Neelima Firth has a long background in strategy; starting in biotech and pharmaceuticals, managing small and medium businesses, consulting, and eventually joining the board of the Association of Strategic Planning have led to Neelima becoming greatly experienced in the world of organizational strategy.
In this interview, Neelima speaks about the importance of inclusion within strategy. Rather than a top down approach, it's better to have your employees and team members participate in the planning process as soon as possible to help create a greater buy-in and a goal oriented company culture.
Neelima also speaks to managing growth, change, as well as honesty in regards to understanding and acknowledging where your organization is really at, and using that as a starting point for moving forward.
Listen to our interview with Neelima below:
You can connect with Neelima on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/neelimafirth
00:01 Anthony Taylor: It’s Anthony Taylor here with SME strategy, and I’m joined by Neelima Firth who’s the principal of her consulting company called Best Laid Plans. In addition to being a consultant herself, she’s also the past president of ASP, which is the Association for Strategic Planning, and is currently as well on the board. Neelima, how are you today?
00:22 Neelima Firth: I’m very well, and glad to speak with you Anthony.
00:28 AT: Well, it’s my sincere pleasure; while I was finding you on Linkedin, just definitely a lot of great experience in the strategic planning world and in an area that’s very close to my heart, the small and medium enterprise space. Why dont you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself, your company, and what excites you about strategic planning.
00:49 NF: Well, my background is in biotech and pharmaceuticals. I started off my career at Glaxo, and you can hear from the accent I’m from England. I worked Glaxo Bristol-Myers Squibb, Amgen, and then the Alfred Mann Foundation. My interest really in small to medium enterprises is because when I joined Amgen, I actually helped set up the UK office, and I could see how important it was for a small team to be able to be effective to work together and to have a vision and a goal. That’s how I really got interested in strategic planning. I didn’t know it then; I didn’t know what the term was, strategic planning. Until, I’m going to say quite recently, I thought of it as an academic exercise, but as I’ve learned more, I’ve seen that I’ve probably been doing it most of my career.
01:52 AT: Excellent, well yeah, I mean it’s such a … Whether you call it strategic planning or not, one way or another, you’re definitely applying some of the principles of strategic planning and then I think in the practice it’s just what kind of framework are you using and if you’re using it as an ad hoc or really as a developed system, and it depends on each business. Do you mind if I ask you a bit more about your experience leading small teams and what the key learnings you got from that are? I think most of our listeners operate in that SME space from 50-200 employees. I don’t know if that’s what you consider a small team or not, but …
02:31 NF: It depends. I think the most important thing is having a strategy or goal. I guess I’m using the term interchangeably. You might consider a goal a subset of strategy, but having an overall vision or mission of what you’re trying to achieve, and having a clear vision of what that outcome is, and then breaking down the components of that strategy; what do you have to do to actually achieve that outcome. I think when you’re a smaller team, it becomes absolutely critical that you communicate very effectively with each of the team members, and that each team member knows what their role and responsibility it, and together with that you’d have some accountability.
I found it very important to have a very clear view of what the mission was, having a solid team that each of them where contributing and knew what their role was, and contributing to that overall goal, and then measuring regularly the performance of the team so that we knew we were meeting that goal. Part of that performance measurement was having very very regular communication, whether it was meetings, e-mails, collaboration in some way was key to success.
04:12 AT: Absolutely. Lots to learn … More about those, some of your best practices. But really, on the subject of communication being so key, can you speak to the culture of communication and how you develop, how one would develop culture in an organization, even a small team like that?
04:31 NF: Yes.You’ve actually hit on something when you asked that question about culture because people are so critical to the success of the organization, and who the leader is is critical to the the success with the organization of the project. The culture, it’s all about the values, what they are and what they want from … What you, as an individual or a leader want them to be. Culture becomes critical and you as a team member or team leader need to model the behaviour you want to see in the people that you’re working with, and then create an environment to get the engagement that you want. You talked about communication, well I actually think it’s pretty important to be able to have a physical environment that enables that collaboration.
Like we’re talking on the phone. We’re not physically with each other, but you have to create a rapport with people who you may never have met. I’ve been on teams with people across the continent and I don’t know what they look like, we’ve never met, but we have a goal that we have to achieve over three or four months. Even though we’re not with each other, we have a strong team spirit and a culture of working together. Culture becomes important because it reflects the values of the organization.
06:15 AT: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things, even for my company, for the first two years I was working with an assistant, and I think I saw her one time in the first year. She didn’t even live that far away, but I think that’s one of the importances, just having those team meetings. If you don’t develop strategy regularly, like a strategy offsite where everybody can get together and really focus on bonding and getting to know each other, because you guys are a team at the end of the day, right?
