Deadly Planning Mistakes: A Planning Horizon That is too Long

Many planners still consider “strategic” to be synonymous with “long-term”. Executives enjoy long term strategic planning because it’s usually pure fantasy. Consultants love to do long term planning exercises because they make everyone feel good. Yet long planning horizons are the root cause of visions and strategies that are too motherhood to be successfully executed.

We’ve learned from experience with clients, that when we take executive teams through an exercise to create a 2-3 year practical vision, they are visibly uneasy. They know if they commit to a vision of the organization only 8-12 quarters away, real plans will need to be underway within a few months just to be on track.

 

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Creating a Sense of Urgency

This sense of urgency is the best reason to keep planning horizons short. Bridging the gap between strategy and execution is difficult, and a vision that is both practical and compelling is the best foundation. A vision should drive the articulation of an organization’s most crucial priorities, its Strategic Imperatives, as well as a solid plan for how to achieve those priorities. Without that short, practical vision, turning strategy into action is almost impossible.

There is one important caveat: strategic planning, in particular vision statements, should never have a horizon that is too short. A vision for an organization that is only 12 months away, for example, is likely unrealistic, and can cause a sense of hopelessness. This can be just as damaging to successful execution as a vision that is too long.

There is a place for a very high level, longer term strategic vision for your association, but don’t let it be a substitute for a practical vision and strategy that will be the drivers of real action. Keep your business planning horizon between 2-3 years to create plans that are practical, compelling, and stand a fighting chance of execution.

Solution to the Project Management Dilemma

So how can association sustain the benefits of project management, and avoid the problems?

Generally speaking, project management in many associations needs to be brought back into the fold. Although every organization has a unique set of circumstances, there are common high level actions to be taken:

  • Expand the current definition of project management to take a more holistic view of projects from the very infancy of an idea, through business casing and approvals, through the traditional domain of project management, to a deliberate post implementation review.
  • Tier your projects based on criteria that are important to your association, and right-size the project management process so that not all projects are created equally. The discipline and rigor applied to each initiative needs to be commensurate with the relative importance of the initiative.
  • Provide basic training for all the players in project management including sponsors, internal clients, and end users.

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Project management has come a long way, but we need to take deliberate steps to ensure that it continues to add value. Successful PM should create just enough process to meet objectives and present itself in the form of useful tools rather than bureaucracy.

When Project Management Takes on a Life of its Own

Any organization looking to make major changes, or add new products or systems, has found tremendous benefit in project management. Over the past decade, organizations have directed substantial resources to the project management discipline. The process and skill-set has matured and improved dramatically and has been so successful that project management has taken on a life of its own.

Through powerful Project Management Offices (PMO’s), the discipline has grown as an increasingly stand-alone entity disjointed from strategy, innovation, and resource allocation. Many of today’s PMO’s lack the organizational context to add additional value to their organization and its goals.

 

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As project management becomes increasingly disjointed from both strategy and operations, many organizations have experienced painful side effects. With project managers and PMO’s pushing for greater autonomy to practice their craft, internal clients treat them more like a supplier than an internal partner. This more distant relationship, coupled with ever increasing expectations to deliver more for less, has led to a growing phenomenon of game playing between internal clients and project managers.

There are a multitude of scenarios, this is just one:

  • An internal client or user group defines a need to execute a project
  • The client and PMO define a reasonable set of business requirements necessary to achieve the objectives of the project
  • The Project Manager uses available information and due diligence to provide a reasonable estimate of dollars and time to deliver the project as defined by the agreed upon business requirements
  • The internal client pushes back on everything but the deliverables, with the general threat that if the project can’t deliver all the scope in a shorter time and for less money, then there won’t be a project
  • The PMO capitulates, and the project proceeds
  • The project goes off the rails, and the deliverables are cut to keep the project within budget and on time
  • The PMO presses the issue of the original estimate, the internal client pushes back again, and the PMO capitulates again
  • The project continues to fall off the rails and functionality continues to be pared down to keep the project on schedule
  • The project is delivered on time and on budget with a fraction of the required functionality, and Phase Two is born

 

This scenario may be familiar if you have experience with large organizations. The other common side effect is when an organization can execute projects well, but those projects aren’t necessarily aligned to the strategy. This is at the heart of the planning/execution gap that we talked about in a previous blog; and a portion of the blame is often traced back to a project management process that is disjointed from the greater operational context.

Next we’ll take a look at how to maintain the benefits of project management and avoid the problems.

 

More on Value Proposition Statements

Value Proposition Statement as a Marketing Tool 

If you firmly articulate your Value Proposition statement, then by all means write a marketing version of it and use it. Be mindful, however. Don’t just articulate the Value Proposition statement with the sole objective of marketing. This may sound like splitting hairs, but trust me, if you set out to create a marketing statement, this is exactly what you will get.

