By Maureen Leif, J.D., President and Founder of Grays Peak Strategies
The idea of agile strategic planning came from the most unexpected place, as most great ideas do, in a conference session with child support directors from all across the nation talking about strategic planning. One of the participants, who was being brave and honest, said, “Why do we even do a strategic plan?” Suddenly there was a chorus of voices saying, “yes…why do we?” The general consensus was that these traditional plans, while well intentioned, tend to be built at the executive level and rolled down to the front-line workers to implement. Almost as soon as the plan is agreed upon and published, something changes, and the reality of what you are doing starts to depart from the plan and moves further from the consciousness of your organization. The plan winds up on a shelf, or on many shelves, until it’s time to write a new one and hasn’t offered anything in terms of guidance; there has been no interaction with the plan, and an opportunity has been missed.
Strategic planning dates back to ancient Greek civilization. The term “strategy” is derived from the Greek word “strategos” which means “General” or army leader. Strategic plans were a matter of life and death; they were a way to have a plan when no information could be communicated on the battlefield. Today, however, we are inundated with real-time data on performance and goals. It does not make sense that we should decide today where we should be in 5 years when the data will be updated tomorrow. This is where Agile comes in.
The concept of Agile has taken a strong hold in the world of system implementation projects. Agile has been a successful concept for system implementation because components are rolled out as they are developed and the project is adaptable to a changing business environment. In the field of human services and child support services delivery, we are faced with a constant changing environment. It is therefore impossible to lay out a plan for the next 5 years when the real-time data that is available to us makes our goals a moving target. Agile allows an organization to review, analyze, react, and change to help move the mission of the agency forward.
One of the premises of Agile is gathering feedback and buy-in from all levels of the organization. Three questions that have been effective in gathering feedback across the organization are: “Does this goal excite and inspire you? Why do you do what you do? What do you believe should be the priority for the organization?” These interviews and surveys have yielded results that have inspired the executive teams charged with writing these plans. Maybe the executive teams’ job these days is less about managing the work and more about managing the passion and inspiration.
One of the cornerstones of this approach is to include regular scheduled Plan Updates, Plan Feedback, and Report on Status. This can be accomplished by developing a report card that lists all of the stated objectives and allows some easy description of the status of each. For each objective, a simple report that would provide the plan objective, the goal date, the current status, and the next milestone date. This report card should be updated at least monthly so that the organization can track progress on each goal.
In order for this approach to work, there also has to be a method to allow for interactive feedback on the plan. One approach is to create a Strategic Planning Website. The main purpose is to allow quick access to the status of objectives, and to provide a means for feedback that is private and easy to access. Alternatively, interactive feedback may be facilitated by including updates on regular staff meeting agendas, or providing written updates to everyone. Whatever the method, it’s critical to establish not only a mechanism, but also a culture that encourages participation and values feedback and suggestions to improve the plan.
Using a combination of the Agile approach and interactive feedback, the leaders of an organization can create strategic plans that are meaningful and provide guidance to meet the agency’s goals and objectives. The plans can adjust with the changing environment while keeping the focus on the longer-term goals in place. This approach to strategic planning has been applied in Michigan and in Los Angeles County. While in both cases, the plans are at the very early stages of roll out, leadership is already seeing a higher level of interaction and buy-in from the participants than these organizations experienced in the past. Over the next couple of years as this approach to strategic planning is tested further, our process will also mature and improve —making the Agile approach “agile” itself. We have been back to that conference, and sat in the same room with the child support directors from across the nation, just hoping that question would be asked again because we think we have a better answer this time.
Maureen Leif, J.D., President and Founder of Grays Peak Strategies. Maureen has worked within the human services and court arenas on strategic planning, policy development, and training for over 18 years.