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The Advantages Of Online Strategic Planning
By Carol Hamilton | December 8, 2021

Most people think of strategic planning as a marathon 8- or 10-hour or 2-day retreat. You process lots of information, discuss, debate and brainstorm. You have lunch brought in so you can work without a break. You fill flip chart after flip chart with ideas.

Then, around mid-afternoon, when it’s time to start making important decisions, you’ve hit cognitive load. You’re mentally and physically spent.

There Is A Better Way

​What if you took those grueling 8 or 10 or 12 hours and divided them into manageable 2- or 3-hour sessions, each of which has a contained set of goals and builds on the one before? What if you had time to reflect, think and process between sessions?

By holding shorter sessions via video conference over a period of time, we have found that organizations actually make progress more quickly and end up with better results. Doing one piece of the process at a time and giving participants a break between sessions can make your strategic planning more thoughtful, integrative and aligning. All of this is done virtually combining video conferencing with a collaborative tool to capture notes and ideas along the way.

There are many benefits to pacing strategic planning sessions and working virtually. Some of these include:

  • Working with more clear and defined goals for each session groups go further faster.
  • During the time between large group sessions, participants can fully flesh out their ideas on their own or with a few others, so each person’s perspectives will be part of the finished plan.
  • Pacing also allows the strategic planning committee or other leadership groups to do refinement between the large group planning sessions.
  • Groups reach alignment more easily and quickly because they’ve had the time and space to sift out the chaff and home in on what’s really important.
  • It also is often easier for volunteers to fit into their busy schedules.
  • AND so important to budget challenged nonprofit organizations – it saves all the cost of paying for everyone to travel to be together.

But What About Zoom Fatigue?

It seems like we are spending our lives on Zoom and other video conferencing systems these days. So the prospect of doing your whole strategic planning process online as well might fill you with dread. What differentiates a meeting you dread and one that gets you excited about the work you do? Think of all the bad meetings you have attended – whether in person or online what made those meetings boring and frustrating? Typically they are meetings with:

  • Have no clear purpose, goal and agenda
  • Without a clear purpose, a seemingly random group of people is brought together
  • No one has taken any time to prepare for the meeting, including the person who is leading it
  • The meeting is either way too short for the agenda assembled on the spot or way too long
  • Conversations meander in unconnected directions
  • No one knows what they are supposed to do after the meeting is over

A well facilitated online strategic planning process has the opportunity to be the opposite of what is on the list above.

  • Clear goals for each meeting,
  • One session building on the next,
  • Each session is appropriately scoped to have enough time for in depth discussions,
  • Notes are created in real time,
  • You leave with clear next steps and follow through.

But to have this success and translate the process online effectively, you will need to do a few things.

Plan Ahead & Educate Yourself

You will need to plan what tools you are using. You will need to make sure everyone is able to access the documents you will be referring to during the meeting, the files or system you will be using to capture notes and brainstorms, etc. Also be sure to plan for a lower tech plan B. You need to familiarize with the systems you are using to run the meeting. Take some time to play with the system before you pull the group together. Consider testing some features with a colleague and see what you can “break.”

Match Your Tech Tools With Your Participants

You may be excited about trying out the online brainstorming tool you just heard about but make sure that what you choose matches the skills of your participants. You want people focused on their strategic conversation not struggling to make the tool work. So for some groups Zoom and a google doc, and the occasional Jamboard, will be a perfect match. For others, Zoom (or another video conferencing tool) plus an online brainstorming tool like Miro or Mural will work great.

Educate Your Participants

You can try and avoid spending the first 10 minutes of the meeting getting everyone acquainted with the technology systems by creating a video or two that provides a quick overview. Loom is good for this and very easy to use. You might also give the group a small assignment that gets them into the tool you will use for note taking. Something as simple as asking them to open a google doc and write their name at the top of the document. Or, if you are using a more sophisticated tool such as Mural – have them do a check in process. This kick starts your check in at the beginning of the meeting and gives them the chance to play with the tool before the meeting without the same time pressure.

