Strategic Planning in a Virtual World

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VirtualStrategicPlan...The word Strategy came into use in the English language in the early 1800s. It was derived from another English word “Stratagem” that has been in use from late 15th century. The words trace their roots to the Greek, Stratos 'army' + agein 'to lead’.

Strategic planning makes many people groan and roll their eyes even in the best of times. According to the Association for Strategic Planning, strategic planning is the process used to formulate an organization’s strategy, create a goal cascade that stems from this strategy as well as allocate resources and elaborate an action plan for achieving these goals.  Although most recognize the importance of the strategic planning process and the resulting direction/plan, if done properly, the method involves much time and energy. 

In early March, I had two strategic planning sessions scheduled for later in the month. The groundwork for both (i.e., stakeholder surveys, market research) was complete, so it was time for the in-person session with the board of directors of two associations.  The agendas were set and I dare say most were energized about the upcoming session.  Then COVID-19 hit and the responsible decision in both cases was to post-pone the meeting. 

Although we discussed moving the sessions to a virtual format when we made the decision not to meet in person, we collectively decided it would be too hard. How do you conduct a strategic planning session without being in the same room?  Was it even possible? At that time, we were hoping that it would be safe to meet again soon. Flash forward a month and it became apparent that meeting in-person wasn’t going to be a reality for a very long time. A few other factors pushed the team into deciding to move ahead with a virtual strategic planning session:

  1. In a short timeframe, those involved had become really comfortable with virtual tools like GoToMeeting and Zoom. They were conducting business, handling strategy sessions related to how their respective businesses were handling COVID-19 and much more in a virtual setting.  This shift in adoption allowed the boards to seriously entertain the notion that we could do a planning session without being in the same room.
  2. The impact of the pandemic on the associations was a rallying cry for the need for a strategy to guide their efforts. Even those who questioned the need for a strategic plan at the beginning of the year recognized that it was needed now more than ever.

With the decision to move ahead, efforts shifted to turning the agenda and format into a scheduled discussion that would bear fruit in a virtual format. Following are lessons learned from these virtual sessions:  

  1. Pre-Work and Homework: To ensure maximum engagement, we shared relevant content, such as survey responses and data, before the meeting to maximize the meeting time for discussion.  What can you send before the session for review so you can start with a quick summary and then dive into the resulting discussion? Be very deliberate about what you share before-hand. One idea I may use next time is recording a video highlighting some key points related to the market research that can be viewed before we meet as a group. 
  2. Shorter Time Segments: Although a traditional in-person session may be a day long endeavor, we choose to break our time out into three 90-minute sessions. With everyone suffering webinar and online fatigue, we knew bandwidth for attention span was low. We scheduled two weeks between the sessions. 
  3. Plan  Icebreaker and Touchpoints: In most virtual meetings right now, we tend to just dive into business. We felt it was key to have time, albeit short, for a quick icebreaker at the opening to set the tone and get interaction.  This is especially important if participants don’t know each other. 
  4. Establish Ground Rules: No different than an in-person session, it is key to ensure that all voices are heard, and nobody overpowers the conversation.  Ensure that the moderator is empowered to shut down discussions as well as call on all participants.  We also asked that all participants keep their videos on and asked if they would be willing to shut off their email for the session. Keeping videos on helped ensure participants were engaged, as well as ensured we weren’t tripping over each other when someone wanted to speak. Make the ground rules known at the start of the meeting.
  5. Encourage Participation:  We felt it was important to simulate what would transpire in an in-person session with a moderator going around the room to get input from all attendees. However, we didn’t want folks to talk for the sake of talking, so we encouraged folks to take a pass if they had nothing new to add to the conversation, or simply say they agree with what has been previously stated.  We outlined three areas in which we asked for specific feedback by all attendees using these ground rules, leaving the rest of the session up to free-flow discussion. 

Overall, the sessions were a success, albeit a bit clunky at onset.  As a general rule, I found it took longer for participants to absorb the material than I would have expected in an in-person session. Having shorter sessions and time to digest the material between sessions is key.  

If you have put off your strategic planning process because of the Work from Home scenario, I encourage you to explore the possibility of tackling the effort. During the last recession, many businesses deemed strategic planning efforts as discretionary, which made it even harder for them to come back with a solid business and operations plan as the economy recovered. One of my key messages when tackling strategy is not simply outlining what you are going to do, but a strategic plan provides definition in terms of what you won’t do. It serves as a decision-tree to cut off scenarios and possibilities that aren’t true to your core mission and vision.  Although it is too early to tell the long-term financial implications of this pandemic, addressing resources and activities from a strategic standpoint should be a key focus of your activity right now. 

Need help getting started? Contact AOE today!

Bonus: Another great read on this topic, click here

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