When your growth and development plans collect more dust than wins, how do you change the game? Getting people excited about initiatives becomes an uphill battle when they have heard the same story a million times before with no results. This is exactly the issue that was facing the faculty of health at Dalhousie. Brenda Merritt, Dean of the Faculty of Health, and Suzie Officer, Executive Director of Planning and Strategy for the Faculty of Health share their experiences in implementing a strategic plan and successfully executing a planning retreat that was completely different from the stagnant norm.
Huge, disorganized growth plans
As the second-largest faculty at Dalhousie, one can imagine how many competing needs and priorities lie within the Faculty of Health office. Suzie inherited an unrealistically ambitious plan containing over 300 initiatives. There was not much work ever getting done to push those initiatives, however.
The enormous plan spent more time forgotten on a shelf than it ever did making changes in the operational sphere. With that many objectives, goals became impossible to even understand, much less track. In fact, it became absolute guesswork to determine whether the progress made was even positive or negative. As expected, the massive conglomeration of a growth plan caused exponentially more frustration than progress.
“We lost the richness of what we thought we were doing,” Suzie says. “We spread ourselves far too thin.”
It became evident that adopting a strategic plan could help keep top priorities as the main focus in the day-to-day sphere. By cutting down on confusion and keeping goals concise and clear, the plan would keep Dalhousie’s Faculty of Health progressing toward a better future for every stakeholder — internal and external.
Shifting the perspective
With the Dean’s support, their strategic planning began in 2017. The Dean recognized the value of having someone oversee the entire project instead of divvying the tasks up between several staff members. Suzie took the job, and it has been an ever-evolving position since.
Suzie was originally focused primarily on strategy. The role is extremely responsive to the events occurring around it. During the pandemic, the majority of Suzie’s time was spent planning more so than strategizing. With a return to the new normal, she is pleased to see strategy at the forefront once more.
It is readily evident that strategic planning is not exclusively dedicated to planning for traditional education. Amongst countless other realms, it involves research, infrastructure, operations, human resources, and student outcomes. Inclusion and health equity can be felt throughout the entire process. At the end of the day, the entire focus was working together, and dedicated participation in the process by all involved parties was the only way to turn the process into a success story.
The goal of the process was to simplify the plan. Instead of including every great idea that was hatched in every brilliant mind, there would be a much smaller, more manageable scope.
One of the first challenges they encountered appeared in breaking the traditional mold. “This is a different way of thinking. This is an operating system that is so nimble and flexible. It is not a nice book that sits on a shelf without creating progress,” Brenda says.
The need for a facilitator
When a group of people develops a plan to essentially guide themselves, the outside direction is a game-changer. To their benefit, they were in the hands of an amazing, results-focused facilitator.
The facilitator provided an unmeasurable amount of value to the planning retreat. From setting expectations early, every party at the retreat felt the sense that the plan was their own, not being created by someone distant and out-of-touch with their capabilities and needs.
This allowed many members of the retreat to feel that they could tie their own personal and professional development goals to the plan. By having this atmosphere, many of the small group breakout sessions during the retreat lead to the same cohesive results, with many members often using the same words as others that were in separate breakout rooms.
“There were common themes that were coming out of all of those groups, you would have thought we were all sitting in the same room together,” Brenda says. “It very quickly resonated with what the priorities would be.”
Additionally, during their planning sessions, their facilitator would not allow the small groups to end discussions until a plan was made. With each minute detail that was delegated to these groups, the facilitator required a barometer to measure the progress of the initiative through time. This made for tiring, yet exciting conversations and outcomes.
“With the barometers in place, we actually can measure our success,” Brenda says. “People are seeing the value and how we’re moving the needle on some of these things.”
With concrete barometers, it is hard to become stagnant. In contrast to the old plan, where things initiatives felt like a never-ending journey, results are readily present today.
Fewer words do more
Instead of a smorgasbord of literature describing far-fetched initiatives, their goal was to make their strategic plan fit on a single piece of paper. This meant that there would be no room for lengthy wordsmithing.
“Our last plan was really, really long on words and very, very short on detail,” Suzie says. “This plan is the complete opposite. It’s really short on words, but they are words we understand.”
Involving all key players in planning
How can you decide who is involved in the planning retreat? The first session for Brenda and Suzie was an entire day-long road-mapping exercise dedicated to deciding the ladder of involvement.
Pinpointing those who have both involvement and decision-making power is crucial. Having too few members on the planning team means that not all of the great ideas on the table will be reflected. Having too many means that members become disgruntled, as not all ideas will make the final plan.
In a costly, time-heavy situation such as a planning retreat, it is absolutely critical to ensure not only that the right people are present, but the right number of people are attending as well.
One of the strong aspects of the retreat was that government and health authority members were present.
“The sessions were freeing for us and for them because we’re all trying to get to the same place. This is an opportunity for us to understand what our issues are in each of our organizations,” Suzie says.
“Across the globe, health is at the center of a lot of conversations right now. Our health systems are tired. They need a bigger workforce, and we were able to share in some of those challenges,” Brenda says.
Tracking ambiguous initiatives with definitive barometers
When faced with ambiguous initiatives, such as being the best place to work, planning was hard. Not because being the best for your employees is hard, but because measuring such an abstract idea is hard.
After a tiring session, it was determined that the barometer for this session would be finding the best way to support faculty and staff in taking 100% of their vacation time.
By adding work-life balance to their initiatives and forming a concrete plan with measurable variables, many team members considered this initiative to be the most motivational aspect of the retreat. Encouraging happy, involved employees increase their ability to develop new ideas, too.
Biggest challenges and successes
With a lack of wordsmithing and a laser focus on results, one of the most challenging parts of the retreat was that not everyone was 100% happy with the word choices that made the final plan. “We were not looking for longwinded statements that ended up meaning nothing,” Brenda says. “We were searching for the overall theme and content to form priorities.”
At times, Brenda and Suzie suffered from doubt. Yet, they were able to rely on each other and their facilitator to steer them in the right direction and reassure them that the course of action they were taking would be a massive success.
With smaller, incremental, and manageable goals, there quickly became a sense of buy-in. In place of long-term, never progressing initiatives, teams burn out quickly. With constant, small wins, teams become excited — because the progress is right in front of them.
Ready to learn more about transformation and how you, as a leader, can best enable your organization to move forward toward success? Tune into this episode of The Strategy Gap to learn more about operationalizing your strategy to work for your business and your people.
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