Strategy  Meltdown—The screen play

INT. The corner office of the Association for Ad Hoc Planning – Afternoon

The executive director and membership team are seated at a conference table. They are hunched over laptops. The executive director is frowning. The membership manager looks like a deer in the headlights.

Executive Director

These numbers are (pause) a surprise. Are you sure the report’s correct?

Membership Manager

Well, we haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact number of members due to glitches in the AMS that we’ve been working to fix for a while. But yes, I think the five-year downturn is accurate. Even if the numbers are off by a member or two, there’s no doubt about the direction of this trend.

Executive Director

As I recall, our strategic plan includes a section of membership goals. How’s your team doing on implementation?

Membership Manager shifts in her chair. She hesitates before responding.

Membership Manager

I reviewed those goals with the team after I came back from the board meeting. But there’s so much going on. Everyone’s working on their own key performance indicators, it’s hard to get them to focus on the plan. Plus, we don’t have the budget to develop the recruitment campaign, and we need to wait until the AMS reporting is fixed to implement anyway. Maybe we can do it next year.


This scenario is more common than most of us want to admit. The board went on a three-day retreat. There was a substantial output of financial resources and volunteer effort. The product was an elegant document. But, whether the plan:

  • Disappeared in the cloud
  • Missed the major disruption on your association’s horizon
  • Or frustrated the staff so thoroughly that they tore it into confetti and dropped it at your feet

The bottom line was, your association didn’t get where you needed to go.

Sharon Rice, .orgSource’s managing director of business strategy, and I recently had a conversation about how an integrated approach to strategy gives plans the muscle to be actionable. Sharon has deep experience guiding both corporations and nonprofits to develop strategic solutions. Most recently, she served as vice president of strategy at APICS, the Chicago-based association for supply chain management.

Strategic planning is rooted in the ancient Greek military. The first modern concepts, such as the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, originated at Harvard Business School in the 1920s. The fact that most people know what the SWOT acronym stands for is evidence that, while techniques have gone in and out of fashion, the process hasn’t exactly been a lightning rod for change. Most associations, Sharon noted, are using a 50-year-old model to prepare for the future.

“What was attractive about planning in the 90s was the formula, which took you from A to Z in a linear fashion,” says Sharon. “Goals and objectives were identified based on the mission and typically weren’t prioritized. It was easy to benchmark progress. The wrinkle was that, all too often, that retreat where the board members spent hours brainstorming was a vacuum chamber. The staff, the budget and the organization’s technology resources were not an integral part of the equation. So, like the fictional association in the scenario above, a weak digital infrastructure and other unforeseen operational challenges, often impeded progress.

The narrow approach to planning was rife with pitfalls back in the day, and It isn’t likely to set associations up for success in a more complex business environment. Technology, which used to be an engine of the economy is increasingly in the driver’s seat and flaunting the rules of the road. An integrated strategy is a holistic approach to planning that is better suited to manage volatility and disruption. Vision and resources are woven into a design that can evolve and change with necessity and time. The goals and objectives thread through the entire organization. Budgeting and technology, which previously might have been secondary considerations, assume pivotal roles.

Assess the Environment 

Thorough planning is essential to success.

“Planning should begin,” Sharon notes, “with identifying what the group seeks to accomplish. It’s important to challenge assumptions and identify motivations. Is doing a strategic plan checking a box because it’s been three years since the last session or because it’s an exercise to give the board a sense of accomplishment? Or does your organization have a real need and desire to change? If you can give a compelling answer to that question, you have the right attitude to address the future. The board, the staff and the members should be prepared to go beyond managing trends to actually changing the business model if needed.”

After agreement about the internal motivations, the ground is prepared to evaluate external influences. Gaining a solid understanding of the members’ professional landscape and the organization’s position in the market place will facilitate future decisions. It’s important to identify the competition and to know how members are spending their dollars. “I’m surprised by the number of associations that are out of touch with their stakeholders,” Sharon remarked. “The concept of personas has been around for a long time, but it’s definitely underused. It’s impossible to meet your constituents needs if you don’t know who they are.”

Involve Everyone

An integrated plan filters through the entire organization.

An integrated process requires a shift in responsibilities. “We’ve been trained to believe that strategy is the board’s domain, and that execution falls to the staff,” Sharon says. “But even a committee of PhDs from Harvard Business School would be challenged to produce a workable plan in three days.”

Integrated planning allows the board to do what they are best equipped for—setting the vision. “Garth Jordan, senior vice president, corporate strategy at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, made a compelling comment. He noted that the board’s job is to be empathetic. They communicate the member perspective,” Sharon advises. “Most groups excel in this role, and a skilled facilitator can keep the dialogue at the macro level.” Identifying business strategy falls to the executive leadership team. Then, directors and managers are responsible for operationalizing initiatives. The process cuts across the entire organization, and there is constant communication among staffers and departments to ensure alignment. The CEO is the hub that turns the wheel. That leadership commitment is critical to ensure that the work becomes an organizational priority.

The final step is the board’s approval of the budget. Assessing technology and budgetary requirements is a priority. “.orgSource,” Sharon notes, “specializes in supporting organizations where digital transformation is required to remain relevant.“

Be Agile

Knowledge and data make you agile in the marketplace.

Don’t expect this deep dive into your business operations and culture to yield the typical summary document. One of the benefits of integrating strategy is the reporting and analysis that is fundamental to the process. Every organization will produce a different portfolio of products. From environmental scans to persona analysis and white papers. This intelligence is a guide to managing unanticipated events and disruptions.  It provides the tools the organization needs to be agile.

Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” What he meant was that when things get rough, it becomes more difficult to dodge the blows. An integrated approach gives organizations a comprehensive understanding about their place in the market and their value proposition. Armed with this information, it’s easier to adapt to the challenges that will inevitably come.

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