All month long we've been writing and talking about the theme of renewal. With buds on the trees and change in the air, spring is a natural time to refresh everything from a cluttered garage to your personal mindset.
But the idea of spring renewal extends to organizations, too. By this time of the year, most of our clients are more than a third of the way through the strategic plan they created last fall. Some of our larger clients may have set their strategy back in the summer, meaning the plans they are following are nearly a year old.
Now is a natural time to take a few hours to pull back, take stock, and make some course corrections for the rest of quarter and the second half of the year.
We think of a strategic spring cleaning in six steps:
Here's how to start.
A strategic spring cleaning doesn't have to take four days at an offsite retreat with a dozen people. (Although that's a great way to set your strategy in the first place – we can help with that, and it's called Meridian.) Set aside several hours with your key team members, bring in some good coffee, turn off your cell phone, and go through your key plans. It's nice to get out of the office (if you've returned) in order to minimize distractions, and we think it is more effective to meet in person than virtually.
However, the point is to set aside a couple of hours with the people who matter most to have a bigger picture conversation about your performance to date. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good – if you only have 90 minutes on Zoom, that can work just as well.
The idea of a spring strategy refresh is to pull away from the daily tasks and even the weekly and monthly operational work streams and look at the overall picture. Try not to let the meeting get co-opted into a set of here-and-now issues that need to be triaged. Those are better handled in your regular management meetings.
Instead, set an agenda to pull back from the day-to-day and focus on the overall strategy of the organization. A good strategy will address the key growth questions of your organization:
Now that you've created some space and gotten your clean-up crew together, it's time to grab your brooms!
A great place to start is on your list of key initiatives for the year. While we have sophisticated clients who can successfully move large project plans with many dependencies and outcomes, in most smaller to mid-sized organizations it can be hard to make traction on more than three or four new operational priorities at one time.
The challenge with key new initiatives like "update the website" or "launch a new product" is that they must co-exist with the ongoing business of running a business – things like, "pay the bills" and "serve the clients we have" and "increase sales to our customers." If you are a nonprofit, the set of duties might look something like "manage the annual campaign" and "respond to donor requests" – so where do you put something new like "launch the new brand refresh"?
Large enterprise organizations will create entirely separate project teams to drive new initiatives while the rest of the company continues to work through the existing priorities. But many smaller and mid-market organizations simply don't have the personnel to incubate entirely separate project teams. The same people have to do everything.
As a result, most of the strategic plans we look at are far too optimistic. They end up having too many priorities and not enough people, and some things don't get done. Let us recall the immortal words of none other than Oprah Winfrey: "You can have it all. You just can't have it all at once!"
A strategy spring cleaning is a great time to be honest about what is getting done and what needs to go back on the Big Ideas list. Putting something off doesn't mean you won't ever do it. What it means is, "we aren't doing it right now." The power to see what is and then focus what you are doing is transformative. Even shifting one or two of your big initiatives into the next year might create the space so the other projects can flourish.
Once you have scanned through your list of new initiatives, put aside the ones that aren't getting any traction, and re-emphasized the most important new ideas right now, it's time to look back at how you are prioritizing your time. Is everything getting the attention it needs and deserves?
A great way to do this is to look back on your calendar and see where you actually spent your time versus when you said you were going to spend your time.
At Plenty, I use a color-coding system in Outlook to help me keep track of my appointments. Client meetings and work are in yellow; content creation and marketing are in blue; sales is red; finance is green; team meetings are orange; networking and continuing education is in purple; and so forth. I've used this system for over a decade, and it is a huge time-saver when I scan my calendar to help me prepare for the day and week ahead.
At the beginning of the year, we sat down as a team and decided we wanted to make writing fresh content for Plenty a priority for the year. However, through doing our own strategy refresh last week, I was amazed to see a lot of yellow, orange, and green on my calendar – but not much blue. That simple realization allowed our team to sit down and create a structural boundary in our calendars to emphasize writing by setting aside an hour a day to generate new content.
This is a simple example but a powerful one. In our strategy retreats we often say, "We can tell what is important to you by looking at where you spend your time and money." It's a pretty foolproof way to assess priorities. Did you intend to prioritize client relationships but instead spend the bulk of your sales budget on digital advertising? Did you intend to prioritize a new market analysis but instead spend most of your time on internal project management?
Now is a great time to look at how you intended to spend your resources versus how you actually did spend them, and adjust accordingly.
By the way, to the example I used above, we're big fans of gating off time in the day to ensure that top priorities actually rise to the top. It's not easy to do in every organizational culture, so sit down with your peers and make agreements on when you'll free up time for meetings and when you'll preserve your time for personal work and new initiatives.
You've gotten clear on what's important and how you want to spend your time. Now take a quick scan through your measurements. What's really important? Are you tracking everything you need to be tracking? Are you collecting way more data than is necessary?
Twenty years ago, it was common for us to work with organizations that had very little data, didn't understand what they should measure, and didn't have great tools to collect and analyze what they did want to track.
Wow, have times changed! Nowadays it is common for us to ask for a set of strategic measures and get handed a spreadsheet of dozens if not hundreds of metrics. While there are definitely complex environments that need to track that level of granularity – for example, manufacturing environments that require a high degree of accuracy – at the firm level, most businesses have three or four core strategic metrics, with several key operating indicators contributing to each one.
The problem with tracking everything is that "a lot" easily becomes "too much." We often meet with team members who aren't clear about the organization's most important two or three measures of success. Obviously, misalignment on strategic metrics can lead to very different outcomes. A business that pursues revenue growth might make very different decisions than a business that pursues margin growth through customer satisfaction. A nonprofit that pursues new donor acquisition will make different decisions than a nonprofit that pursues donor retention.
Some of you might be thinking, "But, at our organization those metrics are all important! We have to track them all!" It's true there are organizations that have interconnected metrics that work together – but it is just as often that we find organizations in which "both metrics are important" is a way of saying "we aren't able to choose what is most important."
Based on your initiatives and priorities, what's really most important, right now? What would happen if you focused on the few metrics that most contribute to that?
The last, arguably most important, and definitely most rewarding part of a spring strategy clean-up is to clean off any gunk that has built up between key relationships, internally and externally. Is everything working well with your team and peers? Are there any hidden disagreements or agendas that need to be resolved? How are your relationships with key clients, suppliers, and partners? Now is a great time to reconnect, bridge any gaps, and bury any hatchets.
After all, at the core all organizations are made up of people, and keeping the people relationships functioning at a high level will keep everything else running well, too.
Our belief is that people continue to crave more connection than they are getting in most environments. The last two years have decreased commuting and increased productivity, which sounds great until you are staring at a third year in a row of being asked to log 50-hour workweeks from your bedroom office.
Sometimes the best move for long-term efficiency is short-term inefficiency – creating open space, free time, and yes, in-person meetings to allow team members, clients, suppliers, and partners to reconnect, talk, share, and dream big.
You did it! In a bit of time you streamlined your strategy to help you focus on what matters most. Your team, your clients, your partners, and your future self will thank you as you achieve your key goals and make a big positive difference in the world as a result.
Now it might be time to tackle that garage...
And if we can help, we'd love to. We have several services designed to help you align on what matters most, set the purpose-driven strategy that is right for you, and create the innovations to get you there.
Isn't it time you had a better strategy for creating your strategy? Put your passion at the heart of organizational strategy and witness the alignment, growth and impact you've dreamed of come to life.
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