By: Sue Iannone, President & Partner, Bull City Blue
It’s that time of year when most learning leaders tackle their strategic planning for the learning function. The clients I work with tend to fall into one of two categories: they approach strategic planning with hope and excitement, or they are cautious about tackling what is perceived to be an overwhelming task. In either case, my role is not to build the plan for them but rather to help them navigate the planning process, challenge their status quo, and support them as they make difficult tradeoff decisions. Then, I cheer for them when they crystallize the plan. While it is a mentally taxing facilitation session for me and them, it is one of the most rewarding!
As I reflect on the recent planning sessions working with clients, I wanted to share seven tips to consider as you embark on your strategic planning:
- Involve Your Team: If your department is large enough to have directors and managers, include them. Also include anyone on your team who has specific knowledge or responsibility that is important to have in the discussions. Anyone invited to a working session needs to bring their A-game-- tell them that. I’d shy away from inviting your whole team unless it is small (five people or less). The extended team should be involved but probably not at the beginning; while you don’t want to make decisions in a bubble, too many voices can make it difficult to create a good plan. If you want a scan of the current state and what the team envisions for the future, send out a short survey to everyone and collate the results – it's a great way to start the live planning session.
- Anchor to the Business Objectives: Whether it’s the entire organization or a single business unit you serve, find out the business objectives and strategic initiatives, then align to them. Put them on a slide and refer to them as you go through the planning process to ensure that your plan not only supports the business but enables the business to achieve the results it has declared.
- Ruthlessly Prioritize: This is a tough one and it is the time when I challenge clients the most. Once priorities and tactics are identified, a prioritization activity should occur to determine which ones will be included in the plan. This is tough, because we tend to think that everything is important. It may very well be. However, there’s a limit to our time, resources, and budget. In many cases, learning teams are ‘building the plane while flying it’. Ideally, your prioritization yields a mix of quick wins, near-term, and long-term tactics. Reach out to me if you’d like a copy of our Prioritization Activity to use with your team; just be prepared to moderate with tough love!
- Consider Learning Team Capabilities and Gaps to Address: As you identify priorities and tactics, think about the current capabilities of you and your team. Does your team have what it will take to implement the plan? If not, team capabilities must be part of your strategic plan. For example, imagine that you desire better alignment to the business objectives, yet the training team has been acting as reactive “order takers” at your organization. To address this gap in communicating with business partners to understand needs, the team will need up-skilling in a capability: in this case, performance consulting.
- Cut the Training Jargon: Ever see a business leader’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about personalized learner journeys, blended learning, or gamification? While near and dear to us, you’ll want to minimize using terms like these, as the strategic plan should be understandable to anyone in the organization who reads it.
- Market Your Plan: Now that you’ve avoided the training jargon, prepare a focused and visually appealing “walk-around deck” so you can communicate your plan with your team, key stakeholders, and even your learners. Take the time to proof the deck and consider graphic support needs. Then, set up time to talk with everyone about it. Make sure you think about any questions or objections that may arise and give thoughtful answers.
- Create a Workable Plan: Sounds like common sense, right? I’ve seen learning organizations stumble here. They create a plan that is too complicated to execute, overfilled with tactics, or lacking in clear timelines. Make sure to list out each tactic with a description, resources needed, a specific start and end date, and the people responsible for implementation. A note about timelines: try to be more specific than “complete in Q4”. It’s important to project the timing of your plan in detail, so you can overlay its different tactics and see where there may be too many things happening at once. Remember, you are probably building that plane while you are flying it.
- Consider the Culture: Is your organization an enterprising new startup? A large global biotech? Is the organization risk adverse or welcoming of new innovations? Imagine the looks on the faces of the business as they hear about your plan. The culture can serve as your guideposts for creating a realistic plan that everyone can rally around.
The learning function is often thought of as the opposite of strategic, and in fact, many elements of what we do are tactical. A solid strategic plan can help you and your learning team incorporate strategy into your work and better serve as strategic business partners. Now it’s time to tackle that plan; I’m cheering for you!