How Virtual Collaboration Accelerated Strategic Planning at the International Leadership Association
When our Board used GEO’s technology-enabled planning methodology, we achieved more than anyone thought possible.
 ~ Shelly Wilsey, COO, International Leadership Association

One of the benefits of my role as COO of the International Leadership Association (ILA) is the opportunity to learn from some amazingly talented people. Leland Russell is one such person.

When we started our search for someone to facilitate our annual strategic planning, two of our board members, Mark Gerzon and Kathryn Johnson, highly recommended Leland, who is the founder of GEO Group Strategic Services LLC.

Kathryn emphasized that Leland’s unique, technology-enabled planning approach “energizes engagement, rapidly builds consensus and saves time.” That prospect was intriguing, to say the least. We subsequently engaged Leland to help us design our agenda and facilitate our retreat.

At our first design meeting, four weeks before the retreat, Leland proposed that we engage everyone virtually using the GEO Collaboration System™. Rather than sending a series of emails, we would use the System to drive three iterations of thinking before we met face-to-face.

My immediate reaction was: “We have just four weeks! It’s impossible to schedule twenty-eight people for weekly online input and three online sessions that quickly!”

I’m happy to say I was wrong.

We not only scheduled the online sessions, but we achieved an 80% response rate to three online surveys in three weeks. Equally important, our most technophobic board members easily utilized the System because it was simple to access and navigate. While not everyone was able to join every online session, the virtual pre-work was a resounding success.

How Our Virtual Online Planning Preparation Worked

After Leland reviewed our prior strategic planning documents — SWOT surveys, an eight-year overview of our strategic planning milestones, our first and second five-year strategic plans, and the Strategic Initiative work plan, he advised us to step back and consider The Big Picture.
We did this by responding to online surveys and participating in virtually facilitated online meetings using the GEO Collaboration System™.

In our initial online survey, we answered three provocative questions:

  •  What is missing today in leadership that, if provided, would enable breakthrough impacts?
  •  What would make ILA truly unique in the realm of leadership and help drive our goal of strategic growth?
  •  What could be a breakthrough strategy that would engage and energize today’s members and attract many more members?

The board responded to these questions using intuitive online tools in the GEO Collaboration System™. Within a 48-hour window, each member picked the time the most convenient for them and entered their responses. The actual input required only 15-20 minutes of our time.

After the online input was completed, Leland quickly synthesized our responses and prepared a Theme Analysis for us to review during our first teleconference later that week.

For example, in our responses to question “What would make ILA truly unique in the realm of leadership and help drive our goal of strategic growth?” There were three themes:

  • Strategic Collaboration
  • Knowledge Portal / Aggregator
  • Cultural Leadership Expertise

Leland emailed the report to the board prior to the first online session, so we had time to review it before we came together online. The Theme Analysis Report included ALL of our responses under each theme. We could see the verbatim comments that supported each theme and who made them.

How Our 60-Minute Online Sessions Worked

We dialed into a conference call line and logged into the GEO Collaboration System™ using a link that took us directly to an Interactive Agenda with intuitive collaboration tools.

At the beginning of the online session, Leland did a five-minute review of the key themes that emerged for question #1. He also pointed out a few of the verbatim comments that had rich detail worth noting.

During the next 10 minutes, we discussed the key themes. Then, we took about 5 minutes to add comments about the current ideas and add new ones.

The key benefit here was that everyone could to communicate their views, all at the same time. It was very powerful. We repeated this process for questions #2 and #3. During our 60-minute virtual session, we generated seven pages of ideas and questions to consider.

The following week, our next online survey and follow-up online session focused on the status of the Key Strategic Issues defined in our prior plan.

For each Strategic Issue, during our online session we answered two questions using the tools:

  • On a scale of 1-to-10, how effectively have we addressed this Strategic Issue over the past two years?
  • What actions could the board or others take to increase our effectiveness in addressing this issue?

Here’s a key benefit we found in using the GEO’s System: after each person entered their 1-to-10 rating, everyone saw all answers, an average rating score, the standard deviation, and the total number of votes in real time!

During the pre-meeting preparation, we also assessed our progress-to-date with our prior Strategic Initiatives. We used GEO’s After Action Review process, which asks five key questions.

As a result of our collective pre-work over a three-week period, we came into the face-to-face planning retreat prepared, aligned and energized.

Face-to-Face Planning

Twenty-seven people participated in our face-to-face planning retreat in Los Angeles. This included the two Member Interest Group chairs, the two members working extensively outside of the USA, three staff members, and Leland, who facilitated the retreat.

To set the tone, we began with After Action Review reports for each Strategic Initiative:

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What did we learn?
  • Where do we go from here?
Online In The Room

Everyone brought their laptops to the face-to-face meeting and logged into the GEO Collaboration System™. Periodically, we used the tools to augment our face-to-face discussions.

While the in-room collaboration capability was like the same as in our virtual meetings, we took it one step further. We had four table teams working together, each drilling down into one Strategic Initiative.

Throughout the day, a constant stream of ideas and questions emerged from the four table teams and were entered into templates in the GEO System for later online access. Leland referred to this as “capturing the group mind in real time.”

If you’ve ever been frustrated by a meeting dominated by just a few voices and had difficulty reaching consensus, you’ll appreciate what we accomplished in our one day together.

Points of agreement and issues for discussion among the four Strategic Initiative teams were readily apparent. We moved quickly toward consensus. In fact, it was amazing how often the table teams unknowingly built on one another’s ideas.

Our most important outcome of the day was the creation of some smart strategies to increase participation and membership in the ILA. This included sharply focused plans to implement new technology, expand our infrastructure, and develop new strategic partnerships.

It’s worth noting that at the end of the meeting there were zero sheets of flip chart paper for some poor soul to transcribe. Instead, we exported everything we had generated over the three-week period from the GEO Collaboration System™ into Excel. This ensured that we had all our collective thinking and our deliverables available as moved from strategic thinking and planning into execution.

This was our first experience with technology-enabled planning. The results were impressive. We achieved more in a very short time than anyone thought possible.

~ Shelley Wilsey
Chief Operating Officer
 International Leadership Association

LELAND RUSSELL is the Founder of GEO Group Strategic Services.

Leland is the co-author of the highly acclaimed strategy book, Winning in FastTime™ and the author of an ongoing series of GEO Knowledge Bytes™ about Adaptive Leadership.

As a hands-on Senior Leadership Advisor, Leland has helped hundreds of leaders in a wide range of organizations meet their toughest challenges.

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