By Lynn Kahn

Summary: Periodic reassessments of any organization are important to evaluating its goals and mission, how best to meet them and how to adjust them to current realities and needs of its members. This article is adapted with permission of the author and the Association Forum of Chicagoland, FORUM, August 2000, in which it first appeared.


Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar? Your strategic planning committee was visionary and inspired; it produced a strategic plan that sets the stage for great, new things. Too bad you don’t have the financial or human resources needed for implementation.

The new plan has 50-plus initiatives for you to accomplish over the next three years. Unfortunately, the strategic planning committee didn’t prioritize these tasks or identify activities, programs or services to be discontinued.

Management staff complains that the new plan bears little resemblance to their day-to-day responsibilities.
You involved the management team in the plan’s development, but those who report directly to it and support staff don’t think the plan is relevant to their jobs. Many of them may not even know such a plan exists.

Three years have passed and it’s time to initiate the strategic planning process once again. You determine the last time around “fell short of expectations,” so you decide to reinvent the process and hope for a better outcome.
Familiar territory

It’s a safe bet that at least several of these scenarios hit home. That’s because, for many associations, strategic planning has become so process-driven that they have overlooked the fact that the process is often broken. In our quest to become visionaries, we have lost touch with reality.

We’ve mistakenly assumed if we undertake an environmental analysis and perform the tried-and-true SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, we’re in touch with reality. Certainly, these activities are an important part of the strategic planning process, but they’re only part of what must be done to ensure this process is reality-based.

Simply put, reality-based strategic planning is a process that bridges the gap between what we hope our associations will be in the future and the realities that we must contend with today. Reality-based strategic planning is based on some fundamental premises, which are as follows:

Premise 1Strategic planning and financial planning must be inter-related processes: If you think I am stating the obvious, that’s a good thing. This means your planning cycle is already in sync with your budgeting cycle and long-range financial planning. My experience suggests, though, that’s often not the case. You would be surprised at how many associations conduct strategic planning in a vacuum of sorts without consideration to the financial implications of the plan. In other words, the finance committee isn’t involved in the strategic planning process but must play the “heavy” after the plan is set in stone, saying “no” to specific initiatives that it knows are financially unfeasible.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to involve the finance committee during the strategic planning process itself? This isn’t to suggest that the finance committee attend each and every meeting of the planning committee. But finance committee members should be invited to planning committee meetings at key junctures, such as the first planning meeting (so everyone is on the same page about the process) and once the strategic plan is reasonably assembled but not finalized. In other words, it should be involved in advance of presenting the plan to the board for approval.

Premise 2Delusions of grandeur are just that. “Being at the top of your game” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re assured of being the market leader (and that’s OK): Let’s face it, given the choice, we would all probably like to be brilliant, rich and gorgeous. In reality, most of us are lucky to be even one of the three. So what does that have to do with associations? Most associations would like to have people or organizations beating down their doors to join, be masters of making all members happy all of the time and, at the same time, have no competition for their programs, products or services. In reality, few associations can claim even one of the three.

The point here is that your strategic planning committee should aspire to chart a course that will lead your association to bigger and better things, but it also needs to be realistic. That’s probably the biggest challenge. In reality, the job of managing expectations will fall to the CEO or staff liaison to the strategic planning committee. This individual must speak up tactfully when the committee starts talking as if it had the staff the size of a Fortune 500 company and the market presence to match.

Think realistically
The best way to temper such delusions of grandeur is with data and figures about the industry or field you serve, your competition and your association. Here’s an exaggerated example, but it serves to illustrate the point. Your association and a competitor association have roughly the same target market. The competitor association has been in existence for 50 years with high marketplace recognition, 28,000 members, a $14 million budget, and a staff of 100. In contrast, your association is 10 years old with growing name recognition, 8,000 members, a $4 million budget, and a staff of 35. Both associations are financially stable.

A member of your strategic planning committee maintains that your new strategic plan must be focused on unseating the competition. Other members of the committee agree, and they’re off and developing a plan that’s, more likely than not, predicated on an unrealistic aspiration (at least unrealistic for the three years the plan is likely to cover).

In this situation, it would have made sense to highlight for the strategic planning committee the disparity between the two associations’ financial and human resources. Confronted with the hard facts, the group probably wouldn’t have abandoned the notion of gaining market share. Hopefully, though, it would have felt compelled to consider the resource implications of such an ambitious plan and ultimately have been more realistic about what was achievable and what wasn’t.

Again, not every association has to be No. 1; in fact, not every association can be No. 1. This is often a difficult notion for planning committees (or boards and staff) to accept. Here is one way to think about it—Hertz may be No. 1 in the car rental business, but Avis doesn’t seem to be doing too badly either. Your association can be a first-class organization, and be second in a crowded field. In other words, it’s often more realistic to focus on “being the best you can be” rather than on being in the highest spot. In most cases, you’re a lot more likely to see real improvement if you plan for the future from this vantage point.

