Anna Kosova, CAE, MBA, Capital Association Management
Lynne Carbone, Lynne Carbone & Associates, Inc.
In the past few months, associations have found it challenging or impossible to hold in person strategic planning sessions due to global pandemic restrictions. However, strategic planning sessions are essential for organizations to chart their paths forward, and alternative approaches must be explored.
Typically, strategic planning sessions require an in- person format and last 1 ½ – 2 days. This year the pandemic has impacted travel, participation numbers and engagement spacing. A virtual format is the most viable alternative given existing constraints.
This trend is the new reality for many associations, including a client of Capital Association Management, an AMCI-accredited association management company in Washington, DC. This medium-sized ($1.5 million in annual revenue) certification-based association servicing a specialized niche in the construction industry planned to hold an in-person Board strategic planning session shortly after its annual conference in April. Needless to say, plans were tabled after the COVID-19 pandemic began. And after consulting with our firm, the Board ultimately decided to hold a virtual session in August.
The strategic planning meeting was held for a total of 12 hours over 3 days. While it was different from historical strategic planning meetings with participants seated around a big table in one room, it ultimately was successful.
“I’ve been through a number of strategic planning sessions over the years and this was probably the smoothest and most focused I’ve ever experienced, especially given the circumstances!”
Mark Gelfo, PE, CxA, EMP, LEED Fellow, ACG Board Member
So, how did we pull this virtual meeting off, and how did we make sure it was a success? This article looks into everything that a strategic planning session entails and provides tips on holding a successful virtual session. We’ll start with a quick primer on strategic planning.
Strategic planning is a process by which organizations decide:
It is a cycle and process of ongoing assessment, customer feedback, execution, strategy adjustment, prioritization, and decision-making. It is most effective when all system stakeholders have a role in helping to shape the organization’s long-term direction and when strategies are measurable to ensure pathways to tangible results.
Why is a strategic planning necessary?
There are many reasons why associations or organizations should commit to a strategic planning process including:
⦁ Promote alignment of board members, strategic key players, the association management company or staff, and members on shaping the organization’s future.
⦁ Determine which competing strategic issues are most important and create cascading operational and tactical plans.
⦁ Assess whether an organization has strayed from its mission and vision and needs to course-correct, or whether the mission and vision need to change because of demand or the environment.
⦁ Proactively prepare for the future and adapt to changing market conditions.
⦁ Improve the organization’s performance and mission success.
In one sentence, strategic planning catalyzes a continued growth trajectory and enhanced product or service delivery to customers. The practical benefits of strategic planning are that it:
⦁ Guides team priorities and functional units.
⦁ Guides decisions on resource allocation, programmatic, and other initiatives.
⦁ Ensures that measurable results are tracked.
⦁ Serves as the ‘truth checker’ when things are off-track.
There are many other things that a strategic plan will NOT do including:
⦁ Delineate an implementation strategy for every function in the organization.
⦁ Cover all ongoing initiatives and projects.
⦁ Eliminate the need for future strategic planning.
⦁ Serve as a substitute for leadership decision-making.
⦁ Meeting virtually injects flexibility into meeting process logistics by eliminating travel time and venue planning and costs.
⦁ Fully leverages several non-verbal modes of participation, such as live polling, the chat function, and real-time reaction icons without interrupting anyone speaking.
⦁ By reducing lead time normally needed to coordinate schedules for an in-person meeting with travel, fosters quicker response times to changes in the market and changes in a plan required.
⦁ Enables expanded participation of strategic partners, customers, or suppliers into the process.
⦁ Applies shorter meeting time blocks and increases energy recharge time for participants between sessions.
⦁ Though being able to see other participants on video is a significant improvement over voice-only conference calls, the interpersonal engagement is more limited virtually.
⦁ Networking and mingling during breaks is more difficult, though some platforms allow for networking links as an option. However, mostly, people tire more quickly in a virtual format and need the breaks to refresh and stretch.
⦁ Virtual participants might not necessarily be ‘in the room’ all through the session. People can more easily multitask and become distracted while participating in virtual meetings.
⦁ Running strategic planning meetings virtually could increase the risk that participants will experience information overload and not contribute as meaningfully as they might in an in- person meeting.
Retaining an experienced facilitator for your virtual strategic planning session is essential. The facilitator must be capable of “managing the room,” coordinating meetings in such a way that they reach a precise conclusion and achieve everything that they are intended to achieve, whether in-person or virtually.
The facilitator hired for our virtual strategic planning session was Lynne Carbone & Associates Inc. (LCA). We found their support excellent. The following is a summary of how LCA achieves successful virtual strategic planning efforts:
“In our experience, running successful virtual strategic planning meetings requires a number of design and facilitation features:
⦁ Providing a draft strategic plan in advance, based on the input received.
⦁ “Real-time” delivery of the draft plan as sections are completed.
⦁ Energizing icebreakers and other exercises to ensure productive engagement.
⦁ Application of virtual tools for collaborative and energizing engagement.
⦁ A commitment from participants to “play by the rules” and stay engaged throughout the process.”
The following strategic planning virtual meeting “tips” are offered by LCA:
Ideally, virtual strategic planning sessions should be scheduled over a 3 day period. The schedule that we decided on in consultation with the facilitator was a 12-hour strategic session held over 3 days – 4 hours each day. The timing of 1 pm – 5 pm EST for the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday sessions made it possible to accommodate West coast participants. Frequent, short breaks of 10-15 minutes are essential to relieve long screen time periods and allow participants to get a snack, stretch or refresh themselves.
Engaging all participants in a meeting is usually challenging, and more so for virtual sessions. This highlights the importance of the expertise and experience of the facilitator. Lynne Carbone and her team had the energy to engage everybody and encourage everyone to contribute. When participants could not agree on something, she facilitated a balanced process to converge on a decision. She ensured that discussions stayed at the strategic level rather than in the “weeds” and made sure that we stayed on track and didn’t lose focus on “side trips.”
It is important that critical advance work be complete prior to the meeting. The facilitator collected, summarized, and analyzed inputs from all stakeholders and participants in advance. The inputs received were compiled in a report which we received ahead of the meeting and served as the basis for drafting a strategic plan distributed to the group prior to the meeting. The advance work for Board members and AMC staff was to read through the draft strategic plan and be ready to suggest changes and participate in discussions.
It is mandatory to participate on video for the entire meeting. The visual cues of raising hands to be recognized, thumbs up/down, and use of consensus cards in our meeting require that the meeting facilitator see all participants and that they see each other. Participants are requested to stay on mute unless speaking but video must stay on.
For a virtual strategic planning session to be successful, you need to use virtual collaboration tools. We used live polling, consensus cards, stress balls, and strategic stars that we would give to each other for demonstrating unconventional and strategic thinking. This made the session more engaging, productive and fun!