Strategic planning: Gimme a break?

Written by Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship on January 17, 2019

Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship (ACE) is a group made up of association executives and stakeholders who think outside the association box about the future. We have conversations about an entrepreneurial approach to association leadership and implement the resulting great ideas in our jobs. In our most recent conversation live in DC, with a virtual component hosted by Association Success, we discussed culture. This article series summarizes the key takeaways.

Does a strategic plan conjure up visions of fat binders, death by meeting, rigid guidelines, longer than ever to-do lists, and fancy charts that detract from your true mission? Or does your association love planning so much that it keeps you from doing? ACE brought association professionals and stakeholders together to debate whether strategic planning can counter the lack of entrepreneurship inherent in most associations.

“Strategy is about making choices and figuring out a preferred action path,” says Jay Younger. Strategic planning is about fitting together pieces of the puzzle — mission, capacity, resources, relevance, opportunities — to yield results.

Strategic planning is critical to success, concurs Lane Velayo, but it can only succeed if everyone involved wears — and keeps — the right hat on.

Can an association get by without strategic planning? Sure you can, says Jay but you’re missing out — on defining priorities, documenting riverbanks, creating a meaningful contract between board and staff, and building continuity in governance.

We proceeded to dispel four common misgivings about all phases of strategic planning — design, delivery, and reporting.

It just creates more work.

If, after an intense amount of planning, an association ends up with a list of 26 priorities with bullets and sub-bullets across everything it does, that is not really a strategic plan. A strategic plan is a set of reasoned assumptions about how we should proceed, says Jay.

A good strategic plan helps an association focus and leverage limited capacity, points out Lane. Without a plan, it is harder to adapt to the times — you just end up doing what you’ve always done or roaming in the wilderness.

Jay also notes that associations have durability of mission and strategic planning is not only about chasing the new. To take a page out of Jeff Bezos’ “flywheel” concept, we should be looking at what is unlikely to change in the next 10 years.

A good strategic plan fosters innovation by addressing environmental issues, prioritizing programs, and allocating required resources.

Choosing what not to do is the one of the most strategic decisions you can make and associations are terrible at it because of our “mission DNA.” So a well-defined set of priorities and desired outcomes can help us “let it go” and sunset programs that are no longer relevant or performing well.

It makes the board open up a Pandora’s box

Board members are not association (or often not business) people. Can they even be effective at strategic planning or will they get caught up in the weeds and dive into operations which are best left to staff?

ACEr Alanna Tievsky McKee says we need a competency checklist when recruiting board members. We need to look at what type of onboarding and training are we’re offering. And then consider how we’re structuring board meeting agendas and initiating meaningful conversations.

Lane emphasizes that good strategic planning comes out of good educating and good facilitation. Staff need to give board members a framework, explain the process, and help them understand how the plan can drive success. How are we helping our boards reframe products and programs in the face of evolving technologies and new ways of doing business? How are we encouraging foresight and forecasting?

“Do not just use a consent agenda for your board meetings,” cautions Lane. The real reason to bring your board together is to answer strategic questions.”

Jay likens the board’s role to the front wheel of a bike that must simply provide direction. Committees and staff are the back wheel, providing the operational power to move forward.

Jay also cautions against letting the loudest board member drive the entire strategic planning design. Make the planning experience inclusive of all board members and use a neutral facilitator to drive an informed, evidence-based discussion. Enable different viewpoints and perspectives to be shared so you can ultimately land on a pathway.

It limits agility.

According to Jay, documenting your strategic priorities is not out of harmony with being nimble. A good strategic plan does not lock you into a set of actions. It secures consensus on high-level drivers of success so staff can then explore and find the path forward.

ACEr Andrew Goldman says he’s seen value in the “1, 3, 5” year model of strategic planning. “5s don’t change very much. 3s are things you want to get done. 1s are what you can get done in the near term.” He also recommends building in a thoughtful process to amend the strategic plan as needed.

If the strategic plan is built at the headline level, the goals and objectives provide a fair amount of latitude on what gets done in 1, 3, or 5 year horizons. Associations must commit to an intentional process to marry high-level aspirations with the undergirding essentials to pursue the strategy such as budgets, staffing, and departmental plans. This “how” of pursuing strategy has a much more rapid cadence — annual, quarterly, even monthly — and offers flexibility, says Jay.

You can build more credibility with board if staff are honest and pragmatic about admitting what’s working and what’s not, says Lane. Explain what you did, suggest why it did not work, and propose solutions and alternatives.

It is not possible to measure real success.

Jay opines that while strategic design and delivery are quite evolved in associations, tracking and reporting are underdeveloped areas with substandard approaches. There is no convention or consensus on what to measure and how. Gauging impact on mission is complex and causes many to retreat.

ACEr Michael Butera says, “Resistance to measurement is a flaw in the strategic planning process. Board and staff are often at odds on what to measure.”

Talk to your board about what outcomes they wish to see and document them clearly, advices Jay. Then take metrics development out of the board meeting. Keep the metrics slim, easy to measure, and easy to understand.

ACErs agree that qualitative metrics are as important as quantitative metrics. We need to go beyond email open rates, event participation, web traffic, and the number of Twitter followers to measure real impact. Measuring impact in areas such as advocacy and public education requires deep dive conversations, and a definition of stakeholders that is broader than members and committees.

ACEr Dennis Sadler explains that he used the RICE (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort) performance measurement method to sunset programs at his association by moving people from emotional to rational decision making. RICE helped them consider the data to back up difficult conversations and see how resources could be repurposed for greater gain.

Lane says that at smaller associations, where board members are very involved in operations, encouraging them to set metrics is one way to help them let go. Metrics development can help evolve the thought process to be more strategic.

Ultimately, says Lane, “Build strong relationships so you can have honest conversations. And back the honesty up with data so board understands where we are and where we need more support.”