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November 1, 2012

Shared planning: letting staff determine your direction

Having no fixed idea on the future direction of Alzheimer’s Australia NSW (now Dementia Australia), the CEO engaged the staff, the board and other stakeholders to develop a strategy that reflected their combined views.

When The Hon. John Watkins arrived at Alzheimer’s Australia NSW (AlzNSW) in October 2008, there was no clear strategy in place to tackle the dramatic growth in dementia expected to hit over the next five years.

A $10 million non-profit with 100 staff, AlzNSW has been providing services for people with dementia and their families and carers for over 30 years. With strong roots in the community, it provides advocacy, support services, and education across NSW through its North Ryde head office and nine regional centres or hubs.

The organisation’s activities had gradually built-up over time – directed variously by available funding, what the national organisation was doing and by the local board.

Watkins’ first priority though was to get the right team on board. Much of his first years were spent on exactly that as well as improving the internal workings of the organisation. Increasingly though, his discussions with the Board concerned the organisation’s future directions.

The ageing and shifting of the population had resulted not only in more people with dementia but new geographical areas with high rates of dementia. Also one of AlzNSW’s main funding sources, the Federal Government’s National Dementia Support Program was due to be restructured in July 2013 and depending on the outcome could impact heavily on AlzNSW’s funding.

So by late 2011, Watkins and the Board were ready to create a strategic plan to identify what role the organisation would focus on into the future.

Starting strategy with no hypothesis

In SVA Consulting’s experience, most non-profit CEOs when planning have a clear direction for the organisation that they guide the process around. They develop an initial view of where the organisation should head, and this is then tested against the facts and through feedback from stakeholders. Consultation with staff is a necessary extra step in the process to gain alignment with the new direction.

AlzNSW was somewhat different.

With three years as the NSW Deputy Premier and 13 years as a NSW Member of Parliament, Watkins had learnt that leading with his own views and expecting people to simply follow was not conducive to real change. “In my role as CEO, I saw that my job was to find out what the board and staff wanted and to give life to those views,” said Watkins. “I’ve learnt that the most effective way to get good change is to engage with people. If you want people to go with you, you’ve got to encourage, explain, and inform rather than direct.”

In my role as CEO, I saw that my job was to find out what the board and staff wanted and to give life to those views…

Watkins also wanted the process to reflect the organisation’s values by being collaborative, open and more democratic.

With all of this in mind, he approached the planning process with no directive on the organisation’s path. Instead he came to it with an open slate and allowed the facts and the insights of his staff and other stakeholders to guide the outcome. One of the advantages of this approach was that it created high levels of staff buy-in and commitment to the plan.

Choosing the right process

The consultant from SVA Consulting, Prashan Paramanathan, began working alongside Watkins at the end of 2011 to develop a process that reflected this approach. The method that they developed had three steps:

  1. Develop a common base of facts so that everyone was on the same page
  2. Elicit insights from stakeholders using their expertise to analyse the facts, and
  3. Let the senior management team develop the strategic goals based on these insights.

At each step, staff would be involved, but how they were involved was critical to ensure that consultation led to engagement and ownership rather than a vague direction for the organisation – a common result of trying to incorporate too many opinions.

At each step, staff would be involved, but how they were involved was critical to ensure that consultation led to engagement and ownership rather than a vague direction for the organisation – a common result of trying to incorporate too many opinions.

“This level of consultation can run the risk of creating a mass of information, without many conclusions,” explained Paramanathan. “And can lead to compromise and vagueness in the goals.”

“However in this case, we planned a process to involve people in targeted, discreet ways and the management team were clear that they were the ones making the decisions about the organisation’s goals.”

One of the key forums for staff and external engagement was a steering committee which included middle management from Sydney, regional staff, members of the Board as well as external clients and experts – and was involved at two points along the process to provide reflections and input but not to make decisions.

Developing the fact base

Starting from a common base of information about the organisation and the environment that it was operating in was important to ensure that everyone had the same understanding of what was happening and also to help everyone see the best opportunities.

