A cunning plan

Summons speaks to MDDUS CEO Professor Gordon Dickson on the value of strategic planning – especially now 

NO organisation can afford to stand still – this simple ethos underlies strategic planning at MDDUS. The Union is now in the fourth year of a six-year plan with the stated aim to “ensure that we know where we want to be and how we intend to get there”. What does strategic planning mean for an organisation like MDDUS and why is it considered so vital to corporate health? We asked CEO Professor Gordon Dickson for his perspective.

Why does MDDUS need a strategic plan?

There is a lot written and spoken about strategy and planning. It features as a major topic in MBA courses and fills the pages of many management text books. However, for us here at MDDUS it is not about theory but about hard reality. I once read somewhere, I think it is an old Chinese proverb, that learning is like rowing upstream, not to advance is to fall back. It is exactly the same in business. The world in which the Union exists is constantly changing. It is not just the turbulent financial and economic times that seem to be in a constant state of flux but it is also the legal and regulatory environment in which we work, the structure of the medical and dental landscape, the emergence of new providers of indemnity, increasing competition from other organisations and so much more. Not to advance in the face of this will certainly result in the Union falling behind. At MDDUS planning is about deciding where we want to be and how we want to get there. We don’t want to be wafted about by the winds of change and neither do we want to spend our whole time simply reacting to what is happening or to what others are doing. For us, planning is really a positive statement of who we want to be.

What are the main elements of the plan?

Picking up on the last part of my previous answer, if planning is about who we want to be then it must be structured to reflect that clearly. The senior management team and Board had a great deal of discussion about how to structure the plan. Very early on we decided that slogans or mission statements were not for us. That goes back to the point about reality. Words are relatively easy to coin but what we were interested in was a clear definition of what we wanted to achieve. We built our plan around three simple aspirations: one about our place in the market in terms of presence, influence and size; one about providing a high quality service and another about offering products and services that were highly valued by our members. It is these aspirations that define where we want to be in 2015.

Aspirations like these are a bit like “motherhood and apple pie”. The real work in building the plan was to establish measurable goals that would enable us to assess whether or not we had in fact achieved the aspirations. These goals are quite specific and couched in terms of 2015. The final piece of the planning framework was to decide what we actually did each year to try to deliver the 2015 goals and so specific objectives are set each year.

How do you measure the success of the plan?

Success is measured in terms of whether or not we meet the objectives we set for each year. It is the aggregation of these annual objectives that will help us attain the position to which we aspire. Because we were keen to ensure the objectives we set were actually measurable, the task is not too hard. It does put a bit of pressure on staff as there is no “hiding place” if we have set an objective that is clearly measurable.

Most of the key indicators are pulled together in what is known as a Balanced Scorecard. This is intended to represent a balanced picture of progress that is being made. I suppose it is a bit like measuring a patient’s vital signs. It would be unwise to look at one measure alone.

What has the plan helped achieve so far?

We are very pleased with the progress we have made on all our plan goals. I suppose members do not really see the detail of the plan and arguably are not too interested in it. Recent survey work carried out for the Union has shown once again that the prime factors members considered to be important are price, immediate access to expert advice and the financial security of the organisation. Our members enjoy a highly competitive price, receive a high quality service when they need it and can see from the MDDUS Annual Report and Accounts the real financial health of the Union. What they don’t necessarily see is the work that goes into ensuring these three things are delivered, the background work, much of which is derived from effective strategic planning.

Interview by Jim Killgore, editor of Summons