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10 tips for efficient virtual strategic planning  

Women facing a computer showing a video conference
Written by
Nithya Ramachandran

Nithya Ramachandran

Written by
Monica McMahen

Monica McMahen

Most organizations spent the first few months of the pandemic scrambling through day-to-day uncertainty. But now we know that change will be inevitable for the next 18 months or more, and your strategic planning must face that reality head on. Businesses now need to think beyond band aid solutions towards new ways of generating results in order to survive and ultimately thrive.

So often organizations use last year’s plan as the starting point and structure for this year’s strategy. That won’t work anymore. The reality of the “new normal” is that there is no going back to how it was before COVID-19.

Instead, you first need to start with reassessing the fundamentals and DNA of your business—who are you and what do you believe in? Take a hard look at those fundamentals with how the world has changed—how has COVID-19 impacted how you operate and engage? What lessons have been learned in diversity, equity and inclusion as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do the fundamental beliefs hold up? Hopefully they do, but if they don’t, then you have found your starting point. Once you have a strong foundation, re-establish your objectives. These objectives will likely look different from past objectives—that’s good, as it’s a reflection of our changed world.

With your foundation and new objectives in mind, it’s time for strategic planning. It’s clear that the 2-day off-site strategic planning sessions that’s been pushed since March aren’t going to happen anymore. Instead, you need to start crafting virtual strategic planning sessions. Our team at NATIONAL has been working with various organizations to facilitate these sessions, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. Here is some advice we have for any organization trying to do strategic planning virtually.

1. Determine the agenda

Prepare a fulsome agenda organized by topic areas or phases of the meeting, with clear objectives.

2. Figure out timing

Keep the session short or break it up into multiple days. The full-day offsite doesn’t work as well online, from home. Consider multiple 90-minute sessions in a week. This also gives people time to consider the ideas as they engage with their daily work, often resulting in stronger outcomes.

3. Choose a facilitator carefully

Find someone who can bring patience and energy to the process, time breaks well, and ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak. Where possible, bring in an external facilitator who is impartial to the process and trained in maximizing outcomes.

4. Be efficient with participants

Minimize the number of participants in the meeting—6 or less is ideal. Areas of the business should be equally represented, and anyone with veto power should be in the room.

5. Give homework

Offer participants advanced reading and questions to digest before the session. Employees are more open to this as they work from home, and when done well it can ensure everyone is starting from the same set of facts.

6. Set the ground rules

If it’s your first virtual planning session, treat it as a blank slate. Set expectations at the beginning and work hard to engage everyone on the new platform. Some examples of ground rules include:

  • Be present; we know there are distractions, but be as present as you can and we will use your time effectively. Consider putting your computer into “Do not disturb” mode and putting your cell phone out of reach.

  • Be active; use the chat feature, raise your hand, share you screen if you have something to show, and speak up.

  • We might call on you; we can’t see body language, so we might call on you to make sure we aren’t missing an input that you have, and if you don’t have anything to add—it’s OK to say that!

  • Take breaks; our agenda includes some short break times. Use them to move around or check any email/chats that you need to.

7. Acknowledge difficulties

Be upfront about the fact that this isn’t ideal, but keep it positive. Look for small things that are actually better when you meet online, and share in the small positive.

8. Be flexible

Your facilitator, much like a teacher in front of a classroom, might want to jump in and explore a question or topic. Allow the space for that to happen, and encourage people to jot down off-topic ideas to bring up after. Trust your facilitator has the tools and agility to keep the agenda moving yet diverge when the topic warrants.

9. Get feedback

We will be in this “new normal” for a while; find out what people liked and did not like for future virtual meetings

10. Technology choices and planning are critical

There are many technology options available to support you. While this is not an exhaustive list, we have found the following platforms useful:

  • Google Slides: A tool that many organizations already use. It’s great for collaborating on a brainstorm in real time, similar to giving everyone a whiteboard pen to write ideas with.

  • MindNode or Miro: A skilled facilitator will be able to drive the conversation and visually track it in a mindmapping or whiteboarding tool allowing for good conversation while simultaneously building initial documentation.

  • Surveys: Using any survey tool can be helpful before, during or between sessions. They can be particularly insightful when you gather responses from the entire company and present it to the strategic planning committee, or when you want to see where attitudes lie on a binary question.

  • Engagement in online sessions can be a challenge, and can be a good way to brainstorm, get questions, poll the group or do a real-time word-cloud poll.

Most importantly, revisit your strategy often. While you should be planning for long-term success, you will need to revisit the strategy quarterly so you can quickly adapt to this ever-changing world. The “set it and forget it” annual strategy is a thing of the past, and a new era of constant adjustments is upon us.

**NATIONAL acts as a partner in driving your strategic process—helping you craft bold action plans grounded in simplicity and usefulness. Click here to learn more. **

——— Monica McMahen is a former Manager at NATIONAL Public Relations

——— Nithya Ramachandran is a former Vice-President, Strategy and Integration at NATIONAL Public Relations