“We produced the fact pack to provide a shared fact base that everyone referred to and operated off,” said Paramanathan. “These weren’t opinions about what the organisation should do, but what it was doing and what was happening around it.”

In the face of potentially an almost infinite amount of data, the pack needed to focus on the ‘important’ facts both for the internal and external operating environments.

To understand the internal situation Paramanathan, with the support of various staff in the organisation, gathered information on clients, activities, outputs and outcomes, and financial information (see Figure 1).

ClientsWho are the main beneficiaries of our service? How many of them are there? Where are they geographically located?
ActivitiesWhat activities do we do? Where are they located relative to the need? How many of the beneficiaries do we reach?
Outputs/outcomeWhat have we achieved for the beneficiaries? Do we have any good evidence for this? What do we want to achieve? Do we have a sound logic between our activities and outcomes?
FinancialsHow much do our various activities cost to run? How are we funded?

Figure 1: The internal topics for fact gathering and the questions to be answered

The organisation also needed to understand what was happening externally. For this, Paramanathan and the Alzheimers Australia NSW team gathered information on the market and funding (see Figure 2).

MarketWho are the other providers of similar services? Where are they located? On which segment have they focused?
FundingHow are our funding sources likely to change over the next three years?

Figure 2. The external topics for fact gathering and the questions to be answered

Figure 3. Growth in dementia cases by State Electoral Division


Paramanathan worked on site at the North Ryde head office a couple of days a week allowing him to immerse himself in the organisation, and making communication easier. He spent much of the first weeks testing parts of the fact pack with staff who had the relevant expertise.

The resulting 45 page fact pack was distributed within the organisation, so that everyone had a shared understanding of how the organisation worked and the environment it was operating in.

“The pack built legitimacy of the process,” said Watkins. “It gave us confidence and certainly impressed the board. It was clear that SVA understood us.”

Drawing out everyone’s insights

To take full advantage of the knowledge and experience of staff, board and clients, the process needed to provide the right framework and ask the right questions to gather the insights. Having a shared, consistent fact base made those insights – the ‘so-whats’ for the organisation – more consistent and coherent.

To help draw out the insights, a framework based on gaps, overlaps and opportunities was used (see Figure 4). (There are other frameworks depending on the application.)

GapsWhere do you see the gaps in the activities that are currently delivered by all organisations in the sector?
OverlapsAre there things that others would be better placed to do in the future?
OpportunitiesWhere should Alzheimers Australia NSW be focusing its efforts in the next three years?

Figure 4: The framework for drawing out the insights

For Alzheimers Australia NSW it made sense to ask these opportunities in three areas: the geographical location of services, beneficiary group, and stages in the dementia journey.

Paramanathan gathered the insights directly from the Board, the management team and staff (via an online survey) as well as through the variety of stakeholders on the steering committee.

There were several common themes that emerged but three of the most important were that:

  • Geographically, there was a significant service gap in the Tweed, Illawarra and Western Sydney.
  • There was a need to support people with dementia and their carers in the critical moment after they receive their diagnosis.
  • The organisation had a particular strength in raising awareness of dementia, promoting brain health and reducing stigma in the general community.

These themes guided the next stage – the development of the goals and supporting activities.

For example, based on the realisation of its particular strength being weighted in the earlier stages of the dementia journey, one of the final goals focuses on this area.

Management team develops the goals and supporting activities

Critical to the process was giving ownership of the strategy to the staff, particularly the management team.

To achieve this, the management team was charged with creating the strategic plan. The seven general managers worked together to articulate what they wanted the organisation to achieve in the next three years – and what it needed to do to get there. And in doing so, they wrestled with the various priorities, insights and needs to choose the organisation’s goals.

For Anneliese Coghlan, General Manager Human Resources and Volunteering, being part of developing strategy in this way contrasted with her previous experience at the medical non-profit where the Board developed the plan. While she – as senior staff – had had some input, it was limited and she’d felt excluded from the process.