A clear and concise value proposition statement can become one of the most powerful marketing messages than an association can have. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It clearly states who the target market it, and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the target market. Obviously, members will really like it if they feel like your association understands them and their issues.
  • It will clearly describe the tangible benefits that members will receive through membership.
  • It will tell members how receiving the product or service from your association will benefit them more than if they received it from your competitors, or if members tried to duplicate the value themselves.
  • It clearly differentiates you from your competitors.

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Refreshing the Value Proposition

Like all other parts of the business plan, don’t let the value proposition go stale. Members’ needs change just about as fast as everything else in the association world, so refresh your value proposition at least once a year.

Value Proposition Pay Off

Value Proposition allows associations to form a strong strategic foundation they can continue to build on, but what other benefits come from a deep understanding of value proposition?

Firstly, and most importantly, your organization can avoid commoditization of your offer. You don’t even need complete control over all parts of the value you deliver. Your association’s unique partnerships with others, and tight relationships with suppliers, and other intermediaries can be combined with your offer to deliver a powerful solution to your members. The use of engaged members can even be part of the value chain equation.

 

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When done right, understanding and articulating a clear statement of value proposition will help you realize:

  • Better recruitment
  • Faster product development and time to market
  • Decreased development and marketing costs
  • Improved operational efficiency
  • Increased market share
  • Better member retention

To come: how to use value proposition statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Association Growth: Rethinking the Planning Process

Planning can be painful, and many associations have tried to make up for “good process” with “big process”. When the size and complexity of an organization increases, their strategy and planning processes either develop unwieldy, and often bizarre layers, or they simply do not keep pace. Many big organizations have let their planning processes run out of control. Some of the results are not pretty:

  • The budgeting process has not only become unwieldy, highly detailed, and often politically charged, but it has largely supplanted any real strategy and planning efforts.
  • Annual planning processes become too much of an event, they suck valuable resources, and are too slow and cumbersome to provide value.
  • Organizations are planning for the wrong reasons, usually to satisfy a corporate requirement, rather than to actually improve the business condition.
  • Organizations have not made the investment in leaders and managers to develop the skills necessary for true strategic thinking.
  • Even associations that set the operational standards in their industry do not take the time to truly understand their business as a basis for innovation and growth.

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When organizations shift their thinking about what they want to get out of their planning processes, they generally follow the fundamental objectives that their new planning process must:

  • Consume less organizational effort than the existing process.
  • Increase the strategic ability of leaders and managers.
  • Provide a well defined relationship between vision, strategy and actions to all employees to improve morale, and the drive for common good.
  • Provide detailed, actionable deliverables in the short term, with diminishing detail as the planning horizon increases.
  • Entrench planning as part of the leadership toolkit.
  • Operate effectively regardless of the quarter and not be limited by calendar dates such as December 31.

A Few More Essential Facilitation Guidelines

Here are a few more guidelines to help you facilitate an engaging and impactful meeting:

Encourage Participation

Encouraging group discussion will help you cover all points of view and ideas. This will create better quality decisions as well as highly motivated participants; they will feel that attending your meetings is worthwhile. When participants see their impact on the decision making process, ideas, and activities, commitment to the plan improves. If one or two people monopolize your meeting, the quality of the plans you produce will suffer.

Keep Track of Key Items

Have someone other than the chair or facilitator record key decisions and action items. It is not necessary to record every detail, but make sure you capture the key points, and reiterate them when appropriate.

 

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Meeting Follow Up

Within 24 hours circulate a brief report on decisions, individual responsibilities, next steps, next meeting dates, and so on. Quick action reinforces the importance of meeting and reduces errors of memory. Finally, follow up to see that the actions are being taken. If you do not follow up, all your effort may be wasted.

Almost everything about running a successful meeting involves being deliberate in what you do and say. Flip charts work well, because when you write something down, participants will disagree if you misrepresented their intentions. Verbally reiterating a participant’s point, or summarizing the conversation also works well. Give your participants every opportunity to speak up if they disagree. It is better to have disagreement happen during the meeting rather than after its finished.

One More Facilitation Tip

Many people say that speakers tend to rely on PowerPoint as a crutch, and that “good” speakers should be able to get on without. That may be true for speakers, but having a PowerPoint to give you cues, and guide your participants through your agenda can be an invaluable tool for facilitating a meeting.

Take the main items of your agenda and create a slide for each, and fill in the sub points as they make sense. Having this visual helper up on a screen throughout your meetings is a great way to let participants know where you are at in your process – and they usually appreciate the reference.

 

What are some other ways association professionals can further strengthen facilitation skills?

Essential Facilitation Guidelines

When you facilitate a meeting, these essential guidelines will help ensure a successful meeting for both team leader and participants:

Be Prepared

Arrive early to make sure any necessary equipment is set up and ready to operate at the start of the meeting. If you are not fully prepared when the meeting begins, you will waste time and appear unprofessional.

