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  • Guest post: Prioritizing strategic planning in times of turbulence

  • Guest post: Prioritizing strategic planning in times of turbulence

    Guest post: Prioritizing strategic planning in times of turbulence

    By Michelle Mongeon Allen, AIA
    JLG Architects

    In March 2020, we turned our collective focus to Right Now. From teleworking to toilet paper, our problems were immediate, our situation ever-changing. Today, while our day-to-day issues may have stabilized, we are still wrestling with an unresolved pandemic, a swift, deep, and unpredictable economic downturn, and growing social and civil unrest. And so, in a time of so much turbulence, is strategic planning for our companies even a priority?

    I am the CEO of JLG Architects, a 31-year, 150-person firm, with twelve regional offices. When JLG became 100% employee-owned in 2014, we doubled-down on our commitment to building a legacy organization, and in 2017 I was named the company’s first next-gen, non-founder chief executive. For the 20-plus years I’ve been with the company, I have stood firmly by the (unattributed) adage “hope is not a strategy” – we plan for our success.  

    At JLG, strategic planning has provided our organization a vision and course for our future; but perhaps more importantly, it has been a vehicle for engagement and alignment across our employee-owned company.

    Since completing our first strategic plan in 2008, we committed to making it an active and integral part of our culture, revisiting the plan every three years. When the world turned sideways in March – on the eve of kicking-off our scheduled strategic update process – we, too, paused and asked ourselves, “In light of everything that’s going on, is this really the right time?”

    In reflecting on the role that strategic planning has played in the evolution of our company, we readily answered “yes,” and recognized that in times of turbulence, it’s more important than ever that we rally around our vision of legacy and plan for our long-term growth and sustainability.

    President Eisenhower recounted a lesson he learned from the Army: “In preparing for battle,” he said, “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” By definition, planning is the process of making plans, and especially in times of crisis when circumstances can render the best laid plans ineffectual, planning develops the organizational alignment needed to keep everyone rowing in the same direction, agility to pivot and to capitalize on opportunity, confidence to move swiftly and decisively, and resilience to abate and overcome obstacles.

    • Alignment. Strategic planning is an opportunity to rally the troops. By broadly enrolling stakeholders from across JLG in the process, we have built strong alignment with our purpose, values, and vision, which has kept us unified and persistent in confronting the challenges of growth and threats in the external environment.
    • Agility. Strategic planning creates a more flexible and responsive organization. As boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” By painting a vivid picture of where we are headed as an organization, we have become better equipped to pivot when obstacles emerge, or to call an audible when presented with an opportunity, while continuing to deliver high performance results for the ESOP.
    • Confidence. Strategic planning saves time and money. An engaging, transparent, and productive process builds trust, which in turn instills confidence that near-term decisions are being made in alignment with long-term sustainability. In “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey writes, “Trust always affects two measurable outcomes: speed and cost.” He explains that when trust goes up – yielding confidence in a relationship, on a team, in a company, in an industry, with a customer – speed increases with it. And because time is money, costs go down.
    • Resilience. Strategic planning builds perspective. Our commitment to revisiting the plan on a recurring basis (this 2020 update will be JLG’s fifth strategic planning exercise since 2008) has given our employee-owners a powerful vantage point: bearing witness to our company’s resilience in confronting challenging and often unforeseen conditions, and also to the generative power of achieving our goals.
    When confronting the turbulent conditions facing all of us today, strategic planning can seem, at best, like a distraction. But at a time when so much seems so out of our control, strategic planning offers a compelling return on investment - alignment, agility, confidence, and resilience are the very things we need to ride out the storm, shore up our foundations, and ensure that we are in peak condition when the sun finally comes back out.

    As I write this, we are midway through our own process, and we’ve been relishing this opportunity to re-claim our future; it’s been a much-needed shot of cultural adrenaline. And so, I leave you with two pieces of advice:
    1. Make strategic planning a part of your company culture.
    2. Don’t wait.
    For those of you who are in need of an update, I encourage you to fight the urge to put this on the back burner; and for those of you considering it for the first time and worried that it’s too late, I remind you of this Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now.”

    About the author
    Michelle Mongeon Allen is the CEO of JLG Architects - one of MSN Money’s 50 Most Admired Companies in the US, Inc. Magazine’s 50 Best Places to Work in America, and the 2019 ENR Mountain States Design Firm of the Year. Michelle helped guide JLG’s growth from a closely-held partnership to a 100% employee-owned organization over the course of her tenure. Michelle is a design-driven CEO, and though she dedicates significant time to JLG’s strategic initiatives and firm culture, has contributed to several AIA award-winning projects.
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