Strategic planning starts with preparation and proper environment

We all know the importance of strategic planning.  You have heard this quote or one similar many times:

"If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there."  -- Lewis Carroll

[See also: Preparing for acquisition requires goal-setting]

Setting the stage
We all want to arrive at the right place but getting there requires setting the stage properly first.  And that means managing expectations, providing materials for review in advance, selecting the appropriate setting and organizing the process.  If you prepare well, the outcome will take care of itself.  So let’s look at these items in more detail.

The attendees should be well aware of the process to be used during the session.  They should be reminded it’s a strategic session, not an operational session.  You don’t want to spend your valuable time determining how a patient should be registered at the front desk.  It’s all about the big picture.  You will be developing a plan that will outline your group’s direction and provide rationale for allocation of resources.  So the meeting is obviously very important and must be emphasized in all of your communications.  Identify who will attend:

  • Practice leaders
  • Service line leaders
  • Practice members
  • Hospital leaders
  • Community members
  • Industry experts

Selecting a facilitator
Who will lead/facilitate the session?  It is difficult, if not impossible, to effectively lead the session and participate in the discussion.  Facilitating the session takes concentration and skill.  Consider an external person to facilitate the discussion.  It can be a consultant, a respected community leader or a health system expert in strategic planning.  It will require a significant commitment, so choose carefully.

[See also: Practices must surmount daily financial and regulatory challenges]

Information is king
Planning without background information is futile.  Objective information is the foundation of an effective strategic planning session.  Without it, anecdote will rule.  Subjective comment is fine, but not in the absence of objective information.  Collect and distribute information in advance; two weeks gives attendees enough time to read and ask for clarification.  Here are some examples:

  • Performance benchmarking and trending reports
  • Market share and referral trends
  • Financial statements
  • Satisfaction surveys (patient, referring physician, employee, physician)
  • Quality, safety and liability reports
  • Salient issues from governing body minutes
  • Regulatory and market trends
  • Interview results (more on that later)

A productive environment
An often overlooked but very important aspect is the setting.  The session will be more productive if you have an environment that is conducive to discussion  – a quiet room, preferably a block “U” shape where all can see the screen and each other, a flip chart or two, walls that will allow the flip chart papers to be taped to them, refreshments, etc. 

Try to pick an off-site facility – not a practice or hospital conference room.  Hotels or other venues are preferable; select a location where you don’t have to worry about the details.  Organize a date and time that enables attendees to devote their entire attention to the process.  Physicians should be relieved of call.  Emergencies will inevitably happen, but work to minimize the risk.  Breaks should be scheduled so calls can be returned, emails and texts answered, etc. 

How long should the process take?  The better the preparation, the better the facilitation, the shorter the session.  I don’t think a session should last more than six hours at a setting.  Groups frequently spend four hours on a Friday evening, get a restful night’s sleep and then spend another four to six hours on a Saturday to complete the process.

Managing decorum
Let’s talk about facilitating the session.  We are all guilty of misbehaving in meetings – interrupting, pontificating, discounting another’s ideas, etc.  An effective meeting is one in which decorum is managed – let attendees know in advance.  Consider the following:

  • Use Robert’s Rules of Order or an alternative.
  • Set time limits for each agenda item and designate a timekeeper.
  • Limit interruptions.
  • Don't allow sidebar conversations.
  • Stay out of the weeds; remember, this is a strategic session.
  • Limit piling on – once an idea is forwarded, others don’t need to mention it again.

Since you will want to hear from people not in attendance, develop a list of questions that you will ask them in advance of the meeting.  Ask their views and document their ideas so they can be incorporated in the discussion. 

And because it’s not uncommon for attendees to be reserved and hold back their comments, consider interviewing each of the attendees in advance to get their opinions.  You might want to consider de-identifying the results.  That is one area in which an external facilitator can come in handy.

When the session is over, survey the attendees on the entire process to find out what went well and what should be improved.  You can use the results as you plan your next strategic planning session.

Remember, this is a process and the following quote says it all:

“Every process is perfectly designed to achieve the results it yields.”  –  Unknown Author

Good luck with your session.

Patrick White has been in the healthcare management field for over 30 years, 17 of which were in medical-group practice management. He received a master of public health degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and spent 13 years with the Henry Ford Health System, including five years as the administrator for the Department of Internal Medicine. He also served as the executive director of Michigan Heart, a 36-member cardiology practice in Ann Arbor, for 12 years. Pat was also very active in the Cardiology Leadership Alliance and served as its president in 2001.