Strategic planning is conducted by many organizations to systematically evaluate and assess their current state, establish or update their mission and/or goals, and identify strategies and activities to achieve the goals. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cohort Consortium is a collaborative network of 62 prospective cohort studies and their affiliated investigators that focus on cancer etiology and outcome research. The organization's membership grew markedly from 10 cohort studies at its inception in 2001 to 59 cohort studies at the time of the launch of the Consortium's strategic planning in 2017. This paper describes the strategic planning process that was conducted to establish organizational goals and to develop strategies and activities consistent with the Consortium's mission. The process involved a 2-year iterative approach combining surveys and in-person meetings. The resulting goals focus on communication, career development, research facilitation, scientific gaps, and common scientific challenges. The NCI Cohort Consortium's strategic plan and evaluation of its progress will advance new initiatives in cancer etiology and survivorship research.

Strategic planning is a forward-looking process to set priorities, focus resources on common goals, strengthen operations and maintain vitality of an organization; it is “a deliberative, disciplined approach to producing fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization or other entity is, what it does, and why” (1). Ideally, an organization integrates periodic evaluations and assessments of goals and activities that align with its vision and mission.

Strategic planning was conducted within the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cohort Consortium, an international, collaborative organization that has grown from 10 cohort studies in 2001 (2) to 62 cohorts in 2021 (3). The mission of the NCI Cohort Consortium is “to foster communication among investigators, promote collaborative research projects for topics not easily addressed in a single study, and identify and address common challenges in prospective observational research designs” (4). Participating cohorts have multiple affiliated researchers from fellows and early career investigators to senior level investigators. The Consortium holds an annual meeting attended by over 200 individuals, open to both Consortium members as well as others who are interested in collaborating and leveraging resources of the Consortium.

Over the course of the Consortium's existence, more than 50 scientific projects were initiated with varying progress and success. In recent years, there has been a notable slowing of project proposals. Information on ongoing and complete projects, and associated publications, can be accessed through the newly developed Project Hub (5). The Consortium's rapid growth posed some challenges regarding: the incorporation of new member cohorts into ongoing projects; opportunities for early stage investigators to participate; and the development and support of new projects. Thus, a formal strategic planning process was conducted to establish goals and strategies consistent with the NCI Cohort Consortium's mission. The process engaged investigators from all member cohorts and focused on ensuring inclusiveness. This commentary outlines the multistep approach used to conduct strategic planning in this large, diverse, scientific-focused collaborative organization, the results of the process, and completed and ongoing activities.

The strategic planning process and approach

Overview

The NCI Cohort Consortium is supported logistically and scientifically by NCI staff along with a steering committee composed of between 9 and 13 representatives of the Consortium membership (6); the strategic planning process was initiated with approval by the steering committee. A sub-committee composed of the Executive Director, the voting NCI staff member, and a cohort representative (C.E.H., K.J.H., S.M.G.), was formed to plan and lead the strategic planning. Figure 1 shows the timeline of the Consortium's strategic planning.

Online surveys

To identify primary themes for in-person discussion at the annual meetings, the strategic planning process included online surveys (Supplementary Materials and Methods) conducted 6 months prior to the 2017 and the 2018 annual Consortium meetings. The surveys included both closed and open-ended questions soliciting ideas for administrative organization and operations, communications, and scientific direction. The suggestions were collated and organized into themes to facilitate efficient in-person roundtable discussion at the subsequent annual meeting.

In-person discussions

The time allotted at the annual meetings for in-person discussion was limited to 3 hours given the tight annual meeting agenda that typically includes Consortium business, scientific project meetings, and presentations. Critical to the success of the strategic planning process was the facilitated interactive in-person brainstorming sessions, guided by an independent facilitator to provide unbiased oversight in the process and ensure all viewpoints raised were respected and recorded. The in-person sessions used the World Café method, a technique for structuring effective collective and collaborative dialogue for large groups (7, 8).