06:44 NF: Yeah, and also I’m going to say, when somebody isn’t a cultural fit, you have to do something about it quickly because it can really derail you. I think that an example of somebody I worked with; we were in startup mode. The thing about being in a startup, you have some ambiguity at the beginning while you’re working out your roles and responsibilities. She had difficulty dealing with that ambiguity. That doesn’t mean that they’re not a good person and that they wouldn’t be a good fit at a different organization, but we were in startup mode and she didn’t quite fit in the culture. We had to do something so it didn’t derail the rest of the team.
07:33 AT: Absolutely. No, I understand that. Speaking to that team dynamic, and especially in a startup world, because some might look at a company like Amgen or any other big corporations and say, “Of course they do strategic planning, and of course they have a strategy department; they’re huge”, but can you really speak to how important it is to implement strategic planning principles for any size of company?
07:59 NF: Yes, absolutely. I think in a startup, quite often you’ll have a very very small team, perhaps with one person who has a vision of where they want to go, but you need to have some truth telling around as well. How do you know you’re going to get where you want to go if you don’t have a good idea of where you are today? So, I see one principle of strategic planning is truth telling and knowing where you are. Even though you’re a small company, you need to create a structure of where you collect and share data and information from stakeholders and customers.
An example I can give is, one particular project I’m working with is with a hospital product. The person has this great idea, and I said, “Well, you’re going to have to find out from hospital administrators if this is how they actually work. It’s very difficult to introduce a new product in an area when you don’t understand how decisions are made or how things actually work”. Truth telling becomes very important for a small organization because it can make or break you very very quickly. That’s one aspect of strategic planning.
The other is not trying to do too many changes too quickly. It becomes very very difficult to manage multiple changes, and you don’t know what’s working and what is not working. I always like combining familiarity with innovation. Have a good plan with change initiative in play, and prioritize which of those changes you’re actually going to do and which you’re just going to put to one side, so that you’ve got this mixture of familiarity and innovation. That usually is much more acceptable to the outside world much more quickly. For companies, it’s much more important to get the funding from investors.
10:29 AT: Yeah, absolutely. To paraphrase what you’re saying, that consistency and sticking to a plan for two sides. One, so your stakeholders know where you’re going and what they can expect you to do, and on the other hand, reducing change fatigue from your people so they consistently … You stay on one message and move forward until completion. You focus, focus on one course until success is what I’ve heard it called.
10:59 NF: Exactly. You don’t want to stick to a plan in the light of changing information around you though. You have to be open. If I go back to the truth telling, that you need data input from customers, from statistics that you’ve purchased, and where the trends are as well. You need to be agile.
11:24 AT: Absolutely. I think you alluded to it; definitely shared a few of your best practices there, most notably communication and various degrees of it from getting the information from your stakeholders, to sharing communication internally as a team, and then not relying on one source, one data point to drive decisions. What are some other risks that you would advise? What are other risks that you would avoid as part of the planning process?
11:57 NF: There are plenty of risks in how it can go wrong. I think the thing for more bigger organizations, rather than smaller, is that they create a plan based on what they’re doing now rather than a new strategic vision. It becomes easier to, I’m going to call it, tweak around the edges because it’s a risk adversed strategy. You’re not going to go far wrong in small changes, but that’s what it is; it’s small thinking, small planning. It kind of misses the boat there, in terms of overall strategy. I’d say the other is if you don’t track progress on the plan, or the plan never gets executed.
You’ve got this vision, but there’s no methodology for executing. You have to put quality standards in, and you have to put people who become responsible and accountable for executing on the plan. That’s the most common thing I’ve seen, by the way, is that work is put into a strategic plan, but they don’t regard it as a living document. They regard it as something in a binder that you put on a shelf, and then you go, “Great. Done it”, but it’s not communicated to people who have to execute on it.
I can think of some examples where one organization I was with had as part of the plan, a substantial increase in the sales of the product, but that same goal was not communicated to some of the people working in supply chain and distribution, and it had an impact on them. That’s the systems thinking approach to thinking how one activity can change others. Those are the other kind of risks that you can have, as well as don’t forget to create contingencies for upsize and downsize; some things execute better than you expect or worse than you expect. You have to have some plans in place for those.
14:26 AT: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that leads into our next question perfectly. Really, before we jump into that, looking at the entire system as a whole and creating goals and strategies that are not just individual business units, but the organization as a whole, because they all collaborate together. I found that that’s how you get … People really bought in because they all know how they can contribute in their own way, and everybody really plays as a team then.
14:55 NF: Yes, and you get buy in, as well, when people are included. When you have a purely top down approach, people maybe told what they have to do, that that’s not the best way of getting engagement.
15:12 AT: Absolutely. How else, and you definitely alluded to it, how else do you align strategy and performance? You talked about the measurements, and you talked about the communication; how does when the rubber hits the road, how do you make strategic planning really quantifiably valuable?
