Strategic Planning in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons from New York State

Resource Type
Service Spotlight

By early January 2020, New York State’s Division of Prevention and Problem Gambling Services was ready to engage in strategic planning. The state’s associate commissioner for prevention was a year into her new position. The division had recently been re-configured as a stand-alone entity within the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS). And the division’s scope had been expanded to include problem gambling.

“The time was ripe, and we were excited to get started,” said Gisela Rots, one of two technical assistance providers from Prevention Solutions@EDC who were brought in to facilitate the process.

Working in collaboration with OASAS, Rots and colleague Dodi Swope established a six-month timeline for creating the division’s new plan. Phase One would be to collect information to develop a clear picture of the state’s current prevention landscape. More than 100 practitioners from across the state responded to a detailed survey, and Rots and Swope conducted a series of in-depth interviews with key stakeholders identified by Division leadership.

In Phase Two, the team would use this information to develop a 3- to 5-year strategic plan.

“We anticipated spending eight hours in a conference room with a small group of prevention leaders and staff to hash out the plan,” said Rots.

And then Covid-19 arrived. With New York hit early in the pandemic, the state quickly went into lock-down, eliminating any possibility of convening an in-person planning session.

“We needed a new approach and we needed it right away,” says Rots.

Over the next six weeks, the EDC and OASAS teams worked together to design a series of five virtual planning sessions to replace the single, in-person session. Their goal was to establish a process that was inclusive, reflective, and that maximized the opportunities of meeting online.

“We recognized the challenges of facilitating such an intensive planning process in a virtual environment,” said Rots. “We wouldn’t be able to read visual cues as easily. We’d need to take extra pains to ensure that everyone’s opinions were heard. But we also appreciated the benefits of working in this environment.”

One of these benefits was time. Rather that completing the planning in a single day, the team spread the five sessions out over six weeks.

“We found that spreading the sessions out helped participants stay focused,” says Rots. “Often, by the end of a long day of strategic planning, people’s energy starts to wane. By comparison, during these shorter, online sessions, participants remained high-energy and engaged.”

Rots also noted that because each session focused on a different topic—clarifying our theory of change was one day, setting goals and objectives the next, identifying action steps the third—participants were better able to immerse themselves in the topic at hand, and to use the time between sessions to ask questions and clarify any areas of concern.

“Breaking up the sessions somehow helped the conversation build organically,” says Rots. “On each call different people had different things they were passionate about. For some it was strengthening the state’s data infrastructure. For others, it was addressing workforce development and retention. Each session, different people stepped into the foreground. That might not have happened over the course of a single day.”

The virtual format also allowed a broader range of practitioners to participate in the planning process. A team of 14 planners, comprising a mix of state and regional prevention professionals, spent more than ten hours reviewing the assessment data and developing a plan.

Finally, the extended timetable gave participants a chance to become more comfortable with the technology. “The group should be lauded for their commitment,” says Rots. “All were working from home—many while caring for young children. Many struggled with unstable Internet connections and all faced a learning curve regarding participation in virtual meetings. Despite these challenges, the group persevered.”

A key part of what made the process a success was the facilitators’ commitment to creating a group experience. They did this in a variety of ways—by providing the time and space for people to ask questions and engage, in a meaningful way, with the assessment data; by acknowledging the contributions of individuals; and by making sure these contributions were reflected in the emerging plan.

“We were thrilled by how well the process worked out,” said Rots. “The division now has a clear plan for moving forward, and we feel confident that it truly reflects the needs and priorities of the field.”

The PS@EDC team also has the start of a playbook for facilitating online planning processes.

“We know that boxed solutions don’t work,” says Rots. “Covid forced us to pivot and re-think our strategic planning approach. But we were able to apply what we knew about participant engagement and adult learning to create a process that was the right fit for this client, at this time.”

To learn more about PS@EDC’s work with OASAS, contact Gisela Rots at