In June, I thought the dust was settling. Now, with the onslaught of virulent Delta, not so much. We are still in the grip of disruption.

The change seems to be that people are learning to cope. There is a shift from reactive to more deliberate approaches. Organizations are investigating technology acquisitions and launching new strategy initiatives or reviewing existing plans.

This makes me feel that the glass is half-full on a future that could be characterized as the glass is half-empty. Threats like climate change, social unrest, rising economic inequality, not to mention another challenge to public health, increase the possibility that business as usual is a thing of the past.

Learning to plan for an uncertain environment is key to positioning for success. .orgSource takes an individualized approach to problem-solving. We make recommendations based on each clients’ unique culture and mission. But whether you represent a health care, a trade, or educational association, we give this advice across the board.

A “planning retreat” is an oxymoron. Strategy does not retreat. It must be completely in and of the moment. To achieve that level of relevance, plan in ways that are holistic and flexible. Above all, don’t create goals and objectives in a vacuum. Integrate initiatives across your organization and include the staffing, budget, and resources needed to execute in the planning process.

The discussion below highlights the .orgSource team’s perspective. I, along with my colleagues Kevin Ordonez and Jane Pearson, share our views on the “whys” and “hows” of integrated strategic planning.

Kevin, President and Managing Director of Digital Strategy, has spent his career helping people master the latest technology. He looks at planning through a digital lens. Jane, Vice President of Marketing and Communication Services, approaches strategy as the branding expert she has become through years of experience helping organizations hone their unique identities.

Why should associations integrate execution into strategy?

A multi-year plan integrates vision with resources

Sherry: It’s great to have a dynamic board eager for change and innovation. But be wary of setting goals that can’t be achieved. In the excitement of envisioning the future, extending beyond the scope of current technology, training, or other resources is easy. Without  specifications for execution, enthusiasm will be squandered. Too many projects strain the budget, overwhelm staff, and reduce the sense of accomplishment.

Kevin: Creating a multi-year road map that integrates a bold vision with tangible resources brings strategy to life. It focuses direction so that innovation is meaningful and not just initiated for the sake of introducing a new idea. It creates a conductor for the orchestra so that all the players understand their part and work collaboratively.

Jane: The road map helps everyone to stay within the timeline and on budget. Without this guidance, it’s easy for projects to drift off schedule or be replaced with pop-up priorities. Branding is diluted when initiatives aren’t coordinated or directed toward a significant outcome.

What role does technology play in the process?

Kevin: An integrated strategy makes technology an instrument for change. It weaves digital thinking into the fabric of business activities. The AMS transcends its function as software and becomes a library containing all the association’s significant knowledge. The key to understanding members’ needs and making sound decisions resides in this data and in learning to analyze it to drive growth.

Accurate data also creates the opportunity to use powerful tools like scenario planning and decision trees for objective problem-solving. Thad Lurie, someone who is extremely sure-footed in the digital landscape, shared this spectrum for evaluating data maturity with us.

Stage 1 – Constrained

  • Data is gathered randomly from multiple sources
  • Ownership is loosely defined
  • Data is not being widely used
Data creates an opportunity to use tools like scenario planning and decision trees.

Stage 2 – Supportive

  • Data gathering from multiple sources is coordinated/single sign-on is in use
  • Ownership is defined or understood
  • Data is being used in pockets of the organization

Stage 3 – Business Intelligence

  • There is an enterprise-wide governance and strategy for data
  • Data is used to make important decisions and evaluate products and services
  • Data is a trusted source of truth

Stage 4 – Business Performance

  • Data drives the development of new experiences, products, and services
  • External value is created and enhanced as a result
  • Cycles of continuous improvement are data driven

Organizations at stages three and four can use data to plan for growth. If you are stuck at level one or two, get the support you need to become a savvy consumer of data and analytics.   

Sherry: Strategy should be transformational. But to leap forward, you need to understand your current capabilities and identify issues that might impede progress. .orgSource starts by evaluating our clients’ culture and their readiness for change. We designed a survey to find those gaps in talent, structure, processes, and systems. There are 56 questions that measure status across nine domains of activity.

With that knowledge, we create a customized approach and ensure that digital platforms and systems are aligned and functioning to advance the association’s mission, vision, and values.

Jane: An association-wide strategy enables organizations to deliver consistent value. It alleviates the pressure to follow the latest trends and puts the focus on the most important long-term objectives. The planning process provides information so the group can select the best tools and analyze the data that will get them to the finish line. A strong strategy focuses everyone on identifying the mediums that are most relevant for their goals, human resources, and customer needs.

How does an integrated strategy impact communications?

Jane: Branding depends on creating multiple messages that speak with one powerful voice across the association. When strategy doesn’t filter through departments, communications lose that impact. Integrated goals, objectives, and tactics keep everyone on point. Content is easier to produce and more effective when all communicators understand the desired outcomes.   

Sherry: As with technology, the value is in efficiency, precision, and a consistent organizational approach. An integrated strategy makes it easy to deliver targeted on brand messaging to all your audiences.

Kevin: Integrating strategy aligns all the communications platforms and makes the best use of each channel. This saves money, prevents member burn-out, and delivers more influential messages.

What advice would you give to planners in the current environment?

Sherry: In this volatile climate, leaders should objectively assess their organization’s health. Culture is as  important, if not more so, than operations. Even with the best strategists and technology, you can’t overcome the negativity caused by disgruntled employees, lack of initiative, or stagnant mindsets.

Seek opinions from both outsiders and insiders, including board members, staff, and other constituents. Be willing to listen and accept their feedback. Evaluate the compliments, criticism, and advice with an open mind. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of making positive change. Replace “we can’t” with “yes, and what more” wherever possible.

Kevin: Technology can help you to identify and overcome threats, but it is not a substitute for the willingness to acknowledge storm clouds on the horizon. The ability to spot disruption before it happens is 95 percent about keeping your eyes open. Grow accustomed to scanning the marketplace. Don’t allow habit and tradition to blind you to the need to adapt or halt, even the most entrenched activities, when they are no longer useful or broken.

Jane: MarCom has a significant role to play in an integrated planning process. Communicators are often on the frontlines of coming trends and can spot challenges in the making. Include your team in strategy sessions and provide them with the tech tools they need to keep pace. They will reward you by crafting messages that move the hearts and minds of your most important audiences.

Sherry: Integrated planning maximizes the relationships between the core business competencies–strategy, technology, and marketing and brings them into alignment with human and financial resources.

This equilibrium drives growth. Even in the most challenging environments, Associations that are consistently moving forward will always have a glass that remains half-full.