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Small Wins Strategic Planning: Connecting mission to action, one step at a time

Friday, May 12, 2017   (0 Comments)
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Nathan Brown, Director of Research and Evaluation, TrueBearing Consulting


Nathan will be presenting on this topic at the Spring Primary Care Conference in Spokane


Psst.. I’m going to let you in on a secret: Despite dozens of bestselling books extolling the power of strategic planning, there are actually some organizational leaders who have mixed feelings about the process. In a candid moment they’ll admit that they tend to view strategic planning in much the same way that most of us feel about lacing up our Nikes and going for a long run—we’re told that it’s good for us, but sometimes it can be tedious, boring and even painful. And besides, does it really make a lasting difference?


A recent survey of executive directors of mid- to large-nonprofits in the U.S. indicated that 75 percent of their organizations engaged in some form of regular strategic planning. Their assessment of the results was mixed; in fact six months after creation of their most recent plan only one third indicated that their organization were actually using it in any substantive way.


By the way, those numbers may be a bit better in CHCs. After all, at least three of the 19 Federal program requirements for FQHCs center on a strategic planning activity (can you name those three?), so it is part of the culture in most CHCs. And yet I often meet EDs and Board members who wonder why the exciting strategic planning session they had last September has dwindled to a distant memory in May.


Why is there such a disparity in strategic planning efforts? Those one-in-three nonprofits reporting that they were able to connect their strategic plan to ongoing practices offer compelling clues. They describe their strategic plan as “key to our success,” “the roadmap that guides tough decisions,” and “our best tool for rational and consistent board decisions.” Clearly these groups have added some kind of secret sauce to their strategic planning recipe.


What’s in that secret sauce? How does an organization move from conceptualization to successful implementation of a strategic plan?


That is a critical question, one that goes to the heart of how an organization approaches change. Let me suggest three ingredients that can energize your strategic planning process:


A big vision demands small steps. As the accompanying diagram illustrates, 100 years of research in psychophysiology has discovered something called the arousal curve (see diagram). This curve illustrates that the human nervous system is designed to respond to change and stress in distinctive ways: give us too little change or stimulation, and boredom sets in. Give us too much and adrenaline takes over and we move into the fight or flight response.

And it’s hard to do strategic planning when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. When either bored or anxious, human performance plummets: concentration and attention drop, as does our ability to think creatively and to assess risk. And when bored or anxious people interact in groups, collective performance drops even further and faster.

Here’s the good news: there is a sweet spot on the arousal curve that primes each of us to respond with optimal performance, marked by increased creativity, improved problem-solving capacity and greater openness to collaboration. In this sweet spot, human beings maximize their ability to perform, especially in complex decision making processes such as strategic planning.

Let’s drill down a bit on this insight: Have you and your CHC gone through a strategic planning process that identified very ambitious goals, only to stumble during implementation as more immediate issues took priority? Consider the possibility that the strategic vision represented a dose of change for the organization that was not aligned with small steps—clearly stated actions towards those large goals that could be reasonably achieved and built upon.

Give your stakeholders a real voice. And a genuine stake. It turns out that a powerful antidote to both boredom and anxiety—those toxic anchors of the arousal curve-- is a psychological state psychologists call efficacy. Simply put, efficacy is an individual’s belief that he or she can act in concrete ways that will make a positive difference. Low-efficacy individuals believe there is nothing they can do to affect circumstances and either withdraw into ennui or become anxious. On the other hand, high-efficacy individuals have a clear perception of what behaviors they can engage in that will move the ball forward on matters they value. They don’t have to “do it all”—if they believe doing their small part meaningfully contributes to a collective outcome, they will tend to perform well.

If you wonder why the participation of staff or community stakeholders in your strategic planning process appears to be perfunctory or disengaged, consider this: are you offering opportunities for each participant to become invested in an achievable and meaningful role?

Nurture an evidence-based culture of decision making that learns from experience.  Developing clear criteria for success in the context of your mission—and measuring for that success-- are key strategies to keep participants in the sweet spot of the arousal curve. An evidence-based decisionmaking culture fosters curiosity about what works, and can encourage meaningful engagement.

Take a look at your most recent strategic plan and ask: Does this strategic plan identify clear measureable targets? How will we know when we’ve hit those targets? Do we have the information we need to learn from failure as well as success?

To learn more about how to Small Wins Strategic Planning can work for your CHC, join me in Spokane!



NWRPCA welcomes and regularly publishes white papers and articles submitted by members, partners and associates with subject matter expertise. The appearance of any guest publication in our Health Center News database represents the views of the author and does not constitute endorsement by NWRPCA of the stated opinions or perspectives, nor does it suggest endorsement of the contributor's products or services.

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