At Alzheimers Australia NSW, Coghlan really appreciated the opportunity to be part of the development process and to do it as a team with the other general managers. “Having us all together in one room doing the thinking made it a team-building exercise. I learnt how my colleagues think, how our work overlaps, their philosophies and their approach to problem-solving”.

Figure 5. The dementia journey


“We don’t work together like that at any other time. We have a weekly meeting where we inform each other, request activities and give feedback, but we don’t create together.“

Not only did they develop the plan, the process provided a foundation for relationship-building as well as knowledge building about how the different areas functioned, and how each other worked. And for a relatively new management team – Coghlan and the General Manager Research and Policy had both joined in the latter part of 2011 and all the other members of the team had been recruited since Watkins arrived – this was especially fruitful.

After the Board had commented on the interim goals, the management team sent them to all the staff seeking specific feedback about the challenges of implementing them. Again, the question to elicit feedback was very directed.

Clearly stating that they were interim goals, they asked, ”What challenges would your team be faced with in implementing these goals?” If the goals were impossible for staff to implement, it was important for the senior management team to know! This question had two results: it gave all the staff a heads up on where the plan was going. Secondly it identified some of the obstacles that needed addressing to achieve the plan.

This question had two results: it gave all the staff a heads up on where the plan was going. Secondly it identified some of the obstacles that needed addressing to achieve the plan.

This part of the strategy development process raised an issue that Watkins hadn’t foreseen – the need to develop the organisation’s business systems.

“I wasn’t focused internally on IT and business management support. When it first came up, I was a bit dismissive. I thought we could just make do with the systems we had. I didn’t realise the limitations on our management capacity that those systems imposed.

“However, I learnt through the process that system limitation will stop you doing what you want.”

As a result, a goal “to strengthen the organisation by investing further in our people and systems” became part of the strategic plan with money set aside to achieve it.

Once the organisation-wide feedback had been incorporated, the management team finalised the plan and it was presented to the board and quickly approved – given the board’s familiarity with the plan as it developed, there were no surprises.

Watkins emphasised that the process only worked because of the support and involvement of the Board – both as a group and the individual directors. “They were interested throughout and engaged fully in the various stages of the process,” said Watkins. “They made time to discuss the fact pack and the reports from SVA Consulting. Without their support and direction it would not have worked as well as it did.”

The pro’s of the process

For Watkins, the process didn’t come up with any surprises either, “It articulated – pretty closely – what I’d expected.”

However the insight around the need to build stronger business processes which came to light through staff feedback will play an important part in ensuring AlzNSW will be able to achieve the plan.

Coghlan is already reaping the fruits of that insight in her business area. Just recently, she’d signed a contract with a new payroll provider, one which can provide the kind of reports and data access that AlzNSW needs as well as the capacity to add relevant modules such as time sheet capability – something that makes a difference with many casuals and a geographically dispersed work force.

From Coghlan’s point of view, the steering committee was a significant part of the process.

“With regional representation, and core business level experts it had the right mix.”

Coghlan also saw that the service delivery managers who participated in the steering committee were empowered. One of these managers was quite recently able to respond to challenges from her team about the plan and how their work fitted with it in a way that she could only have done having participated in the process. “She was able to defend the plan,” said Coghlan.

Watkins believed that the process had kept staff well informed. “They had their say. I felt they had as much involvement as they wanted and it was done in an honest and legitimate way.”

“Some of the goals, such as the need to increase exposure and effort in Western Sydney are just accepted by the staff. It isn’t questioned. And we’ve begun delivering services there already.”

“On reflection,” Paramanathan said, “the process, particularly early on, was a little daunting. We had a lot of facts, opinions and insights without any clear hypothesis on where the organisation should go.”

We had a lot of facts, opinions and insights without any clear hypothesis on where the organisation should go.

“But we stuck to the process and, on the other side of it, the benefits of planning without a starting hypothesis are pretty clear. The organisation has a focused direction and a team of people aligned behind it – the two outcomes you dream about for any planning process.”

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