Generally speaking, you don’t expect strategic planning exercises to surprise. I mean, what could be so surprising about a process designed to systematically chart a course for your organization? You look at data, you brainstorm, you put together detailed checklists of to dos, and boom, you’re done. No surprises there.
But over the past year, I have been working with several organizations on such projects and would say that the number of times when leaders, executives, board members, and employees have experienced an epiphany moment has been, well surprising. I believe the primary reason is that the traditional objectives associated with such planning initiatives have given way to newer, more realistic, and more honest expectations. In the past, we often conducted these processes to satisfy the demands of a board of directors or simply because we thought we were supposed to. Rarely, in my experience, did they ever actually materially impact the organization’s future course.
I’m seeing organizations being surprised by strategic planning in three ways:
- In an age of ongoing consolidation within the health care and social service sectors, many leaders are using strategic planning processes to not only define the potential reasons for partnering with others but also to test the waters. When I was in high school and at a dance in the auditorium, it was not uncommon to have a friend mitigate risk by asking, in advance, an intended partner how they would respond to a request to dance. Similarly, executives are using the relatively low risk planning process to prescreen in like fashion. As a consultant, I’ve been asked to interview other organizations’ CEOs to find out if they would, in fact, be interested in dancing.
- So many providers have been “nose down” during the pandemic, focusing on providing core services, ensuring efficient workflows, and maintaining critical staffing levels. Some leaders are using a strategic planning process to re-engage staff by offering external environment updates, reminders about what competitors are up to, and re-emphasizing the importance of mission and the patient/customer (as I describe here). I have been impressed by how interested and grateful staff have been when they are included in such strategic discussions. They have felt the very real relief of getting their noses up off the grindstone for a time and gaining a sense of the bigger picture.
- Every organization has sacred cows and elephants in the room – issues or topics that are better left unaddressed or kept out of public view. There are often good reasons for this, typically related to relationships, history, and the natural desire of leaders to avoid unnecessary conflict. But sometimes those cows and elephants can really damage an organization’s prospects by obscuring the truth and preventing necessary progress. A well managed strategic planning process can help to identity these types of issues in a controlled and safe fashion for organizations and provide leaders who are intent on addressing these vexing problems an effective vehicle for their exposure and resolution.
If your strategic planning processes have become “going through the motions” fire drills and you’re not gaining the insights and impact you seek, then it’s time to rethink things. Doing so may surprise you.
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