News & Analysis

Six Tips for Rapid Strategic Planning in Uncertain Times

Portrait of Dawn Carter

Dawn Carter

8 members of a rowing team in bright red jerseys guide their vessel across a blue lake

With the world having fundamentally changed over the last 90 days, many healthcare organizations may need an overhaul of their current strategy — but who has time for strategic planning in the midst of a pandemic? All too often traditional strategic planning involves belabored processes over an extended period of time that ultimately leads to little, if any, strategic movement for the organization.  

Don’t get me wrong—we are strategists and planners by nature and by calling; we believe wholeheartedly in the need for vigorous strategic planning, but the process also must be effective in order to produce an effective result. Gleaned from decades of strategic planning and our rapid strategy approach, we offer six tips for creating and executing effective strategy in these challenging times.

Focus on the story behind the data points

All too often strategic planning gets bogged down in data…and data…and more data.  Data analysis is a critical component of strategy development, but usually no more than a dozen or so charts really tell the story of how an organization is positioned. Focus on that story. Avoid data drag and the loss of momentum. Have a series of meaningful conversations about what the data is telling you. Use data as a reference point to inform the qualitative elements of strategy development but move out of the minutiae and into meaning.

Look forward, not backward

True strategy is not about maintaining the status quo; it is all about changing the organization’s position. Even pre-pandemic the healthcare industry was far too dynamic to assume business as usual. COVID-19 has turned the page — perhaps even replaced the book — on healthcare delivery. Enforce a limit on how much time you will spend examining the past or re-hashing old issues. Avoid linear projections of future performance based on historical data. Consider the ever-changing world in and around the organization: What evolving channels will you use for care delivery? How has coronavirus changed patient demand, permanently? How do you recover financially in the midst of a national economic crisis?

Engage in scenario planning to avoid indecision

We encounter organizations racked with indecision because they are waiting for a crystal clear picture of the future. Scenario planning is an effective tool to provide a level of confidence in choosing a particular path in an uncertain environment. Limit the exercise to the handful of factors that provoke the most concern and variability. Chart the best and worst case scenarios for those factors. Assign probabilities to the scenarios. Use guardrails to create strategy that withstands the most likely scenarios. Establish trigger points and monitor for changes that would dictate a shift in strategy.

Identify tension points

We find that ongoing tension often keeps an organization from executing strategy. Executives have opposing views, and the organization swings from one view to the other, never making a decision, never accomplishing its objectives. What should our competitive posture be in this developing market? How should we respond to payer demands to assume more risk? What investments do we make with limited resources? Dedicate short, intense sessions — we call them Rapid Strategy Sessions — to resolve each area of tension and provide clear direction for moving forward. Rapid Strategy Sessions are usually 1-2 hours each of facilitated exercises and content, using techniques that are matched to the issue at hand and designed to conclude with consensus and resolution. Dissolve the tension and move forward.

Focus your strategy

Whether in normal times or in the midst of a pandemic, we have a strong bias that organizations should have only three — at the very most five — strategic initiatives underway at any point in time. Strategy does not equal an organization’s to-do list. There are many things an organization must undertake every day to maintain operations, serve its customers and sustain financial strength and stability. Those should be the primary responsibility of strong operational managers, not executive leadership.

Inherent in most successful organizations are leaders who have a disciplined focus on those three or four initiatives that are expected to have the greatest impact on the organization’s strategic position. Force the prioritization of no more than three initiatives. Celebrate what you are able to accomplish with intense executive focus on the right strategy.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Unfortunately, organizations often consider their strategic plan complete once the initiatives are prioritized and the action steps are assigned. How then do we expect to achieve strategic success in an organization that depends upon thousands of employees, providers, and other constituents if they don’t know the direction the organization is going? Especially in these unprecedented and uncertain times communicating your strategy is as important as creating it.

As our colleagues, the communications experts at Jarrard, counsel: “To be successful, your team must see your vision, understand the ‘why’ and be motivated to participate in the journey.” Condense your strategy into a compelling story. Translate your objectives into digestible metrics. Create a visual one-pager of your plan. Engage your employees in taking ownership of the plan. Communicate progress on the plan clearly and often. Celebrate milestones.

A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing their own way.

(Swahili Proverb)

Interested in knowing how a Rapid Strategy Session could benefit your organization?