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An antidote for torturous strategic planning sessions?

Wisconsin’s QBP movement gains boardroom traction, advocates

"Recovering MBA" Derrick Van Mell developed Question-Based Planning to "launch people to a new orbit of performance."

Want to suck all the energy and enthusiasm out of a staff meeting? Announce plans to redo the annual or five-year strategic plan, or to create/update the company’s “mission, vision, strategy, objectives, and tactics.”

Military jargon moved from war rooms to boardrooms in the 1950s, when World War II veterans rose up company ladders to leadership roles, but hierarchical management and top-down organizational charts no longer inspire rank-and-file productivity or loyalty. On the other hand, without a clear and concise company course or trajectory, even the designated company CEO-mind-reader might miss the target with regard to an owner’s expectations or a board’s directives.

So why are key staff members so resistant to planning? It’s hard, that’s why – and to develop a strategy of practical use, they will have to face the hard facts. The team subsequently will need to make the big decisions, too – what to do about managers who aren’t working out and product lines that are past their prime – and they’ll need to agree on how to approach at-risk or lost market share. But even worse is the looming torture of the strategic planning process itself.

Are we having fun yet?

Larry Schroeder, CEO of Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinics, recently took his organization through a radically different Question-Based Planning™ process, which vocal converts liken to the Quality Movement in terms of potential impact on the business world. “Keep an open mind,” Schroeder advises. “This is new material and a new way of thinking. For us, it led to excellent results, and quickly. The greatest benefit was that this was a simple process, and the facilitator assisted us to get our former ‘strategic plan’ reformulated.”

"At a workshop last week, a guy said he’d just finished 16 weeks of strategic planning. Sixteen weeks! Not only did they waste time and money, now no one will ever, ever want to plan again." – Derrick Van Mell

Question-Based Planning™ is a process developed by “recovering MBA” Derrick Van Mell, 52, a business strategist who recalls having a blinding flash of the obvious after years of planning major capital projects for Wisconsin clients such as Epic Systems, Group Health Cooperative, Johnsonville Foods, American Girl, and Summit Credit Union. “I stepped back and simply asked them what they believed they most needed to best operate their companies,” he admitted.

“What floored me was that each CEO said the exact same thing in the exact same order: Don’t tell us what to do; don’t waste a minute of our executive’s time teaching you the ins and outs of our industry; ask us good questions to determine what our true priorities should be; and help us have disciplined follow-up to achieve our plan.” And then they added a caveat: a one-page plan would be appreciated more than a business thesis housed on a shelf in a 1-inch binder.

“That sounds so obvious,” Van Mell added, “but at a workshop last week, a guy said he’d just finished 16 weeks of strategic planning. Sixteen weeks! Not only did they waste time and money, now no one will ever, ever want to plan again. And a woman once told me that if I asked her to write a mission statement she would kill me. This is the kind of nonsense we’re up against.”

The Madison-based Van Mell Associates then followed up with a more formal approach, surveying 700 businesses in 17 states. “Only 9.6% of businesses actually have a written plan they follow,” Van Mell summarized. “If strategic planning itself was a business, it would have gone bankrupt long ago. So why do we keep planning the old way? I saw in those results not only a market opportunity, but a chance to change the world.”

Changing the world of business?

If the goal of QBP sounds lofty, the program has a lot of C-suite ambassadors willing to pitch it to other CEOs – the steam it takes to power a “movement.” Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, has added her voice to that energy: “We are mission driven, yet need the discipline of looking critically at finances, HR, IT structure, systems marketing, and outreach. For us, Question-Based Planning™ was a great way to avoid the pains of strategic planning and really do something to move business forward. It actually helped me find my voice as a leader.”

Van Mell’s response: “We want Question-Based Planning to spark a planning movement, launching people to a new orbit of performance.” The process, which has been tested in health care, manufacturing, distribution, services, and nonprofit venues, is designed to drill the practice of “focus, focus, focus” into the heads of the organization’s designated planning team. Five two-hour meetings, during which the 100-plus most critical questions about how the business does and should operate rise to the surface, leads to a summary one-page plan, illustrated as a graphic “Goal Tree.” Tasking and follow-up also are built into the plan.

