“Our executives have started their annual strategic planning sessions. This involves sitting in a room with inadequate data until an illusion of knowledge is attained. Then we’ll reorganize because that’s all we know how to do.”
—Dilbert’s boss explains strategic planning
Why should science organizations do strategic planning? Conventional businesses often struggle with it, and their products and services are much easier to understand and predict than the compounds in development in a lab. Science organizations understandably overlook strategic planning because their focus on their science absorbs the lion’s share of their interest. “Of course we have a strategic plan,” a biotech start-up CEO told me. “It’s ‘get the experiment to succeed.’”
Yet it’s important for science organizations to do strategic planning because it addresses the most crucial organizational issues that enable—or obstruct—science. Effective strategic planning involves three kinds of work scientists do well—analysis, innovation and thoughtful action. Analysis assesses the key data that describes the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, often with the shorthand SWOT. Innovation comes into play in clarifying the organization’s Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals. Thoughtful action closes the gaps between the SWOT and Vision with several initiatives that address problems and/or explore opportunities.
Strategic planning can help science not only in organization-wide issues but also in a wide range of applications. For project managers, team leaders, and department supervisors, strategic planning provides a handy tool to increase individual focus on group goals and improve the complex communications essential for translating individual efforts into organizational results.
Analysis, Vision, Initiatives: Strategic Planning Specifics
Apple executive Alan Kay notes, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” At its best, strategic planning links the three tasks to create a process of continuous improvement, evolution, and organizational learning.
Analysis answers the question, “How are we doing?” Done ineffectively, it involves limited or irrelevant data or worse, no data at all. The concept of “the balanced scorecard” helps leaders remember that effective Analysis includes data on a balanced scope of organizational issues. In science organizations, this usually includes not only progress on the development of concepts but also employee turnover, cash flow, and communications in and across all levels of the organizations.
Vision addresses the question, “What do we want?” with several kinds of responses: a Vision describing a bold accomplishment the organization would like to achieve in 3–5 years, a Mission describing what the organization really does, Values clarifying the principles the organization intends to follow and Goals specifying quantifiable business measures it aims to accomplish in a 6–12 month time period. Reaching consensus on these questions may take some time, but it pays off significantly by increasing alignment between employees’ individual efforts and the organization’s focus.
Initiatives map actions the organization plans to take within a 3–12 month time period to close the gaps between Analysis and Vision. Typical science project team initiatives include tuning up communications processes and hand-offs among project team members, clarifying each member’s project roles and responsibilities, and drawing a project organization chart that clarifies team members’ working relationships.
Increasing Science Strategic Planning Success
Five principles increase science organizations’ success with strategic planning:
- Do strategic planning both organization-wide and for projects, teams, and departments. Senior executives’ plan for the whole organization provides valuable focus and direction for all employees, explores conceptual possibilities that might be neglected and draws attention to organizational housekeeping that supports better science. Project, team, and department leaders’ planning with their constituencies brings focus to the organizational issues that impact the groups.
- Directly involve people who will carry out the plan and key stakeholders as well. Including a wider range of people in planning makes it more possible for them to “own” action goals and initiatives the planning group formulates. Involving them increases their engagement with the group and taps into the grassroots insights they bring.
- Do all three parts of strategic planning—Analysis, Vision, and Initiatives. It’s the connection and interplay between analysis, vision, and initiatives that makes strategic planning most effective. When strategic planning is ineffective, it’s often because the organization has worked with only one or two of these tasks.
- Give specific people clear deliverables for carrying out the Initiatives. Effective strategic planning doesn’t end with plans for the organization; it clearly identifies who is responsible for carrying out the initiatives and describes the initiatives’ deliverables and schedules.
- Follow up. Getting the most from strategic planning involves making it a living document, following up on action items quickly and updating the plan regularly.