A home for brave ideas: collaborative and empowered strategic planning at President Lincoln’s Cottage
President Lincoln’s Cottage is a historic site and museum located on a 250 acre campus in Northwest Washington, D.C. It’s where Abraham Lincoln made some of his most nation-changing decisions. Their one-liner to describe themselves is powerful: “A Home for Brave Ideas”. It neatly connects the inside story of Abraham Lincoln’s nation-changing decisions to the debate of ideas that might overcome the challenges facing us today. This statement struck us as far clearer and more compelling than many contemporaries with cut-and-paste missions.
Throughout 2022, President Lincoln’s Cottage partnered with MHM to develop a strategic plan that would to both set the direction for the next part of their journey, as well as strengthening its team, increasing audience-focus, maximizing impact and further embedding shared values.
Laying the ground work: an empowered, united team
Over the years we’ve honed and refined our process for strategic planning. Our go-to processes for working with staff teams are already both collaborative and inclusive. We want all voices across the organization to be heard and everyone to feel engaged in the process. But President Lincoln’s Cottage challenged us to take it one step further. They smartly realized the process will be even more effective, and the team better prepared to action the resulting plan, if there was first an opportunity for deep learning, upskilling and self-reflection.
We therefore started the process with a series of four professional development sessions focusing on leadership, relationships and influencing. This strengthened the team, increased audience-focus and further embedded shared values. The interactive sessions lay the ground work for how the team can best work together to achieve their goals.
Refreshing the WHY, WHAT and HOW
Our strategic planning process starts with our signature ‘big bang’ workshop – a chance to get all the big ideas on the table. The reason PLC exists, the impact it should have, the values it wanted to be known for. We were struck by how clearly PLC could articulate these ideas, and with such consensus. Refreshing the ‘WHY’ part of the plan was relatively straightforward as the team had a strong sense of purpose.
But we needed to take it a step further. The value came in the next layers: the WHAT (getting specific about their goals strategies for the coming years. What would their vision look like in practice?); and the HOW (the ways in which the PLC team would go about these goals and strategies. What made it unique to them?). PLC leadership worked on these with the ‘big bang’ source material.
The result is a small organization with a big Cause:
We preserve this place to connect people to the true spirit of the Lincolns, build empathy, and inspire them to act upon their own brave ideas for social justice.
Crucially, this powerful and purposeful Cause is directly translated into seven Strategic Goals which, in turn, are translated in 41 Objectives.
Audience insight provided two clear objectives
Image with kind permission of President Lincoln’s Cottage
The missing piece for PLC was what their audiences and stakeholders thought. Yes, they had a very strong sense of identity – to what extent was that translating externally? Through consultation surveys and interviews with audiences, local community, partners, donors and other stakeholders we built a picture of how PLC was perceived by others.
Often we find in these situations that audiences have somehow developed misperceptions about organizations – the cues they have received have given the wrong impression. That wasn’t the case for PLC. Those closest – partners, donors, close community – of course understood the Cottage’s brand, but audiences who had visited and engaged seemed to really ‘get it’ too. Those who had taken one of the award-winning tours see exactly what the Cottage had intended and readily cited the impact of the experience.
The challenge came when we went further afield. PLC was frequently seen as a hidden gem. To those in the know, it was beloved, but to many others it was completely unknown. This gave PLC clear direction on how to focus their efforts: raising their profile. Simply increasing awareness could increase their impact.
But it also gave them the freedom to focus on taking their impact to the next level – not just provoking thought but inspiring action. They know their efforts were working, they could take confidence and dial it up.
Renewed energy and focus
We couldn’t be more excited to see what this strong, empowered team is capable of achieving now that they have a clear common Cause, a totally aligned strategic plan, audience insight and a codified internal culture that challenges them to do their very best work.
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