Build. Test. Repeat.

I love spreadsheets.  And I mean love spreadsheets.  I even dressed up as one for Halloween.  In my view, there are few problems that can’t be solved with a Pivot Table or vlookup.  So, when I joined Blue Shield of California Foundation last year in the midst of our strategic planning process, my first thought was: “Build a fancy spreadsheet, maybe hire a consultant, and bam!  Mission accomplished.” For other organizations I’ve worked for, that’s all that strategic planning required.  Fortunately, my colleagues had embarked on a very different planning journey – one that couldn’t be contained within a simple spreadsheet. 

Now, nearly finished with our significantly refreshed strategic plan, I can reflect on what made our process different (and better) than anything I’ve seen before.  Below are two lessons-learned along the way that I hope you can use to guide your own strategic planning efforts.

Lesson 1: Give your plan the time it needs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take a year off from “real work” to just focus on strategic planning?  It’s challenging to make the time (both individually and collectively) to develop a solid strategic plan, especially given that your day-to-day work doesn’t stop, and the world around you continues to change and evolve.  Allowing your strategic planning to be an iterative process - incorporating new data, feedback, and information in real-time – will ultimately strengthen your plan. Build, test, get input. Rebuild, retest, get more input. Repeat.

This is not to say, however, that you should let your planning process drag on indefinitely. I recommend establishing ambitious, but feasible, deadlines and checkpoints to keep your process on track. 

Most importantly, if you don’t yet have a strategic plan (or your plan could use some updating), start the process just as soon as you finish reading this blog.  To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is today.”
Lesson 2: Don’t outsource… you’ll miss out on the hard, but fun, work with your team.

If you asked me 18-months ago what words I associate with strategic planning, “consultant” would be at the top of the list.  What I know now, is that strategic planning requires the time, support, and knowledge of your staff – the people invested in your organization day in, and day out.  Consultants can be effective external facilitators (particularly by helping you “hold up the mirror”), but it is critical for this work to be staff-led.

No one knows the unique considerations and characteristics of your organization better than you and your colleagues.  The process can also serve to build camaraderie as you dig deeper into your work together and build tighter bonds.  This shared, collaborative accountability is what will see you through challenging times and stressful conversations.

Today, I am more connected to my work and colleagues than I would have been if I simply created a spreadsheet and hired a consultant. In addition to these lessons learned, I know that we’ve become a better, more robust organization because we took the time to develop a great strategic plan. Prior to this process, it wasn’t always easy for managers and individuals to articulate how each person’s role was aligned with the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy. We now have a clear framework to ensure that every member of our team feels and sees a personal connection the impact of our work. Though the road was long and often challenging, it was worth it. I hope your own strategic planning is just as rewarding. 

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