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Keeping ACS strategic in an uncertain world

by Kathleen M. Schulz,Chair, ACS Board Standing Committee on Planning
April 18, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 16

Kathleen Schulz
Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Schulz
Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Schulz

Chemists, the chemistry enterprise, and the American Chemical Society operate in a fast-paced, increasingly uncertain, and rapidly changing world. We have much to contribute through solutions that will help achieve the ACS vision of “improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.” The burning question is “How can we navigate this environment successfully to have lasting and significant impact?” The short answer is “Be thoughtful and strategic about what we do and how we do it.”

There is a simple, powerful thought process to demystify how to be thoughtful and strategic. The process has four main steps that move us to strategically focused actions based on forces in the world outside us. It works equally well for individuals; for groups such as ACS local sections, divisions, and committees; and for ACS as a whole. Here are the steps: (1) Observe the world and identify major trends that might affect us.(2) Evaluate what opportunities or challenges these trends create. (3) Determine what actions we might take to respond to these opportunities and challenges. (4) Choose and pursue a realistic number of the most promising options.

At the society level, part of the answer to the “how” of being strategic has been to create an ACS Board Standing Committee on Planning. The planning committee serves as a focal point for strategic thinking and planning prior to full ACS Board discussion and action. The planning committee’s charter is purposefully broad. Historically, the committee focused on recommending the next year’s ACS Strategic Plan to the ACS Board, but given the challenges for ACS in today’s world, is this enough?

To answer that and other strategic questions about the planning committee, we followed the lead of more than 30 ACS units that have held a Strategic Planning Retreat during the past three years and held a facilitated strategic planning session last fall. The retreat, part of the ACS Leadership Development System, freed us of day-to-day pressures, allowing us to be thoughtful and strategic and to determine what the planning committee should do to help ACS have maximum impact in today’s world.

We developed the following vision of long-term success for the planning committee: “A dynamic and successful ACS through strategic planning and action.” Using this vision as a North Star, we developed our mission statement: “Develop, communicate, and promote a strategic process and plan that engages staff and volunteer leaders, aligning their efforts to realize the ACS vision.”

These vision and mission statements, featuring words and phrases such as “action,” “develop, communicate, and promote,” “engage staff and volunteer leaders,” and “align efforts,” make it clear that the planning committee’s responsibility is to do more than recommend next year’s ACS Strategic Plan to the ACS Board. With the board’s approval, the planning committee’s work now includes two goals: (1) Develop and continuously improve the ACS strategic planning process, and (2) Develop and implement a communications plan that facilitates communication with key stakeholders.

So what’s happening now? The planning committee has broadened its focus to find and implement tools and practices for strategic planning, identification of emerging trends, and “futures thinking,” which helps groups envision possible futures and gain new insights. We are using increased dialogue within the society along with external resources to guard against becoming an echo chamber.

First, the committee is actively partnering with ACS Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Connelly and his team, the ACS director of strategy, and the ACS Board to identify state-of-the-art best practices and resources for organizations similar in size and type to ACS. Using this information, we hope to increase the capability of an integrated team of board members and ACS staff to think and act strategically. In January, the committee sponsored an interactive webinar and discussion for the ACS Board-staff team on futures thinking with an external expert. During the next six months, we will use new guidelines to prepare for ACS Board strategic discussions that are data-driven and more productive.

Second, we will strengthen communication of ACS strategic planning information by, for example, continuing to provide information on the latest trends to ACS units’ strategic planning retreats; adding review of emerging trends identified in local section, division, and committee retreats for possible dissemination to the rest of ACS; and incorporating more dialogue on emerging trends with ACS committees and other units.

What are we learning about being strategically successful? That effective strategic planning and action requires constant vigilance to escape the pull of day-to-day, tactical pressures. Some other success factors include creating a focal point for strategy (a person or subgroup whose primary responsibility is to focus on strategy), making time to be strategic (schedule it!), learning and practicing thinking strategically, getting organized to act (create a vision, mission, goals, infrastructure, and process to support action), and, perhaps most important, discussing “being strategic” with others to share what you’re learning and learn from them.

Please share your thoughts on how ACS can be strategically successful in today’s world at The planning committee welcomes your ideas and suggestions on the current ACS Strategic Plan and planning process, especially emerging trends affecting our work and options for better serving our members and the chemistry enterprise.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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