QBP is not what a start-up takes to the bank to get a loan, and it’s not a facilitation technique. “But it’s also not going to produce a $100,000 door stop, either,” Van Mell quipped. “Our clients, like most business owners or nonprofit leaders, are really smart and work really hard. But it drives them nuts when managers don’t work together better, the organization makes the same mistakes twice, or there is never a final decision made or an opportunity is spotted too late. Bad planning or no planning keeps people running in circles.”

Since launching the plan, Van Mell has authored his second book, Question-Based Planning, and lectured throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia. His client base has expanded considerably and he’s added six associates.

But does QBC rise to the level of a ‘movement’?

Stephen Covey created a business movement, as did W. Edwards Deming (Total Quality Management). Six Sigma and FISH™ have thousands upon thousands of “graduates.” Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese was motivational and popular, but a movement? No. The anatomy of a true movement, noted Harvard Business Review blogger David Armano, has four identifiable components: It creates a ripple effect, has definable values, inspires advocacy by participants who believe in them strongly enough to volunteer their advocacy, and establishes critical mass. “An ad campaign is something you do to people,” Armano noted. “A movement is something people choose to do. The key difference is participation [and] advocacy.”

Tom Oakley hired Van Mell soon after becoming president and CEO of ChanTest, a Massachusetts-based research firm with global pharmaceutical and biotech customers. He says of the QBP process, “For this company, where individual input had never been solicited before by management, this process was invaluable. It forced the team to think about the business in ways they hadn’t had to in the past, and it forced cross-department communication. It also revealed interdependencies that perhaps had not been acknowledged before, and reinforced the notion that we all need to figure out how to work cooperatively rather than competitively. The plan document is a simple, effective way to manage progress against the plan. This is more of an ongoing process rather than an event. I highly recommend it.”

He said more – far beyond a usual testimonial for a favored vendor – and so, influenced by the fervor in which advocates were coming forth for QBP (including Tim Size, executive director of Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, a statewide cooperative of 34 rural hospitals, who said, “This is not the case of hiring a consultant to come in and do your thinking for you, but to help your team to do its best thinking”), In Business invited Van Mell to demonstrate the process firsthand in our boardroom. The result? A concise one-page document that has become our ongoing business plan that details not only what we can/should do, but also what projects we should say “no” to – which can be equally valuable to growing multi-media companies like ours.

We then invited 34 C-suite managers or owners of Wisconsin-based firms and organizations to join us for a free two-hour workshop exploring QBP, to see if they bought into the concept and process. Again, Van Mell left the room with more converts. A manufacturing CEO said she actually changed her business model, and made staff changes, based on that single morning’s exposure to the process.

Finally, one more test, because In Business is not in the business of endorsing products or fads; we’re in the business of business reporting. Van Mell Associates agreed to take on, pro bono, an assignment working with the board for a charity of our choice – The Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin – to demonstrate how the process translates from corporate management staff to nonprofit board-level planning teams. After the six-week process, the ASCW board agreed, unanimously, that the experience should prompt a name change from “Autism Society of Greater Madison” to better reflect its 10-county service area, and lead to a concise plan calling for measurable outcomes. To paraphrase board president David George, QBP helped turn a volunteer board of passionate stakeholders who wanted to do everything for everyone into a professional board of directors with a business plan on how to best identify, maximize, and distribute the resources available to them.

So if you haven’t already heard from one of Derrick Van Mell’s growing list of ambassadors, you heard about the QBP process first from IBWisconsin. “We’ve inspected it from outside, from inside, and even inspected it sideways and are now officially members of the QBP Movement,” said IBW Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick. “Or maybe we’re now best described as ‘voluntary advocates,’ since no dollars or considerations have ever changed hands. We just think it has the potential to become a true Wisconsin-grown and tested business movement, and that’s worth sharing.

Sign up for the free In Business Wisconsin Report – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click hereIf you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.

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