• Stephen Usery

The Collective Wisdom of Staff: A Key Strategic Planning Asset

During our career, we’ve worked in organizations with tens of thousands of employees and as few as 20 employees. As we moved from larger to smaller organizations, we expected to find fewer information silos and more open, collaborative information sharing. But we found that no matter the size of the organization, people were so busy focusing on their own immediate goals and challenges that communication inevitably suffered. As a result, a key asset of the organization – the collective wisdom of staff – is rarely fully utilized.

We were reminded of this recently while leading a employee retreat for an organization with a very small core staff. The organization juggles numerous programs and initiatives and our goal for the day was to glean the wisdom of the staff in order to prioritize these activities as input for strategic planning. We divided the staff into four groups, purposefully constructed so that people working on the same programs were distributed among the groups. We then assigned each group one quarter of the organization’s activities, which they scored using eight criteria. Once the working groups had completed their tasks, we reconvened everyone to review, discuss and potentially modify the scores. During this session, the breakout groups were encouraged to “quiz the expert” if they had been assigned an activity they were not familiar with.

As we had anticipated, the discussion among staff both in the breakout groups and all together was extremely valuable in assessing the various programs and initiatives. What we hadn’t fully anticipated was the extent to which staff members were unaware of or ill-informed about activities outside their own areas. And, happily, the extent to which staff were surprised and enlightened by knowledge their colleagues shared which directly impacted their work. Newer employees provided fresh perspectives on the work. Long tenured employees provided institutional knowledge and context. In one case, an employee had been working across several months to craft a new program and had begun questioning its value. When it was described to the group, another employee said, “Wait, that’s just like a program we had several years ago which we discontinued for the following reasons . . . .” Months of frustration ended in an instant and organizational resources were freed for more productive efforts.

The outcomes from this one-day session paid immediate dividends for the organization and are now being used as input for the organization’s next five-year strategic plan. What made it work so well? Here are a few observations:

  • The CEO committed an entire day of staff time to allow everyone to participate and, importantly, step back from their daily routine. The fact that all employees, regardless of role, were invited to contribute was a key success factor.

  • The staff were encouraged to engage in open dialog. Ground rules for the day included:

Ask questions, admit you don’t know, wonder out loud

Set aside attachments

Hold contradictions in your mind

Feel free to respectfully disagree

Challenge past assumptions and practices.

  • A structured framework was used to capture staff input, summarize it, and present it back for immediate feedback and further reflection. This framework resulted in immediately actionable recommendations on several programs and a number of key strategic questions for the organization to tackle as part of the next planning cycle.

  • The entire exercise reinforced for staff the CEO’s respect for their expertise and the critical role they would play in crafting the future strategy for the organization.

Clearly, there was huge value “hidden” in this organization, all waiting to be revealed by probing the staff’s collective experience and expertise. We’ll discuss the framework used for this exercise in a future blog post. Meanwhile, if you would like to learn more, feel free to contact us at any time.

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