One of the first and biggest lessons I learned was that it’s very difficult to facilitate your own strategic planning process. Basically, you can manipulate the process if you don’t have an objective facilitator. So that was one of the things that I learned.
Dr. Jan Schaefer, BCBA-D
CEO and owner of Collaborative Autism Resources and Education (CARE, LLC)
A plan that was a checklist
A few years ago, Dr. Schaefer facilitated her agency’s strategic planning process.
However, she felt that she was moving at the tactical level, rather than the strategic level. Their ‘strategic plan’ was more like a checklist that did not connect with the larger goals and vision. In other words, their own planning efforts did not have the hoped-for major impact on the organization.
Although CARE was doing well across the various locations, Jan was frustrated because she felt that her team of high performers could do better – if the organizational systems were in place that would support them.
She knew systems had to be updated and developed, but which ones? And in what order? Jan was looking for a way to develop priorities to focus staff’s attention and budget allocations.
CARE also did not have compelling mission and vision statements.
In April of 2019, Jan attended my workshop at the annual conference of the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA).
My approach to strategic planning resonated with her, as did my experience working with ABA service providers. We spoke briefly after the workshop, and in the fall of the same year I met with the executive team for the virtual kick-off session.
A few weeks later, I flew out to Houston to facilitate CARE’s two-day planning retreat.
In Houston, I met with the entire leadership team – a group of ten dedicated individuals, ready to take a deep dive into the soul of their organization.
On Day 1, we worked at the high-level
- Drafted the initial versions of CARE’s new mission, vision, and core values.
- Identified CARE’s most important stakeholders and how they could help the organization achieve the new vision.
- Explored trends in four environments – social/demographic, economic, political/regulatory, and technological – and their potential impact on the organization.
After the first session, the executive team reviewed the initial ideas for the mission, vision, and values and crafted a single working draft for each. These would be reviewed by the leadership team the next day.
On Day 2, we worked from the high-level to the strategies
On Day 2, the leadership team spent one hour wrestling with the final wording for the mission and vision. This created a tremendous sense of ownership as the group tackled the remaining planning activities.
- Identified CARE’s strengths and weaknesses
- In light of these strengths and weaknesses, determined whether an impact identified during the trend analysis on Day 1 was an opportunity or a threat for moving toward the new vision.
- Identified the most critical obstacles and challenges that could keep CARE from achieving its new vision.
- Brainstormed possible strategies for overcoming these obstacles and moving CARE toward the vision.
After the in-person strategic planning retreats, I met with the executive team for an additional three virtual work sessions during which they worked out the details of their final plan. These details are necessary for setting up the contingencies for a successful strategy execution:
- Strategies that specify tangible results;
- Clear deadline for each strategy; and
- Owners or leads who were responsible for ensuring that each strategy is implemented.
Why this structure?
The structure of the onsite retreat ensured that they group began their deliberation at the high-level so they could create a shared understanding of CARE as a system which was then expressed in the initial drafts of the mission and vision.
Unless these anchor points are clearly articulated, it is very difficult to have meaningful discussions around the variables that contribute to or possibly derail an organization’s success.
Using two groups – the executive team and the leadership team – allowed input from the larger group while keeping the planning process efficient and engaging. Not all planning participants need to be part of writing the actual plan!
My role during the retreats was to keep the discussion flowing by reinforcing responses, keeping the group out of the weeds, and asking probing questions.
When articulating the mission and vision, I provided guidance to ensure that the final statements meet my criteria for compelling mission and vision statements.
Turn your approach into a story. Use specific details and data to explain what you did to solve the client’s problem and improve their condition. If there’s any place on your website where you get to fully explain your process and methodology (and use as much technical language as you please), this is where you do it.
First and biggest lesson
According to Jan, the first and biggest lessons learned was that it’s critical to work with an objective outside facilitator. It’s very difficult to facilitate your own strategic planning process – even if you’re trained in strategic planning, like Jan is. When the owner or CEO stands at the front of the room, he or she may ask leading questions, evaluate ideas, or otherwise direct the conversation. You cannot run the process and provide content at the same time.
Prepared for COVID-19
Three months after the CARE team completed their strategic plan, COVID came along. Having their new mission and strategic plan as their guide allowed the leadership team and staff to stay focused on providing services and maintaining good clinical outcomes for their clients.
Living the mission, vision, values
In the past, it had been difficult for Jan and her team to state CARE’s mission, vision, and core values. Now they refer to them consistently as they build a purpose-driven culture. “Mission moments” recall incidents that exemplify their mission in action and are shared in leadership meetings and newsletters. As Jan told me, “It’s been a real change.”
From checklist to strategies
While the CARE team completed everything in the plan they had developed by themselves two years earlier, they realized it was more of a checklist. It was a list of tasks that were not connected to each other or to a bigger goal. Their new strategic plan contains interconnected and prioritized strategies that help guide resource allocation. This ensures that improvement initiatives have the largest possible impact.
These are short-term results. The remarkable fact is that CARE has become stronger despite COVID and has laid a solid foundation for sustainability and growth.