Start and Finish on Time

Always start and finish meetings on time regardless of late participants. Try to avoid restarting the meeting or recapping information for those who were late. This is tough to do with senior folks, but they will respect you for it. Always adjourn at least 5-10 minutes before your scheduled finish time, so participants can arrive on time for their next meeting. If you already have a culture where being on time is expected, this will be easy, if you have the other kind of culture…be tough.

 

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Stick to the Agenda

Stick to your agenda and keep conversation focused on the topic – don’t wait until the end of the meeting to try to catch up. Feel free to ask for only constructive and non-repetitive comments. Tactfully end discussions when they are getting nowhere.

Open with your Objective, and Close with your Accomplishments

Briefly reiterate purposes and established ground rules at the beginning of your meeting. End with a summary of accomplishments, clarification of agreements, and next steps.

Actively Manage your Meeting

Actively manage the meeting with three responsibilities in mind: stay on track, stimulate participation, and accomplish your objectives. Don’t allow participants to take your meeting off agenda. The best way to do this successfully is to manage your agenda in chunks. Don’t wait until the end of the meeting to try and get back on schedule. Park any off-topic items for discussion at the end of the meeting or at a later date.

 

 

7 Principles of Strategic Imperatives: Part 3

Unlike many of the concepts of effective business planning, Strategic Imperatives are something that many planners have never heard of. The idea of Strategic Imperatives, sometimes known as Strategic Priorities, Business Imperatives, Business Priorities, among others, have not had a long history.

The use of Strategic Imperatives is currently limited to the most forward thinking organizations, so if you can only do one thing to improve your business plan, focus on Strategic Imperatives.

6. Each Strategic Imperative Must Have a Clear Completion Date.

Although Strategic Imperatives are not projects, they do have a start and finish date. Strategic Imperatives are not operational, and they can’t go on indefinitely. Strategic Imperatives should change over time, and as Strategic Imperatives are completed, other Strategic Imperatives are started.

To build on the example I used in our last blog regarding “People Development” as a Strategic Imperative; it, of course is possible that at some stage in an association’s development the deliberate development of its employees may be a reasonable Strategic Imperative. But that Strategic Imperative must have well-defined boundaries, and clear objectives that can and must be completed in a reasonable length of time.

When those objectives have been met, the Strategic Imperative gets dropped from the list. Of course “People Development” is always going to be an important ongoing part of any operation, but it is no longer a Strategic Imperative. I see lots of examples like this in my work, including Strategic Imperatives around “Improving Member Service”, “Growing the Sales Force”, and “Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement.”

 

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7. Clearly define accountability for each Strategic Imperative.

Because Strategic Imperatives are strategic, we are talking about executive accountability.

The overall accountability for each Strategic Imperative should reside with one of the organization’s most senior people. But don’t fall into the trap of giving accountability for every Strategic Imperative to the ED or CEO. Yes, they have overall accountability for the vision and the strategy of the organization, but don’t forget we are trying to deliberately push accountability down the organization one step at a time, and Strategic Imperatives are the first step.

Although the accountability for each Strategic Imperative is going to be assigned to one senior person, there will be shared responsibility to execute it, as the associated actions move down the organization.

 

7 Principles of Strategic Imperatives: Part 2

Previously, we covered the first three principles required for effectively formatting, creating, writing, and managing Strategic Imperatives. Our list of principles continues below:

4. Strategic Imperatives should be inspirational

Setting up strategic imperatives are one of the first steps of using the strategy of an organization to drive action, and as such, they should be inspiring. Inspiration needs to be grounded in reality, avoid vagueness and feel good statements. To achieve this without speaking in platitudes, ensure each strategic imperative:

  • Is as specific as reasonable, given that it is strategic
  • Will be a stretch to accomplish without being so far out that it creates a sense of hopelessness
  • Is well written and presented in clear, concise language, without sounding like marketing
  • Is backed up with the underlying context and assumptions that were used to create them

5. Strategic Imperatives must be Imperative

This may go without saying, but do not allow items to creep into your list of Strategic Imperatives because it seems like the right thing to do.

Articulating even one Strategic Imperative that isn’t really imperative will weaken the whole set, and will sully the process. This is especially true if staff perceive that a Strategic Imperative has been included for political reasons, or that it’s just “lip service”. The first time staff and managers are introduced to the set of Strategic Imperatives, you want them to say “wow, those really are the most important things we need to accomplish, and I want to make my contribution.”

The best example I can give for this comes from my own experience helping clients articulate their Strategic Imperatives. In all the Strategic Imperative sessions I have done, almost without fail, the last Strategic Imperative on the list is titled “Human Resource Strategy” or “Develop the Best People”, or “Training and Development”, or sometimes just “People”. Now these are all great things, but are they imperative? Are they operational, or is it actually imperative that the organization puts a special time constrained emphasis on the development of its people right now?


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