The World Café Method is based on seven design principles: set the context, create hospitable space, explore questions that matter, inclusive contribution, connect diverse perspectives, listen for patterns and insights, and share collective discoveries (9). Table hosts facilitate rounds of timed conversations among small groups, and scribes record the information and ideas discussed. After a specific amount of time, all except the table hosts and scribe move on to different tables with a different mix of individuals for new and/or deeper insights on specific items of interest. At the end of several rounds, a summary of the most common themes and ideas generated on each table topic is presented to the larger group and all ideas and questions are captured in a way that is visible for all to see. Indeed, through deliberate discussions, the members are able to shape, contribute to and address priorities based on their interest and expertise. For the Consortium's World Café, the approximately 200 meeting attendees were assigned to discussion tables in groups of 10 using systematic randomization to ensure representation in the groups by cohort, career stage, and expertise. There were three timed rounds at the first World Café and two rounds at the second World Café.

The in-person discussions generated a considerable amount of information with overlapping themes. The sub-committee reviewed, collated, and organized this information into individual thematic goals and strategies to achieve the goals. Ultimately, the draft strategic plan goals and strategies were then reviewed and edited by the Consortium's steering committee. In addition, the entire membership was given an opportunity to provide final feedback before approval by the steering committee in 2019.

The first survey was administered in 2017 to the 59 cohorts that were current Consortium members at the time of the survey. Responses were received from at least one individual from 44 of the 59 cohorts (74.6%) for the first survey. The second survey was administered in 2018 for input on prioritizing scientific goals and a response was received from 35 of the 59 cohorts (59.3%). The World Café sessions involved all annual meeting attendees (approximately 200 individuals at each meeting).

The World Café discussions addressed operational and scientific goals and strategies. Five scientific themes emerged: circulating biomarkers, data linkages, molecular patho-epidemiology, rare cancers, and survivorship research. The resulting strategic plan is summarized in Table 1. The three operational goals centered on communication, career development and research facilitation. The two scientific goals focused on scientific gaps and common scientific challenges. Within each of the goals are specific strategies that were based on ideas generated during the planning process. The concise format of the document facilitates tracking of achievement of the goals.

Ultimately the success of the strategic planning process resides in the implementation of the strategies and fulfillment of the identified goals. To this end, the chair of the NCI Cohort Consortium steering committee, which rotates annually, adopts a specific goal and its strategies to implement during their leadership term. In the two years since finalizing the plan, some activities have been completed and others are ongoing (see Fig. 2) in multiple goal areas including communication, career development, research facilitation, identifying common methodologic challenges and leveraging cohorts to address scientific gaps.

The strategic planning process for the NCI Cohort Consortium was undertaken to develop goals and strategies consistent with the Consortium's mission. The process provided the opportunity to assess scientific priorities and inspire future projects, create a sustainable culture of evaluation and collaboration, enhance research operations, engage new investigators, leverage existing resources, and capitalize on cost-effective technologies. The accomplishments to-date noted in Fig. 2, such as the formation of an “early investigator” associate member group to enlist the next generation of researchers, are important steps to revitalizing the Consortium's activities.

The process followed incorporated elements of both strategic “thinking”, the creative synthesis of ideas, and strategic “planning,” the programmatic, analytic aspects (10, 11). “Strategic thinking” was integrated with bidirectional engagement of members through surveys and the World Café to brainstorm ideas followed by systematic analysis of information synthesized into a final planning document outlining specific goals and strategies. The process was spread over two years, necessitated by the time constraints of the annual in-person meetings. The interspersed surveys allowed for ongoing engagement and input from membership. Key take-aways and lessons learned from the Consortium's strategic planning process include understanding the importance of (i) getting early buy-in from both the Consortium leadership and members, (ii) engaging the members early and throughout the process, (iii) ensuring transparency in how decisions are made, and (iv) leveraging the diverse perspectives of the group to inform the best approach and outcome.

The NCI Cohort Consortium is a model of team science to advance cancer epidemiologic research. With a strategic plan developed through a collaborative approach, combined with ongoing communication, evaluation, and implementation of the strategies, the organization has been revitalized with new goals and purpose.

No disclosures were reported.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Cancer Institute. The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

The authors acknowledge the great contribution of the Steering Committee and members of the Consortium who participated in the Consortium's strategic planning process from 2017 to 2019. They also thank program staff and research fellows at the NCI who served as table hosts and scribes during the in-person sessions, and Ms. Shannon Connolly of the NCI Office of Workforce Development and Planning, who served as the World Café strategist and facilitator. Finally, the authors would like to thank The Scientific Consulting Group, Inc. for the logistical support they provided for the annual meetings and in-person planning sessions.

Note: Supplementary data for this article are available at Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention Online (http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/).

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