Strategic Thinking Articles

Simplified Planning for Complex Times

We're all familiar with them; those generic vision statements and linear strategic plans.  You know, the "visions" that say "The XYZ association will be the premiere organization for the ‘fill in the blanks' industry or profession."  Then there are the BHAGS (big, hairy, audacious goals) that are anything but and the "strategic" plans that start with Goal 1, then Objective 1A, then Strategy 1A1, then Tactic or Action Step 1A1a.  No wonder strategic planning gets a bad rap.  No wonder leaders shudder at the thought of another "lost" weekend of planning.  No wonder staff says "what does this have to do with my real work?"

 After a governance restructuring in 2001, the Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI), Potomac Falls, VA, a trade association of firms manufacturing specialty woodwork for commercial and residential construction, asked why planning had to be so boring and unproductive.  Prior to restructuring, the AWI bylaws mandated that there be a future planning committee composed of eight people some of whom were leaders and some of whom were not.  They would sequester themselves in a hotel room and come up with a plan that usually was rubber stamped by the board.  AWI also hired a consultant, spent lots of money, did SWOT analyses and came up with a 20-page plan that was a pretty document but that sat on the shelf and was ignored.

 As part of the governance reorganization, the 35-member board was reduced to 11 and the future planning committee was eliminated.  This left the association with no formal means of determining the future.  In response, AWI tried to embrace the Balanced Scorecard model to identify critical issues but discovered that its requirements were too daunting and demanded an entirely new staff and volunteer leader mindset to embrace an unfamiliar and complicated methodology of attitudes, action, accountability and behaviors more suited to larger for-profit firms.

 Around that time, The Forbes Group, a Virginia and Chicago-based association consulting firm, began experimenting with ways to resolve the problems of boring and ponderous planning methodologies.  The result was a concept called Preferred Future Development.  Instead of slogan-like or overstretched visions, a preferred future is a succinct set of bulleted descriptions of the organization at a defined future point.  An optimal preferred future has four to six elements at most to force focus.  These descriptions, in the form of outcomes statements, actually are milestones to be achieved along a timeline extending back from that future point to the present.  In between those milestones, specific objectives can be inserted.  And everything from the milestones to the objectives is measurable, timely and can be assigned to teams of staff and volunteers or internal departments.

 The concept intrigued AWI, which wanted to shift the board's focus from tactical to strategic concerns and activities.  A well-crafted preferred future can help do this because the board will develop and track progress toward the ends that future describes.  Board meeting agendas should be designed around those preferred future ends to avoid wandering and engaging in discussions of minutia.  This kind of high-value activity was what the board and staff desired. The reason that it is high-value is that it creates intelligence, which is crucial to the businesses of individual board members, to the industry as a whole and to the association. When board members get intelligence instead of just information, board service becomes extremely desirable and board activities avoid the trivial because they don't improve the enterprise.

 As the first step in developing its preferred future, The Forbes Group interviewed the staff and board posing five questions:

 1.     What are the most critical issues facing the architectural woodwork industry in the next five years?

2.     Which of these issues can AWI effectively address and how?

3.     What are the most critical organizational issues facing AWI the next five years?

4.     How should AWI address these issues?

5.     What should AWI's principal lines businesses be in the future?

The answers pointed out the most important concerns facing association and its members and became the knowledge base for the board's discussion of a preferred future that occurred in a facilitated one-day session at AWI's offices in September 2006.  The most critical issues were spinning off AWI's - standards compliance certification program to avoid liability, creating a uniform - industry  quality standard, helping firm owners improve their business skills because many came from the shop side, and attracting workers to the industry because there was a shortage.  The strategic assessment report eliminated on-site debate and group dynamics issues and enabled the leadership to quickly zero in on the following preferred future:

 By 2013, AWI                                                                            

  • Has created an independent certification program that is universally respected and utilized by specifiers and owners (1st tier)
  • Has developed a single, measurable North American quality standard that applies to all projects and supports certification (1st tier)
  • Has created an owner and/or employee career development program with skills measurement and credentialing (2nd tier)
  • Has identified new sources of employees and marketed the industry to them (1st tier)
  • Has created new opportunities for member involvement that produce high value to the participant and significant contributions to the association (1st tier)

 The preferred future had two tiers: first tier outcomes to be accomplished between 2007 and 2009 and second tier outcomes to be accomplished between 2010 and 2013.   The fifth preferred future element about member involvement was more of a "feel good" end and a difficult one to accomplish because architectural woodwork firms are small businesses whose owners' time is highly mortgaged.

 Two years after adopting its first preferred future, AWI decided to revisit and fine tune it late in 2008 because some initial elements had been accomplished.  Again, staff and leadership were interviewed and a new, but leaner, strategic assessment report prepared.  This time, it took the board only half a day to revise the preferred future to:

By 2013           

  • AWI has educated its membership in application of the Architectural Woodwork Standards and the value of the Quality Certification Program (QCP) certification (1st tier)
  • The Architectural Woodwork Standards and the value of the QCP certification are accepted and utilized by specifiers, owners, and the design community (1st tier)
  • AWI has created a employee career development program with skills measurement and credentialing (1st tier)
  • AWI has provided tools to enable owners and managers to raise their business management skills (1st tier)
  • AWI uses new technologies for different types of member/association and member/member engagement and to deliver products and services (1st tier)
  • AWI has provided tools to enable members to participate in green building projects and explain the value of wood as a sustainable resource to their customers and community (2nd tier)

 Drivers for the revisions were the fact that the quality program had been spun off, uniform standards had been developed, and labor shortages had eased.  Skills training still was a significant need, virtual connectivity had blossomed and sustainability environmental quality had become news and public policy.  The member involvement outcome was eliminated as not being a preferred future outcome but a byproduct of doing important and exciting programs.

 What made the preferred future process work for AWI was that it is consensus driven.  The resulting preferred future elements are simple, easy to understand, and actionable: it is the association's strategic plan.  The big benefit is that you could look at a preferred future and easily develop a relevant list of progressive objectives, which are recommendations from staff to the board.  The board has input into what programs, products and services are of value.  Staff likes the approach because it gives them proper authority to implement and the board and membership receive reports on progress in achieving the elements of the preferred future.  Now AWI is developing metrics for its programs and a statement of core values that are tied to the preferred future.

 The preferred future has created clarity of direction.  There's no ambiguity and it acts as a gyroscope encouraging the board and staff to stay on a strategic course.

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