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Leverage CI for strategic planning

A conversation with AARP’s SVP of Corporate Strategy

March 03, 2021

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CI & strategy

In the first episode of our newest podcast Foresights & Friends, we chatted with AARP’s David Wickenden, Senior VP of Corporate Strategy & Strategic Impact to understand how competitive intelligence (CI) and foresight can contribute to building a dynamic, winning strategy in an organization.

David has been one of the principal architects of strategic realignment that has helped grow AARP’s revenues and multiply its impact. To thrive, AARP must overcome challenges from multiple quarters, spotting and acting on new opportunities – while anticipating and mitigating emerging risks and threats. The AARP senior leadership needs insight and intelligence on myriad questions, such as:

  • What is the future of work and employment?
  • What caregiving sector solutions will be prevalent ten years from now?
  • What are the essential trends and drivers of the social contract between individuals, businesses and government?

With a membership of 38 million Americans, AARP is a social mission organization that advocates for those aged 50+ and runs multiple programs. To help achieve its key missions, AARP maintains a network of 60,000 volunteers that run programs in every U.S. state and territory, meeting community and individual needs. It also partners with multiple businesses to deliver extraordinary value to its members and earn over $1 billion in annual revenue to support its critical missions.

Listen to the full discussion with David here or read the key takeaways below.

Evolution of strategy

At AARP, David’s role and the importance of strategy have grown dramatically over the last five years. An enterprise-wide strategy function did not exist before then, but was required due to the complexity and velocity of change in the external environment. The need to chart a course forward to lead to a robust and successful organization, both short-term and long-term, was critical. Futurecasting—being able to extract insights and foresights from all of the chaos and link them to desired business outcomes, objectives, and goals—is now a central component of AARP’s strategy today. It was deliberately built into their strategy function and acts as an extension of CI.

David has regular and ongoing interactions with the executive committee and board of directors. Both parties realize how essential strategy is to understand the driving forces, fundamental changes and shifts that affect the world of aging in the U.S. and around the world, and how that impacts AARP’s thinking and strategic decision making. This is the primary purpose of their strategy function—to actively, intensively, and imaginatively immerse themselves into a future environment and then determine what it must do, to not only fit into that environment, but to shape it to meet its needs so it can thrive in the future.

Futurecasting initiatives

Based on analysis, studies, and reports, David and his team map out critical zones to concentrate on over the next year. Once identified, they do deep dives into those areas, looking at the question of “How do we apply this to the business?”

For example, three primary areas of focus this year are the trends toward increasing longevity. As an aging-focused organization, it is important for AARP to understand the fundamental shifts going on—how long people are aging, the speed by which the population is getting older, how the workforce and world are becoming more diverse, and how to adapt to the technological advances. Looking at those critical zones, they then do a sub-look at critical areas that affect their constituencies.

Strategy and performance excellence

AARP’s success has attracted national recognition. This April, the organization will receive the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award—the only Presidential award for organizational excellence. David credits the best practice standards that were established across AARP for this recognition. From finances to strategy to workforce management, these are all the various functions that comprise the totality of an enterprise. Strategy itself is one of the core components that are scored and David emphasizes the importance of hitting that mark. Since organizations are ranked according to specific criteria, this is a good focusing structure for an organization to test and hold itself to the highest standards that it can.

Strategy as an ongoing function

David views the strategy function as a “living, breathing reality that we have to work within.” The environment today is so dynamic that planning and strategy happen continuously. AARP works on a future back-planning model where they look 10 years out and work backwards from there. They establish a three-year framework design and one-year action plans to get them where they want to be.

With their framework as a guide, they have the adaptability and responsiveness to ensure they stay on track, have the ability to remove and add aspects to the plan, or make new course corrections. They call this concept the “always-on transformation”, where they are continuously transforming to keep up with the pace of change happening in the outside world.

As David puts it,

“The old notion, the stereotype idea about corporate strategy is you do a three-year plan, you put it in a binder and the binder sits on the shelf. Those days are simply gone.”

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