Strategic planning tips I gleaned from the inventor of the granola bar

Flying on US Airways in 1997, I was reading the inflight magazine Attache, (remember those? inflight magazines?) when I stumbled on an article “Genius at work – How to Solve Almost Anything.” In it were 9 tips by inventor Stanley Mason, the holder of over 60 patents, including the peel open packaging of Band Aids, pinless disposable diapers and squeezable ketchup bottles.

Cleaning out my files the other day, I stumbled on those tips and realized just how influential they have been to my work in  strategic planning.

Here’s what Mason shared in the article:

  1. Know exactly what you want to solve
  2. Research deeply
  3. Call in help
  4. Practice problem-solving
  5. Sketch it out
  6. Churn
  7. Go see a movie
  8. Keep your space clear
  9. Know when to walk away

In an interview for the book Diamond Power: Gems of Wisdom from America’s Greatest Marketers, Mason says

“It’s really not that complicated.  The creative process is trying really hard to solve a problem.”

Isn’t that the essence of strategic planning?

While our missions aren’t necessarily problems, the goal of getting from where we are today to realizing our mission can be seen as a big puzzle that we are trying to solve. (Puzzle = problem).  Whether we’re ending homelessness, or ensuring our kids graduate from school ready for success in life, or challenging and inspiring others through art – we are all seeking the best path to achieve our mission.

Finding the best path is what strategic planning is all about.

Start strategic planning by getting all of those big questions out in the open. What’s holding you back from reaching your vision?

Research is essential in any strategic planning process, and one that I find is too often neglected. How can you really understand the community need and your role in it without data? How do you know what might work if you don’t know what’s been tried before?

But don’t stop with “book learning” (or Google). Go ask others for their advice. Think of 25 people to talk to who know or should know something relevant to your mission. Go talk with them. You’ll learn a lot by listening (and they’ll learn something about you as well.)

Write down everything you are learning as you go. What might start as disconnected conversations begins to make sense when you articulate your theory of change and your logic model;  that is, the why and how of the path from the problem to the vision. (Mason says: “Invention is logic.”)

Make sure you brainstorm.  Keep thinking about what will actually create the breakthrough you are looking for –even if it seems like the most impossible idea. Then imagine how to get there.

I advise never trying to craft an entire strategic plan in a one day retreat. Like Mason, I’m convinced there has to be time for ideas to gel and reflection between planning sessions. And opening the door to inspiration from unexpected places.

As Mason suggests in Tip 9, sometimes there are too many other issues that need to be addressed first before you jump into strategic planning (like lack of commitment to really being strategic among staff or board leadership). So know when the time is right.

P.S. Apparently Stan Mason was locked in the principal’s office because he colored outside the lines in third grade. I remember practically falling off my chair when one of my son’s elementary school teachers told me that “following directions was the most important lesson for job success” after he used colored markers rather than crayons in a school assignment.  “What lost world are you preparing him for” I remember thinking at the time?

So that’s my approach to strategic planning.  What’s yours?


Related readings:

Discovering great ideas in new places

Questions to jump start your SWOT

Increase innovation: mandate three day workweeks

4 responses to Strategic planning tips I gleaned from the inventor of the granola bar

  1. Sherry Truhlar

    Gayle, it isn’t often that #1 on a list really has to be #1, but boy this is a case of yes, you must know what you are trying to solve – EXACTLY what you want to solve. I frequently work with nonprofit clients on fundraising and they aren’t clear about what the purpose is or they don’t know what they want to accomplish. Occasionally the biggest accomplishment in the fundraising is the moment the entire committee can point to the problem they are trying to solve.

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