Strategic Thinking Articles

Changing to a Truly Strategic Model for Planning

Many association strategic plans end up going nowhere because they aren't really strategic, they aren't connected to anything, and nothing connects to them. The whole point of strategic planning is to create a bold, overarching direction for the association that is based on in-depth analyses of future markets and players and that connects to real work.. Too often, the process is planning heavy and thinking and implementing light. It looks like the diamond diagram. Instead, it should look like the bow tie diagram where planning is the connective tissue between thinking and implementing.

A diagram demonstrating these contrasting  ideas of strategic planning. The first, the diamond shaped model, has  the greater emphasis on planning. The second, an hourglass shape,  emphasizes thinking and implementation over planning

So, what is strategy? The word has become overused and diluted. Michael Porter, Harvard's strategy guru, says it's the creation of a unique and valuable position. It's based on making competitive trade-offs to create value. Its essence is choosing what not to do. This can be as simple as listing businesses the association isn't and shouldn't be in. For example, an optical industry association's board determined that they weren't in the business of lobbying, grant making or funding allied organizations' programs, though they'd been asked to be in all three. Affirming this made it much easier to say "no," which should be the mantra of strategic focus.

How do you create a unique and valuable position? By analyzing how the customers of the association's customers will change in the future. We conducted a major study of the future of conventions, meetings and expositions for the Professional Convention Management Association. It revealed that future customers of events would fund their own attendance instead of being sent by their employers; that they would be more entrepreneurial than employees; that meetings will be "Endless Summers" connected continuously in virtual environments instead of "Brigadoon's" that appear briefly then disappear; that meetings would become "catwalks" cutting across occupation and function instead of "smokestacks" appealing to just one industry or profession; that you can train from a distance but must coach in person. This knowledge is allowing PCMA to create the "Meeting of the Future" to showcase these approaches.

In another example, ARMA International, the organization of records managers and administrators wanted to reposition their members and themselves. Our strategic research showed that the world of global, barrierless commerce was creating an intellectual property security gap as companies form "LegoŽ" relationships that snap together competitors and suppliers to create a product or project, then unsnap and reform with other players for other purposes. Records managers, often seen as back-of - the business tacticians now have an opportunity to become front-of-the-office strategists advising CEOs on how to create relationships that don't give away the store. As a result, ARMA is reinventing the profession and itself. In fact, they are considering renaming the field "information and relationship management."

Solid strategic thinking like this leads to bold, focused plans that define future endpoints that are achievable, measurable and timely. It replaces cookie-cutter visions like "become the premier organization in the fill-in-the-blanks field" with clarity, such as this vision for the American Society of Interior Designers:

By 2005, ASID is an organization that
  • Is vital to the success of the interior design community, its practitioners, partners, and customers through shared knowledge and collective action
  • Gives interior designers the tools to understand and perform beyond customer expectations
  • Is the catalyst for understanding and managing the changing working and living environments

This leads to clear missions such as the one ARMA International is crafting that says its business is to "define the evolving records management field, provide records managers the skills and tools to be successful in the evolving field, and raise understanding of the value of records managers among their employers and clients."

With a well-defined, easy-to-remember mission such as ARMA's (define the field, improve skills, raise understanding), the strategic decision of choosing what not to do becomes simple. Everything must accomplish one of those three outcomes or it isn't the work of the association.

To define work, a good tactical plan needs to attach to the strategic plan. This includes determining tactical outcomes, audiences, messages and vehicles to reach them. The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists has launched a new product, program, service or benefit every six weeks for more than three years using this implementation approach.

Bottom line, planning is simply the means to accomplish the ends of an association. Too often, it is an end in itself.

Details: Bruce Butterfield, CAE, President and CEO, The Forbes Group, Fairfax, VA 703-691-2440.

Bruce Butterfield is a CAE, FELLOW, ASAE, and PRSA, and is president and CEO of the Forbes Group.

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