Find your way: Develop a strategic plan for 2010


Plot your route for 2010 by developing a strategic plan for your practice.

You made it through 2009. Chances are it's been one of the most challenging years for your practice in a while—maybe ever. You deserve a pat on the back. But before you decide to sit back and enjoy the ride, it's time to ask yourself some tough questions:

> Are you controlling the direction of your practice, or have you ceded power to outside factors?

> If you've switched into a higher gear to meet this year's challenges, how will you keep your momentum going?

> Have you mapped out your long-term goals and how you're going to achieve them?

Generally, you should hold a strategic planning meeting at least once a year outside the sphere of normal operations. That's right—road trip! The purpose of this break is to recapture or identify the focus of your organization; take an objective view of the operations, staffing, and financial position; and then plan for the future in light of the big picture.

Photo compiled from Getty images

Here's how to hold a strategic planning session that will put you in the driver's seat of your practices' destiny.


First, you must schedule a date for the meeting, and you must resolve to keep the appointment. Consider the time you set aside for your strategic planning meeting as sacred to the success of the practice, and make sure everyone involved understands the importance of the conference.

Keep in mind that you're going to need to focus as objectively as you can on the direction your practice is headed. Distractions, especially those that come up in the everyday practice environment, can hinder your ability to create goals and plan for the future.

So try renting a hotel conference room or booking a retreat at a local facility. This makes the strategic planning process fun and productive—not to mention more difficult to reschedule. Fresh surroundings will also help open the door to creative, innovative thinking.


Second, a practice's owners are responsible for defining the direction of the practice, so it falls to you (and your partners) to create the agenda for the strategic planning session. As you begin to brainstorm what to address in the meeting, consider situations the practice has encountered in the past year that reflect industry, economic, or practice trends, and note these on the agenda. For example, did the addition of digital imaging increase the number of radiographs taken this year? If so, what adjustments will you need to make next year to accommodate this increase? Do you need to reconfigure the facility to accommodate the increase? Maybe you'll need to hire another technician.

Also include a discussion of any outside forces that will shape your practice. For example, is a new, low-cost spay-neuter clinic opening in your community? Keep minor policy and standards of care discussions off the agenda, as these can be handled during your regularly scheduled doctor or management meetings.

Also consider broad questions or goals, such as:

> "What do we want this practice to look like in four years?"

> "Where do we want to be in terms of doctors in three years?"

> "Our goal is to provide the best quality of medicine in town. How do we define 'best quality'? What does that mean to us?"

The only specifics you should delve into are implementation processes, and generally implementation involves the dreaded "B" word: budgeting (see the Related Links, below, for some pointers on how to create an effective budget).

After setting your budget for next year, take a look at what you must do to implement the changes your budget requires. Focus on expenses that are considerably higher than the Benchmarks targets. Tackle these first, and you'll see a significant improvement in your bottom line. Keep in mind that the main reason budgets fail is that the bar is set too high. Pick two or three expenses and bring them down, then move on to two or three more. And be sure to monitor your progress so you can see how far you've come.


Now you must decide who will be involved in the meeting. Ideally, the key practice leaders—all owners and members of the management team—will participate. Once the agenda and corresponding suggestions are complete, provide a copy to all attendees a week or two before the actual meeting. Make sure you clearly explain your expectations of the other participants in terms of additional suggestions or solutions so they have time to prepare before the meeting.


During the actual strategic planning meeting, be sure to stick to your agenda. If participants raise other concerns, decide whether they're relevant to the conversation at hand. If they're not, table the topic for another time and return to the purpose of the meeting: long-range planning. Be sure to solicit the opinions of all involved, particularly those who will be involved in the implementation of any decisions made. They may see challenges or opportunities you've missed.

Ideally, you'll leave the strategic planning meeting with a fresh vision for your hospital, along with a list of action items to make that vision a reality. Each action item on the list will include helpful suggestions from the discussion and a timeline for completion.

Setting aside a time for planning for the future of your practice allows you to maintain control of your practice and plan a route toward growth and success. So gather your management team, grab your agenda, and book your conference room. Here's to 2010!

Denise Tumblin, CPA, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member. Helen Hoekstra is a financial and valuation analyst. Both work at Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio.

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