Bogged down in implementing your strategic plan? Try this creative meeting design to get things moving.
by Patrick Sanaghan (The Sanaghan Group)
Successful execution of a strategic plan separates the excellent from the “pretty good.” Creating great “visions” and ennobling pictures of the future for a campus is not difficult. There are many smart, dedicated and hardworking faculty, staff and administrators throughout every campus and they have powerful aspirations. The really hard part is the implementation part, and too few institutions are good at it.
Problems are inevitable during an implementation process, but they are often covered up because people are reluctant to ask for help, don’t want to appear inadequate, or are “stuck” with what they are doing and lack good solutions.
Having worked on strategic planning with hundreds of campuses over the last 25+ years, I have created the following meeting design. The Strategic Planning Implementation Clinic creates the opportunity to surface the real problems and pressing challenges that campus stakeholders are facing in implementing strategic priorities, and allows leaders to tap the thinking & resources of participants to generate constructive and realistic solutions to tough problems.
This meeting design:
- Fully engages participants (they work very hard in this meeting).
- Builds participants’ problem-solving capacity.
- Taps the creativity and wisdom of participants.
- Helps normalize the fact that people on campus are experiencing problems and challenges – that challenges are both expected and can be overcome.
One caution: This design will only work if the campus climate feels safe enough for participants to share real organizational problems. If failure isn’t tolerated on your campus or if the trust level is low, don’t use this design.
How to Set Up the Clinic
A senior leader (e.g. an executive vice president or provost) needs to convene this kind of meeting and fully support its outcomes. This is essential; senior-level sponsorship creates both the opportunity and safety needed to operationalize this meeting. This should not be an ad hoc, informal meeting where participants congregate, share some problems, and then hope things somehow work out. You need senior leadership’s credibility and support to pull this initial meeting off.
Once participants have experienced success with the Strategic Planning Implementation Clinic, they often organize more localized implementation clinics back in their own units. But the first one needs senior level support.
This meeting design works best with 12–24 participants, but you can increase that up to 30 participants if needed. Here is what you need:
- A large, comfortable room with moveable chairs.
- Several flip charts with markers.
- A facilitator is always helpful, and we strongly suggest that you get a very good one.
- This meeting assumes that the participants who are invited to the implementation “clinic” are willing to share their real challenges regarding their current implementation efforts.
- Although you can conduct this design with people from the same campus units (department, division), it is better to bring together people from different units across traditional boundaries on campus. This allows you to tap entirely new ideas and builds the collaborative “capital” of the campus in powerful ways.
How to Conduct the Clinic
To conduct a Strategic Planning Implementation Clinic, follow these steps.
- The senior leader welcomes participants and has everyone briefly introduce themselves.
- The senior leader reviews the purpose of the meeting (i.e., to solve real implementation problems and challenges). They also need to set the tone of the meeting by communicating something like this: “We are here to share the problems and difficulties we are all having with our implementation efforts. I know that we are experiencing problems, and that’s OK. We want to solve them using your courage and ideas.”
- The facilitator has the participants count off from 1-4. If, for example, you have 24 participants, this will result in four groups of six members, randomly mixed.
- Once participants have divided into the smaller groups, each group member is invited to discuss an implementation problem they are currently facing. Give each group 20-25 minutes for this part of the meeting, approximately 3-4 minutes per person. Pay close attention to the time, because you need to make sure that everyone in each group shares an implementation challenge. Check in with each group about how the time is being used; you don’t want one or two verbose people hogging the airtime.
EXAMPLES OF IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGES
Participants could offer challenges such as these:
- There is a breakdown in communication throughout a division, which is causing people stress and confusion. People are unsure about who is doing what.
- People feel overwhelmed with their current workload and can’t pay attention to implementing the new strategic plan.
- There is open conflict between two working groups within the division.
- People are working hard but little is getting accomplished.
- A new leader in the division is finding it difficult to get his people on board with implementation efforts.
- After all participants have shared their real implementation challenges, have each group select one challenge to share with the larger group. This selected problem should be fairly complex, should capture the essence of some of the other challenges that were shared in the group, and should actually be “solvable.”
- Before the reporting out, the facilitator should inform participants that “we are going to act as consultants to each other.” Each group will “inherit” one of the implementation challenges from another group and then act as consultants to that group.
WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE
For example, suppose you have four groups: Groups A, B, C, and D. Each group will have the opportunity to present one implementation challenge to the larger group, and each group will be assigned one of the other groups’ challenges to provide consultation on. For example:
|Group A solves…||Group D’s challenge|
|Group B solves…||Group A’s challenge|
|Group C solves…||Group B’s challenge|
|Group D solves…||Group C’s challenge|
Having a different group “inherit” the implementation challenge is key to this meeting design. Often, we get “stuck” with a problem and can’t envision alternatives or new possibilities clearly. When someone else inherits the problem temporarily, they can approach the challenge with psychological distance and offer new and fresh perspectives and ideas.
- Each group should then share their selected implementation challenge with the larger group. Everyone should hear all four selected challenges.
- After everyone hears all four implementation problems, each group will “inherit” a problem from one of the other groups, as described in Step 6 above. Give each consulting ten minutes to come up with four or five “diagnostic” questions that will enable them to better understand their “inherited” problem. This part of the implementation design helps build participants diagnostic abilities, because asking the right questions helps reveal the hidden nuances of a problem. These questions should be mostly open-ended, serving to gather new information rather than simple yes/no answers. The goal here is for each consulting group to better understand the complexity of the other group’s situation. It is helpful to have one group member serve as a recorder and capture the diagnostic questions.
EXAMPLES OF DIAGNOSTIC QUESTIONS
- How long has this implementation challenge existed?
- How has it been handled so far? Please give examples.
- What would success look like to you?
- What is the biggest barrier to success?
- Does the division leader know this challenge exists? Is he or she open to new ideas and approaches?
- What aspects of implementation are going well, and why do you think these aspects are working?
- After each consulting group has had ten minutes to create their diagnostic questions, take one challenge at a time and have each consulting group ask their diagnostic questions. Limit the number of questions each consulting group asks (to 5 or 6); if there are too many questions, the meeting will drag along and lose energy. You want to avoid this. As participants ask their 5-6 questions and receive new information, there will be a strong tendency to ask a lot of follow-up questions. The facilitator needs to be fairly strict about the number of questions asked. There will be an opportunity to ask one follow-up question in Step 11 below.
- After the questions have all been asked and answered, take a 10-minute break. This will help prevent “information overload,” and it is helpful to step away and create some psychological distance before the consulting groups create solutions. People often jump to solutions too quickly; taking the 10-minute break creates the space to think more deeply.
Note that at this stage in the meeting, participants have already accomplished several things:
- Discussed real implementation challenges
- Selected one challenge to solve
- Created a set of diagnostic questions, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the challenge
- Asked questions to be more fully informed before suggesting solutions
- When the participants return from the break, the facilitator can allow each group the opportunity to ask one follow-up question. This will allow participants to explore a new insight that came up as they considered the responses to their original questions. Limit this follow-up round to one question to keep the meeting moving quickly.
- Next, give each group 15 minutes to come up with ideas for how to solve the other group’s challenge. Their goal is to act as consultants and provide high-quality, creative, practical ideas for their client to consider.
- Now each consulting group takes a turn sharing their advice and ideas about their client’s problem. After the consulting group provides its ideas, the facilitator can open up the floor and ask the larger group if they have any additional advice or insights into that problem. Limit this to a few minutes and then move to the next problem.
- After the final round, the facilitator or senior leader can have the participants discuss their reactions to the implementation clinic. If there have been suggestions that people have found helpful, this needs to be noted. Keep this response step to about 10 minutes.
A Schedule for the Strategic Planning Implementation Clinic
Total: 130-145 minutes
|Steps 1-3||Introduction & divide into small groups||5 minutes|
|Steps 4-5||Each group member discusses a challenge||20-25 minutes|
|Steps 6-7||Each group reports one challenge||10 minutes|
|Step 8||Consulting groups create diagnostic questions||10 minutes|
|Step 9||Consulting groups ask diagnostic questions||20-25 minutes|
|Step 10||Break to reflect on answers||10 minutes|
|Step 11||One follow-up question per group||10 minutes|
|Step 12||Consulting groups create solutions||15 minutes|
|Step 13||Consulting groups share solutions||20-25 minutes|
|Step 14||Response to the exercise||10 minutes|
It is also helpful to invite participants to offer anonymous evaluations of the meeting. Because this is such a different approach to organizational problem solving, it is important to understand how participants experienced it. Publish these anonymous results quickly so that participants can see what others thought about this kind of meeting. Almost always, participants find the meeting value added and want to continue holding this kind of meeting on a regular basis.
Think of how exciting it will be if this approach to solving implementation challenges becomes integrated into the culture throughout your campus!