Premise 3The strategic planning committee must first understand its role and then acknowledge that all goals and strategies are not created equal: There are actually two parts to this premise. First, it’s the strategic planning committee’s job to set the organization’s strategic direction, and not to dictate specific activities to be undertaken. Remember the scenario that described staff seeing a disconnection between the strategic plan and their day-to-day responsibilities? That was probably a case of the planning committee going too far in specifying how staff should accomplish the plan’s strategies. But it’s virtually impossible for a committee of volunteers to discuss implementation tactics in any meaningful way given their lack of knowledge of the inner-workings of the association.

Part of the reason strategic planning committees stray into tactical development is because the committee, and occasionally staff, are unclear about who should do what. The problem is compounded by the fact that strategic planning consultants often use the words “goal,” “strategy,” “tactic,” and “objective” to mean different things and confuse strategic planning committees even more than they were initially.

In order to talk about the strategic planning committee’s role vs. staff’s role, provide everyone involved with the definitions that you’ll be using (see A Defining Strategy). The strategic plan will also be more reality-based if the strategic planning committee receives input from other groups of members as it develops goals and strategies. For example, the committee might rely on its environmental and SWOT analyses, the recent member satisfaction survey, and staff input to draft the initial goals and strategies. Then, this document can be circulated to various committees and/or constituency sections for comments and suggestions.

Learn to prioritize
Once the document has been refined, based on input from other groups, you’ll want to guide the strategic planning committee in prioritizing the goals and strategies it develops. The exercise of prioritizing is important for a number of reasons. First, it heightens the committee’s awareness that it’s unrealistic to expect staff to give every activity identified the same amount of time and attention.

Ideally, you and your staff will also propose to the committee that certain current programs, services and activities be discontinued, or scaled back, so you can charge ahead on new goals and strategies. The truth is that substantive new initiatives cannot be accomplished without taking other projects off the “to do” list. Of course, you cannot simply approach this from the perspective that you have “too much to do.” Instead, you should provide the facts and figures necessary to persuade the committee that those activities proposed to be discontinued aren’t highly valued or profitable.

Second, leading the strategic planning committee through the exercise of prioritizing will provide the finance committee and your finance staff with important direction in the budget preparation and long-range financial planning processes. Finally, by having the strategic planning committee prioritize, staff isn’t left second-guessing how and where to spend their time and energy.

Premise 4Management staff should be charged with determining how to operationalize the plan, aka “the annual action plan”: Once the strategic planning committee has finalized the vision, mission, goals and strategies, staff should ideally be the ones to make these ideals a reality. By charging staff with developing tactics to implement the plan’s goals and strategies, you’ll further minimize chances of a disconnection between the strategic plan and day-to-day activities. Further, by asking staff to tie measurable objectives to each tactic and reporting out to the board on a regular basis progress on meeting those objectives, you minimize the possibility that the strategic plan will become a dusty document on a bookshelf. Better yet, incorporate at least some of these objectives in your staff’s performance objectives. As you know, when salary increases are tied to performance, things get done faster and better.

For many associations, the tactics and objectives developed across the organization become the annual action plan, which is reviewed at every board meeting. While the goals and strategies in the strategic plan will likely remain constant for the duration of the plan, the tactics and objectives should be updated annually to reflect the changing landscape in which your association operates.

Premise 5Staff at all levels deserve the opportunity to learn why what they do is integral to the achievement of the goals and strategies in the plan: Simply put, your strategic plan isn’t reality-based if staff at all levels don’t see how they fit into the plan’s achievement. This shouldn’t be a stretch. Just as I contend that membership recruitment and retention isn’t solely the responsibility of the membership department—as it requires the association as a whole to deliver value—I believe that achieving goals and strategies in the strategic plan requires the hard work and commitment from all staff.

Your job is to communicate that this is indeed true. It isn’t simply a function of putting copies of the plan in staff mailboxes. It’s taking the time to meet with all staff or groups of staff to discuss the plan and the part they play in breathing life into it. In other words, you must make the plan “real” for them as well as give them a “real” role to play in its implementation.

Conclusion
Finally, reality-based strategic planning can and should be rewarding for all involved. In today’s hectic world, no one wants to simply go through the motions. If we’re going to spend time on something, we want that something to be worthwhile. Reality-based strategic planning isn’t only worthwhile, but crucial to an association’s future success.

About the author
Lynn Kahn, CAE, is president of The Kahn Group Ltd., of Lincolnwood, Ill.  Kahn has been hired by the Water Quality Association to assist with the development of a new strategic plan for the association. Over the next several months she may be reached via e-mail: lkahn@aol.com

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