff as it is for the most senior executives. We all have someone who represents a gate we have to pass through to gain buy-into our vision. This approval gate creates tension. In some cases this is a really positive, creative tension. In other cases, unfortunately, it can be a disappointing, frustrating, murky mess.





There are communication strategies we can use to improve our chances of gaining buy-in from the beginning.

  1. The start is finding common ground on what problem we’re trying to solve. Is there agreement that we have an issue? Is it solvable in their view? Is it important enough to rise above other priorities? If we’re already past this point, great. We can skip ahead to crafting the pitch describing the proposed solution.  If we’re unsure, our time is well-invested to describe the problem we see and make sure we hit multiple viewpoints—our staff, our client’s, other stakeholders, and lastly, our own. 
  2. Next, our leadership has to agree that some significant portion of the solution we’re proposing might just work. The trick here is including a sufficient number of interesting, compelling hooks but resisting the urge to come bearing an entirely baked solution. One general thing about leaders—and you can probably relate to this yourself—is that they like to put their own stamp on things. Any solution that is completed researched and documented doesn't leave a lot of room for input. So an alternative is presenting the framework of our solution, demonstrating what you know and what you've researched, and leaving a couple of questions that create room for further engagement.

In the end, the goal is to get leadership support not just approval.  We want to see their whole head (and heart, if we’re lucky) invested in the outcome. We want them to change at an emotional, molecular level and support us with every brain cell. Anything short of that isn't full buy-in. 

3 "must do's" for your next advisory council meeting

Sprouts  by Louise van Terheijden Tilburg, Netherland

Sprouts by Louise van Terheijden Tilburg, Netherland

Before you click away to check out a more interesting topic-- such as the effectiveness of various types of dental floss-- just stick with me for a moment.

Do you have an external council or advisory committee whose raison d'etre is to review your program's progress, provide guidance, and make strategic recommendations? Uh, yeah. Me too.

In fact, just about every client I can think of has 1 (if not 14 active groups) hovering nearby who are "here to help!" And by "help" they mean ready to offer context-light suggestions and fancy footwork to avoid doing any actual work because they have other full-time jobs.

We do this advisory council thing to ourselves. It all sounds like a good idea in the beginning.  "Hey, we're kicking of our new strategic plan so we should probably create an independent group to help steer the ship."

There is a lot right about the concept.  Infusing an external perspective in any important new program is invaluable. If they're able to provide top cover too when things invariably go awry, then they're worth their weight in the coffee and light refreshments you have to provide to get them to show up in person at the meeting. The problems pop up about a month before the prescheduled quarterly meeting.

Usually, someone suddenly remembers that the council meeting is coming up and the program team immediately starts to get anxious. These external advisory councils are typically comprised of senior staff-- a gaggle of folks you clearly want to impress.  However, they're also intentionally disconnected from day-to-day program operations.  That's what gives them supposed objectivity.  Council members are also selected to represent a variety of organizational interests.  So in one meeting you and your program team has the delightful opportunity to piss off and disappoint not just one executive but a one from every division!

So, yes. Communicating with these folks can be tricky, distracting, time consuming, and even risky. To overcome these, you need to check yourself and your team against a list of "must do's" YOU need from the them and not just what they're expecting out of you.  Counter to our typical approach, the best communications strategy is to consider the council a resource-- not a validate-or.

  1. Review the year's action plan. Too far out and they'll lose interest.  Nobody cares and a few might be thinking they won't be around.  Don't waste any time on super, outyear vision-y stuff. Instead, ask them to add and delete actions to ensure alignment with broader organizational goals.  You might make a rule that this is a one for one swap.  Anything new can be added as long as something else drops off the list.  The objective isn't to overload but to hone the edges.
  2. Highlight hurdles-- which likely include money. Because they're advisory, you're not asking them for money but you're seeking advice on how to secure the resources you need. The tricky thing here is to be open to creative suggestions. Be prepared later to laugh over drinks with friends on the most ridiculous ones.
  3. Ask for advocacy.  Seriously, this is big and should be relatively easy for them to do. The question is-- when do you have an upcoming meeting or speaking opportunity that you can share some of the highlights on what we're doing, our accomplishments, and plans for the future. Be bold in soliciting their support and get them to make a commitment out loud-- if you can.

On top of these, if you keep the presentations relatively short and end early, you're sure to please.  Good luck!

talking nerdy

Cloud Print  by Yangyang Pan

Cloud Print by Yangyang Pan

In this awesome TedGlobal presentation, Melissa Marshall shares a simple and elegant formula for more effective communication between scientists and engineers and, um, the rest of us. I encourage you to watch the short talk and won't spoil the fun by spilling the beans on the formula itself.

However... I'll say that her points apply to the science community, as well as, technical folks in a wide array of disciplines-- information technology and anything related to the cloud, health and bleh-insurance, facilities and infrastructure, and just about anything else you can think of that truly required understanding calculus and not just doing the minimum to pass.

In working with technical clients to come up with content and communications that resonate beyond their internal meetings with each other, there are two really, key things.  

  1. In my experience, we must fiercely and unrelentingly tie the purpose and benefits back to something any general smart person can understand.  This isn't "dumb-ing it down." That's a poke in the eye that doesn't get conversations off on the right foot.  Instead, there is some important underlying purpose for why technical folks are doing the important work that they are.  What is that?
  2. The second is helping manage the level of detail. Highly technical folks often can't actually tell the difference between a headline and a detail.  They're too close to their work to effectively differentiate.  To help here, I work with clients to outline all of important thoughts they want to share. After a first pass to streamline and sort everything into the right buckets, you can then have a more objective conversation about what is appropriate to share.  For most general audiences, content should only be at the highest (most outdented) level and include 5-6 points. And maybe, just maybe, you can go one level down for a new program pitch or Congressional hearing.  All the rest can be saved for questions or just admired in the notes.

Big hugs to all the science and techie types out there. We love ya... we just don't always understand ya.