The El Dorado County Office of Education (EDCOE) reached out to The Grove early this year to assist it in some long-overdue strategic and prioritizing conversations. A plan was in place to conduct a two-day strategic-visioning offsite when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, effectively stymieing the notion of an in-person process. The leaders at EDCOE chose to push forward and move the process online, and Laurie Durnell, principal consultant, along with Kayla Kirsch, Grove associate, led the organization through an impactful virtual process.
Following is an interview with Laurie about the experience of doing this work online: its challenges and successes.
Q: Did EDCOE come to you with specific outcomes for the session?
A: During a scoping call the county superintendent admitted that the need for strategic planning had been a priority for two years. There was never a good time, and despite COVID-19 implications for an office of education, the time really was now to think ahead for the next five years. Significant changes legislatively around local control of budgets, along with looming budget cuts, increased the importance of having these alignment conversations sooner rather than later.
In the pre-work we asked them what the key strategic questions were that they needed to answer through this process, and almost every single group replied, “What is at our core?” or, “What is the organization-wide direction?” “How do we develop a unified vision with diverse responsibilities?”
Q: What was the biggest challenge in taking the process from what has traditionally been an in-person session into online?
A: The client’s biggest challenge was who to invite. The superintendent’s cabinet of six wasn’t inclusive enough, but the next layer of leadership was 40 people, all of whom would have been able to participate in a face-to-face meeting. They wanted a high-engagement design, with real dialogue, so we agreed that about 16 people was the limit for an online meeting of this nature.
The next challenge was recognizing that everything takes longer online. The agenda was spread over four half-day sessions with a weekend in between. Although the total hours were similar to an in-person session, each agenda block in the online process ended up cramming a 90-minute face-to-face process into 45 minutes in order to get through the set of conversations that is part of a classic strategic-visioning engagement. Figuring out which parts of the process to do as pre-work, which parts to do in-session, and what to do as offline work between sessions, was an important part of the planning.
Another hurdle was that the initial session proposal was for one facilitator, and we made the case that a second facilitator was critical to success. We have learned that you need to have two roles. One facilitator tracks the people and the content. The other person manages the technology, doing the breakout groups, graphically recording, moving people from a Google Slide to a Mural board, making sure participants have the links…all of that stuff. You can trade off those roles, but they are two really distinct jobs. We also asked the client to have someone on their end as the tech anchor who could be the go-to person if a participant was really struggling with connectivity or other tech issues. She proved to be invaluable.
Q: What were some of the advantages or unique opportunities that meeting online presents versus doing it in person?
A: During a design-group planning session at the end of the first two days, the client wondered aloud how to get to a level of honesty and transparency in this online setting. We proposed a virtual fish-bowl activity. In the next meeting the core leadership team had a conversation—while everyone else listened—about how important it was to talk about what’s not working. The leadership team modeled bringing the elephant right in the room.
Then, while we were having this dialog with the leadership team, a few participants spontaneously began reflecting on what they were hearing using the chat function in Zoom. More people began writing. We were able, in a moment, to hear input from everyone in the “room” about what it is he or she—too—might want to change. Participants read each other’s posts and responded to each other. That’s something I think the online environment made easier. Face to face you could have done something similar with a sticky-note process, but it actually would have taken longer and people would have felt—I think—more vulnerable. People really appreciated it, saying things like, “This is a watershed moment for us.”
Q: What was the biggest surprise after doing this online?
A: In an in-person strategic-visioning process, all of the work would be displayed in the room on the walls…you would be able to see the path of conversations throughout the session. To create a similar experience, at the beginning of days two and three of the virtual process, we were able to review the previous work easily by walking the group through the various Google slides and Mural whiteboards. This kept people oriented and up to date and was super efficient, time-wise.
“The Strategic Visioning process exceeded our expectations! Although we had initial concern about using a virtual platform, we were pleased with the meaningful engagement, depth of reflection, and bold steps achieved through the process. A sincere thank you to The Grove for facilitating an exceptional process in this most critical time.”
Ed Manansala, Ed.D.
County Superintendent of Schools
El Dorado County Office of Education
The Grove’s high-engagement Strategic Visioning™ visual-planning system brings the power of visual thinking to strategy development during times of change.
A Strategic Visioning process yields clear plans that directly support action. Working together online with visual displays of their work, participants see where they are in alignment and where they still need to reach agreement. At the conclusion of the session, every person leaves with a shared vision of what the organization aims to achieve and how its key strategies will unfold. Visual representations of the organization’s current situation, vision, and action plans aid ongoing organization-wide inspiration and implementation of strategic direction.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss strategic visioning or other ways we can virtually facilitate forward movement for your organization.