When a Narrower Strategic Plan Makes Sense

Strategic plans mean thinking about the future. But if COVID-19 has clouded the crystal ball, a two-year strategic plan focused on the near term might be the best option, one association found.

Preet Bassi, CAE, CEO of the Center for Public Safety Excellence, faced a couple of challenges late last year as the association’s strategic planning retreat approached. First was the strategic plan itself—CPSE’s current five-year plan was expiring, and it needed to determine the priorities for the next one. Then there was the question of how best to do high-level strategic work remotely due to the pandemic, in a way that would be effective.

The solution CPSE arrived at was a somewhat risky one: It decided that it would develop a two-year strategic plan instead of a five-year one. Risky, because strategic plans are meant to be future-focused, and two years is a narrow stretch of time.

But Bassi says the decision was wiser than the other option under discussion—to just punt on strategic planning at all for a year. And a two-year plan was an opportunity for the association, which represents fire and emergency services professionals, to better address the more immediate strategic issues that COVID-19 presented.

Is it strategic or operational? It’s very much a generative thing.

“We thought if we put things in place for the next two years, by January 1, 2023, things are fully back to normal and we’ve already done a lot of work on some important topics,” Bassi says. “One of the topics was digital strategy. We were able to virtualize and hybridize in-person experiences successfully. But some of the things that we did that weren’t great, people would forgive during COVID times but they wouldn’t forgive later.”

The two-year approach also made sense because some strategic priorities, such as international growth, were simply too unsettled to sensibly address in a five-year plan. And because many of the organizations CPSE represents were in budgetary holding patterns, the association had to be careful about how forward-looking it could be as well.

For instance, one strategic goal is to increase fire departments’ engagement in CPSE’s accreditation program, but pandemic-era budget restrictions have presented a challenge for many departments. “Because of COVID,  departments may not be jumping to do something that they had planned to do,” she says. “So if we get some multi-step pieces in place, we might be able to get them to take a step, even if it’s not everything. Is that strategic, or is that operational? It’s very much a generative thing.”

Compared to the discussion about the scope of the strategic plan, the nuts-and-bolts business of conducting a strategic planning meeting online was relatively uncomplicated, partly because Bassi made it clear she would abide little complaining about the digital format. “I don’t tend to listen to a lot of concerns or complaints about technology,” she says. “Just get over it.”

That said, she was mindful that technology can be wearying during a high-level board discussion, and she built in ways to make the conversations smoother. What before was a multi-day retreat became a tight six-hour Zoom session, with Google Sheets replacing whiteboard conversations. Bassi emphasized the importance of preparation before the meeting and found that recording a video introduction to the materials was effective in getting participants up to speed.

“I recorded myself giving an overview of what was in their email packet—here are the attachments, this is the order I recommend you read them in, here’s what you’re going to find,” she says. “It’s just six minutes of your time, watch this and you’ll know everything you need to know about preparing for the meeting.”

Bassi intends to keep that concision and focus in place once CPSE revisits its plan next year.

“The old thinking was, we’ll be together for two days and we’ll package everything then,” she says. “No. We’ll do the regular business of the board in a one- or two-hour Zoom session, so that our time together in person is much more of a team-building discussion.”

(scyther5/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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