15:33 NF: So, I think it’s tying in a number of those things. People need to know the strategy in the first place so that they can execute against it. You have to communicate the strategy to everyone, and the best way is to include those people in the process early. Strategy is the what, and the execution is the how. To align performance, you’ve got to measure what you’ve been taught and to reach that goal. You can use many tools. I’ve used the, I’m going to call it the modified balanced score card, and modified means I’ve reduced the complexity because I, or smaller organizations, don’t want to spend all their time fulfilling the tool. They want to grow the business. Having a tool to measure it and having the right key performance indicators, and that is what is kind of aligned performance.
If I can tell you a story; I used to run a call centre for medical information, and there are fairly standard measures that you can use for a call centre, mostly based on efficiency and shortening the call duration. Actually, it was pretty early in my career, so my boss told me what the measures were. I did it for about two months, and I thought it was not working. I started to involve the team as to what was really important in the call centre. I think I just told you, I work in biotech and pharmaceuticals, and really the people we were talking to which were doctors, pharmacists, and nurses, they didn’t want to stay longer than they needed to on the call.
It wasn’t actually a useful measure for us. What was more useful was our ability empathize with the person, to deal with the question pleasantly and effectively. Really the measure we needed was whether we could resolve the questions that they were asking and whether we could do it in a consistent manner so that it didn’t matter who they talked to, they were going to get the right technical answer. I say that performance drives, or the measures drive behaviour, so if you start to measure people by how long they’re on the telephone, and the shorter is better, guess what? They’re going to cut people off, and that’s not what we wanted to do. The call centre was there for a different purpose. We weren’t sending out brochures; we were answering technical questions. So, key performance indicators are an important tool, but choose carefully what those key performance indicators are.
18:40 AT: Absolutely, I couldn’t say it better myself. One of the things that we do here, is we just focus on what are your three highest objectives that are going to move the needle towards your vision, and just keep it simple because if you have too many … I think you alluded to the balanced scorecard; I love the Balanced Scorecard Institute. If you have too many things, then you dont know what to focus on in the first place, and it just causes confusion.
19:01 NF: Yeah, yeah. I call it feeding the beast. If you have a very complicated tool, you spend too much time gathering the data to provide the statistics that the tool needs. The danger is that you’re not then moving your business forward. Just like you said, the three, four things; the important drivers.
19:30 AT: Absolutely. So, one more … Is there any other piece of advice that you would give to … We definitely talked a lot about a lot of great strategies, a lot of good tactics, keeping it simple, keeping communication there, culture fit, truth telling, and every member has their own roles and responsibility. Is there any other recommendation you would give to a CEO or a manger that’s leading strategy?
19:58 NF: Listen to your people. The best strategy doesn’t just come top down, it also comes bottom up. So, the people who are involved in the organization can have ideas and suggestions that could really help your business. I was just reading in the paper today that the inventor of the Big Mac just died. He was a franchisee. He came up with the idea, and McDonald’s heard him, and the rest is history. So, listen to your people.
20:36 AT: That’s fantastic. I can’t think of any better way to … That’s just great advice right there. Thank you Neelima. Before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about ASP? I was chatting with you before we actually got on this call that what set me on my career path was going to the Annual Strategic Planning Conference, and this year, it’s in my home country of Canada, so I’m very proud of that. Can you tell us a little bit about ASP, and what it does, and where it’s going?
21:09 NF: I’d be happy to. I’m very glad you asked me that question. So, the Association of Strategic Planning, it’s a member based organization. The idea is to help people with the tools and the information that they need to be able to do a better job for themselves. We find it as a community, so like you went to the conference. About 150-200 people come to the conference. We hear from great speakers that are usually from organizations and government, and it’s … We have different levels of people. You’ll have directors, VPs, but you’ll also subject matter experts as well as consultants.
It’s a great way of learning from people, but I also find that I’m connecting with other people doing similar work to me. I am learning also from people in other industries. I just said I work in biotech and pharma, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from somebody who works in the food industry, or who works in a government organization. In one meeting I got talking to somebody who does strategic planning at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC. So for me, and I think for many other people, ASP allows you to network and to learn.
They also do webinars, so even if you can’t attend a local meeting or the annual conference, there’s a way of learning from other people through the webinar series. We’re growing, and we find that we get more and more people from different organizations starting to get involved in ASP. It’s a great way to volunteer, by the way, and learn even more.
23:10 AT: I appreciate that and I know that there’s a lot of opportunities out there. I look forward to connecting with some of the listeners here at the ASP conference in May in Toronto, and again, constant education online. Neelima, where can people get a hold of you if they want to connect?
23:27 NF: Oh, I’m on Linkedin and I can assure you, there’s no other Neelima Firth out there, so do connect with me on Linkedin, and I’d be happy to connect.
23:38 AT: Fantastic. So, it’s Anthony Taylor here, of SME Strategy, and I’ve been chatting with Neelima Firth of Best Laid Plans. Neelima, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
23:47 NF: Thank you Anthony.