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Your Organization Need Not Delay Strategic Planning Over the Pandemic

The technology and methodology are ready

Image by KFifa purchased on Shutterstock

Is your business or nonprofit among those that have paused strategic planning because such plans require people to gather in person to brainstorm, collaborate and prioritize? Or so conventional wisdom goes? There is some good news. The tools that enable senior leaders to participate in big-picture collaborative planning without leaving the house have matured to the point that they are startingly short on compromises. It presents an opportunity to get back on your planning cadence and experience what might be an evolved approach for the long term.

Tech tools have fully arrived

The technology for virtual collaborative planning has come a long way. The tool I use with my clients is Mural, and it’s terrific. It was devised to aid design thinking, a tech-sector framework used to build products that are really responsive to user needs. I find it supremely effective for executive teams and boards of directors, too.

Mural functions like a massive virtual whiteboard, a blank slate to which planners can attach sticky notes, write descriptions, rearrange ideas to draw connections, insert videos and images, and so forth.

Integrated into the platform are really good facilitation tools. There’s a timer that equips meeting leaders to move participants through brainstorms and other exercises quickly. It allows meeting leaders to disperse breakout groups to separate areas to do sub-work and then to reconvene them to a specific location— say, a summary-and-presentation hub. Leaders can even do a quick celebration by dropping confetti on participant screens.

And there is built-in anonymous voting. Let’s say a planning group has produced 10 new-program ideas. The facilitator can quickly set up a vote, selecting how many votes they want each individual to be able to cast. Participants vote for an idea by simply tapping it, an intuitive process that produces a lightning-quick snapshot of group consensus. And Mural records the vote for reference later.

A sample of a portion of a Mural in action, sticky notes with brainstormed ideas included

And Mural is not the only good tool of this type. My friends at the consulting firm Commonality use a similar tool called Miro and love it.

Democratization of strategic planning

Brainstorming via stickie note and then voting is not new in planning. It’s a tool that professional planning facilitators use routinely, as do collaborative team leaders.

What’s different about how voting works in virtual planning using tools like Mural is that it democratizes the planning process in a very interesting way. In-person all-day planning sessions tend to favor the points of view of individuals who are opinionated, outspoken, hold higher rank relative to fellow participants, or who simply have the most stamina. Good meeting facilitators can manage the worst of that, but it’s impossible to blunt all of it. As a result, in big-group planning that happens in person, people who are quieter and more reflective often go under-heard. That means the final set of perspectives gained is less rounded, and decisions are lopsided.

Well-facilitated virtual planning, using tools like Mural, levels the debate field in a pretty significant way. It’s easy for someone who is quiet and reserved to drop sticky notes during flurries of brainstorm activity in which others are distracted. And voting exercises are a bit more quantitative. All of this matters because in the end, more people feel greater ownership of a better plan product.

A portion of one of Mural’s many wonderful, ready-to-use templates

More efficient path to deliverable

Another feature of virtual planning is that the facilitator is not left with huge flip-chart sheets covered in Post-It notes, or photos of whiteboards, that then must be deciphered and transcribed. The planning work is already transcribed because it exists in an online environment, one that happens to double as a very good tool for refining work, soliciting input, collaborating on edits, and assimilating feedback. Pre-session, time is required to set up Mural to enable the best work by the planning group. But there are significant time savings once the planning meeting is done.

Cuts travel and related costs

Signing up for strategic plan development virtually, particularly for planning groups spread across the country or world, means reduced hard costs. There are no airplane tickets, hotels, ground transports, nor expensive dinners.

There is also the value of time saved. Planning participants remain at their desks throughout the planning process, free to do other work. Their jobs need not halt for a planning retreat, and they get to stay with their families.

And, of course, it’s far lower risk from a public-health perspective.

What is required

Running strategic planning virtually also has its unique requirements:

Shorter, more frequent sessions

The multiday retreat doesn’t translate well to the virtual environment. No one wants to be in an all-day Zoom meeting. Two hours at a time is about the maximum that participants can stay focused and energized, I find. This reality forces the facilitation designer to design and run more planning sessions that are shorter in duration. That has its own challenges, such as getting people creatively warmed up over and over again. For facilitative leaders who’ve long utilized the “big retreat” model to produce collaborative-input plans, a planning design based on more staccato conversations can be a leap. It requires fluency in the technology tools and real willingness to adapt to a very new way. But it’s a great transition to make, and the shorter sessions really work.

Genuine interest in what comes from democratizing

More democratized planning is not necessarily great for leaders who already know what they want their plan to contain, or who are more interested in giving their team the illusion of inclusion rather than actual. Going virtual with strategic planning requires a real openness and commitment to collaborative leadership and willingness to champion whatever plan results from truer collective will.

High bandwidth connections

Tools like Mural are pretty bandwidth-intensive, particularly when used in concert with videoconferencing like Zoom, which is how virtual planning works best. In every planning group, there is at least one participant who drew the short straw on last-mile bandwidth, or who is traveling and thus finds themselves with a suboptimal internet connection.

And of course, access to high-bandwidth connections is not distributed equitably. For planning groups that seek participation in their strategic planning from folks on the ground or in the community, increasingly common in the nonprofit sector in areas like community health, internet access can be a real barrier.

The CEO of a major corporate trade association recently told me that her organization has postponed its once-every-three-year planning cycle because she can’t get the necessary member-company leaders in the same room. Yet CEOs in her position know that operating under an outdated or expired plan can result in mission drift, conflicting priorities, failure to focus on what’s most important, and ultimately failure to perform. The good news is, the trepidation isn’t universal. I’m noticing an increasing number of organizations actively requesting help with a virtual approach to major-plan development.

If you’re responsible for long-term planning, consider your options. Virtual strategic planning has matured and can produce a quality, visually interesting plan, one in which participants in your planning group are deeply vested.

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Shane Kinkennon

Shane Kinkennon

I write about principled, person-centered leadership. And occasionally matters of the heart.

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