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How Agency Leaders Can Turn Vision Into Action

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences is demonstrating how a functional strategic plan can serve as a powerful management tool.

The federal government has a recurring “strategic” problem: Too many officials spend too much time and effort developing annual strategic plans that do little more than collect dust on a shelf. The reasons are many: insufficient tracking and implementation; poor, incomplete, or regurgitated metrics; and low enthusiasm among those who would implement the plans. While strategic plans could serve as powerful management tools, this potential remains largely unrecognized in government, resulting in missed opportunities to align organizational vision with purposeful action.

At the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a component of the National Institutes of Health, we’ve found a way to use our strategic plan to align, integrate, and functionalize the historically disparate areas of planning, performance, risk management, and business process improvement. This integration serves to: 1) unite all activities and employees under a common framework of objectives; 2) provide a benchmark for measuring progress toward those objectives (i.e., performance); 3) identify and prioritize barriers to such progress (i.e., risks); and 4) align these objectives with specific programs that provide an evidence base (data) for progress and achievement.  

The structure underlying this integrative framework is a vertical alignment between strategic goals, strategic objectives, and individual programs. Each program contributes performance data (acting as key performance indicators or KPIs) to each strategic objective, with individual programs prioritized or “tiered” based on their percentage contribution to that objective. Factors that can inhibit achievement of each program-contributed KPI are identified as key risk indicators (KRIs) and proactively mitigated. Because of this alignment and inverse relationship, the mitigation of risk increases the probability of achieving each program’s KPI(s), which in turn increases the probability of attaining each aligned strategic objective and associated strategic goal. Using this strategy, the NIGMS created a strategic plan with five aspirational goals: 

  1. Catalyzing creative and ambitious scientific research; 
  2. Evolving workforce programs to optimize talent and diversity; 
  3. Enhancing research capacity in states with low levels of NIH funding; 
  4. Promoting responsible public communication; and 
  5. Investing in NIGMS employees to better deliver on mission.  

We directly addressed cultural resistance to change through increased communication and transparency. Every NIGMS employee—from division directors to front-line staff—was provided access to an enterprise-level dashboard that tracks implementation of the strategic plan by displaying programmatic data aligned to each strategic objective. Employees can see for themselves how individual efforts within the organization contributed to the larger momentum of the Institute. 

Once these cultural and interpersonal barriers were addressed, enthusiasm to engage in planning, analysis, and use of data to drive meaningful decisions and actions increased.  Completion of the above process took less than a year. The effort saw tangible results, including a 119% increase in the number of early career scientists receiving research support, decreasing the age at which scientific career independence occurs by 1.3 years, and funding a record number of both projects (4,200 versus 3,600) and scientists (3,800 versus 3,200). 

For agencies interested in functionalizing strategic planning, we offer the following best practices and lessons learned:

Strategic plans should be integrated and balanced. To be of optimal value, strategic plans must be functionalized through integration with performance, risk, and data management activities. Goals should reflect a combination of external, internal (e.g., workforce development), and multi-term (short-, mid-, and long-term) priorities.

You manage best what is measurable. Individual programs aligned to each strategic objective can be used as a rich source of quantitative, trackable data over time. These data can serve as indicators of progress (KPIs) or barriers associated therewith (KRIs).  

Data should not be punitive. Although data are often used to illustrate inadequacies in federal programs or workforce, evidence and insights from strategic plans are best used for learning, policy or process improvement, and resource provision or re-allocation rather than penalization.  

Risk is a part of progress. Failure is a powerful catalyst for learning and change. Completely risk-averse environments, therefore, can impede organizational development. The proactive management of risk through strategic planning can create a controlled learning environment wherein innovation and creativity are explored without fear of penalization or failure.

Understand the role of culture. Behavioral economic theory implies that employees are not resistant to change. Rather, individuals fear loss—of stability, certainty, autonomy, and trust. Engaging employees early and often in strategic plan formation and implementation encourages involvement, dialogue, and trust in methods that might otherwise be resisted.

NIGMS is not unique within the federal sector. Other agencies can also develop functional strategic plans that align goals and objectives with individual programs whose progress and data can be visualized through an enterprise-level dashboard that all employees can access in real time. These activities have shifted NIGMS’ management model toward a more data-informed, active (versus passive) posture, illustrating what is possible for other agencies to achieve.

Richard Aragon is director of the Office of Program Planning, Analysis and Evaluation (OPAE) at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health; Andrew Miklos leads the Data Collection and Analysis Section of OPAE at NIGMS; Claire Schulkey is a data scientist that leads strategic planning and measurement activities at NIGMS.