Distraction, Distraction, Distraction

It is hard enough to keep everyone on track when you are together in a room. Then add technology and distance. Your phone and email chirping in the background. Getting on Zoom and wondering whether your co-workers have pants on. Your kids or pets making a ruckus in the next room. Online meetings have to fight for people’s attention even more than in person.

Ask For Their Focus

When you meet online, everything else on the person’s computer or device is there to distract them. A simple step you can take at the beginning of each session is to ask them to close their extra tabs, email, notifications, etc. for the duration of the meeting. Remember to take breaks. Take a moment for everyone to get out of their chair and stretch.

Building Rapport Online

Over the past year and a half, there has been a lot written about the disadvantages of online meetings. Clearly you are missing out on a lot of body language and other non-verbal cues. If folks do not know how to turn off the self-view, it can be wearing and anxiety producing to stare at yourself for hours. Building rapport with people online is one of the things people often mention as a challenge in online meetings. Yet with some intention it is possible.

Connection Before Content

A good practice (whether in person or online) is to be sure to take a little bit of time at the beginning of the meeting to connect on a personal level before you jump into the meeting agenda. This could include a check in question such as an ice-breaker. Some people cringe when you mention icebreaker. Yet the question does not have to be “what Harry Potter character are you?” or “or [fill in the blank with a question you’ve been asked at beginning of a meeting that had nothing to do with the issues at hand]. It can be work-related.

With groups who do not know each other, making the question relatively safe is often a good place to start. What is the latest app you discovered and love? What is your superpower? What are you hoping we achieve today? If the group is large and you are afraid intros and icebreakers will take up a chunk of the meeting time, split people into smaller groups (2-4) and have them introduce themselves in their small group.

Creating Norms

If the group is going to be working together for a while, help them have a conversation about how they want to work together. What helps them work effectively in a group? What might get in the way working together online and remotely? How might they address those challenges? It may take a few rounds of brainstorming and refinement to come to a set of agreements that work for everyone. Yet having this list of agreements will help if the group runs into challenges.

Pause

Online it takes a little bit longer for people to jump into the conversation. They may hesitate wondering whether someone else is going to talk and not wanting to interrupt anyone. Rapport and trust will be lost if a person in the group does not feel like their voice is being heard. They may feel you are rushing through items without sufficient time for discussion.

A good practice as a meeting leader is to pose a question or discussion topic and then take a drink of water. Taking that drink will prevent you from continuing to talk and gives your meeting participants time to gather their thoughts and respond.

Pulse Checks

Do you really know whether everyone is with you and in agreement? During an online meeting it is even more important to check in more frequently with the group to make sure they understand:

  • What part of the agenda you are
  • what issue is being discussed
  • what document you are referring to…
  • whether they agree with the proposed next steps.

Don’t assume silence means agreement.

Once The Process Is Complete

A plan is just a plan – even when the document has strategic plan in the title. It’s not set in stone. It isn’t a tablet from on high. It’s a document that your group created itself and can tweak and adjust as you move forward.

The process of strategic planning itself brings clarity and alignment by creating an opportunity to talk and explore issues together. The less intensive pace of doing the process online brings greater opportunity for buy in, input and integration.

About Grace Social Sector & More Information

Carol Hamilton has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit and association sectors working with organizations with a range of missions. Carol trains frequently on leadership, strategy, organizational culture and design as well as innovation topics and is the host of the Mission: Impact podcast. She graduated from Swarthmore College and has her Masters in Organization Development from American University.

A strategic thinker, through her work with Grace Social Sector Consulting, Carol works with teams and organizations to envision and frame their future strategic direction. Practical in her approach, she helps organizations think through who is key to creating their future, how to gather insights from these stakeholders, consider the big picture, imagine new possibilities, come to agreement on their future goals and create an initial action plan to get started. She takes a human centered and appreciative approach in her work. She is also part of a consultant collective focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, All In Consulting.

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Carol Hamilton, Principal, Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC is an organization effectiveness consultant who helps nonprofits become more strategic and innovative for greater mission impact. She facilitates strategic planning, (online and in person), helps organization’s prepare for executive transitions and provides training.