The 5 Truths of Association Planning – Part 2

Last week we explored the first 3 of 5 essential association planning truths. Below you’ll find the remaining undeniable truths that are always present for an organization’s strategy and planning methods.

Making Strategy is Not a Natural Skill.

Employees are promoted through organizations because of their operational skills, pure and simple. We must not expect that managers and leaders at a certain level will have an innate skill to plan. The first part in any successful planning effort is education. More importantly, we need to keep our expectations low the first couple times through the process and understand that like anything we will get better at planning with time and experience. Of course better planners make better plans.

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There is no Growth Without a Plan.

Organizations without a plan are running on pure business momentum. Without a clearly stated intention to grow and the necessary actions, resources and investments, growth will stall. When growth stalls, organizations of all kinds begin to lose relevance and their core reason for being.

Ask yourself honestly about the level and efficacy of planning in your organization. Are you getting what you need from planning?

The 5 Truths About Association Planning – Part 1

In nearly 20 years of helping organizations, I have seen strategy and planning from a thousand different angles, however 5 undeniable certainties are always present.

 

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Planning is Hard.

Perhaps it is a sign of our times that we want instant gratification and we underestimate the effort to do something right, but this is especially true with planning. From public, private and non profit organizations, I witness a chronic under-assessment of the level of hard work required to make and execute a successful plan.  This truth pervades every level of the plan from a board of directors who think they can create a compelling and successful strategy in a half day session to a project team who low-balls the effort required for just about everything. If planning was easy, every company, association and charity would grow and thrive every year.

There is no Such Thing as Buy-In.

Many leaders I work with want make a plan with little or no meaningful input from the people who will be responsible for implementation. They believe they can “get buy-in” after the fact. This almost never works. People want a fair and substantive influence on the plan they will ultimately need to execute.

People Hate to be Measured.
A great plan works because it is understandable, measurable and crystal clear regarding expected outcomes and the specific accountabilities for those outcomes. Putting such a fine point on accountability naturally puts just about every involved in a state of unease. Your process needs to take this into account and be prepared that even if people want real input as outlined above, they will turn around and resist when their opinion actually helps shape the business plan.
Stay tuned for 2 more essential truths of association planning.

 

 

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.

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.

Recognizing the Planning-Execution Gap

The Planning-Execution Gap is a phenomenon that rattles almost every organization. The gap comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are important similarities, and you will usually hear people saying things like this: 

  • “We have a clear strategy, but we just can’t seem to execute.”
  • “We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, but we just can’t overcome it.”
  • “Only the ED understands everything that’s going on around here.”
  • “We try to be all things to to all people, and everything seems like a priority – but we never get anything done.” 

 

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A big challenge when leading your association through business planning, is bridging the gap between strategy and execution. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of helping your organization’s leaders articulate a nice strategy, but that doesn’t mean it can or will be executed. Many organizations will have a sound strategy at one end of the planning spectrum, and good projects and actions at the other, but the two just do not connect.

The participants in your planning process are human. Sure they would love it if they could execute their plans to move the business forward, but it takes hard work and many don’t really want to make the necessary changes to close the gap.

As a result, many organizations live with the Planning Gap because it is easier to “do” business planning once a year, and forget about it. Everyone seems surprised that very little actually got accomplished in the following year, then justify the shortcomings in a variety of ways, and repeat the process over again. 

 

Association Strategy: Challenging Assumptions is Hard

When it comes to making and executing strategy, it is human nature to want action. Association executives and managers are action oriented people and we crave execution. When we have a vision for where we want to go…we just want to get there. But is our need for action putting our strategy and our project outcomes at risk? Are we putting our association at risk?

As difficult as it is, we must all do a better job to clearly understand, state and test the critical underlying assumptions of our strategy and projects. First we need to agree that in order to believe our strategy or our project plan, we have in fact made some assumptions. Next, we must answer a few key questions and state our assumptions as clearly as possible:

  • To actually achieve our project objectives or vision, what would we need to believe to be true?
  • Whether we have said them out loud or not…either implicit, or explicit, what assumptions have we made?
  • If wrong, which assumptions are actually critical to our expected outcomes?
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Finally, we must test our critical assumptions. This is the hard part because human nature means we would rather go ahead based on gut than find out our assumptions are flawed. Testing assumptions can be complex if the project is important, risky or costly. At the very least, try this:

  • Ask yourself the question: what is the one question I would rather not ask members or staff or volunteers until the project is complete? Now go ask that question?
  • Who is the one person that will be critical of this project and the assumptions we have made? Now go find that person and subject your assumptions to their criticism.
  • What is the most critical financial assumption we have made. Now go do the legwork and due diligence to prove or disprove that assumption.Assumptions Ahead

 

Continued Insight on Communicating Targets During the Financial Planning Process

This week we have some continued insight to guide you through the financial planning process for associations, and help improve your skills when communicating targets. 

So What/Do What

Throughout the planning process, do your best to provide some line of sight between the targets being communicated, and the work that people are doing every day. The communication must make it plain to each and every person why they should care, and what, if anything they can do about it.

The Importance

Your communication must answer these questions:

  • Why is it important that we achieve these targets?
  • Will something bad happen if we don’t achieve them?
  • Will something good happen if we do achieve them.
  • How will that affect me personally?

The Accountability

Who is accountable for achieving the targets? Many people may have a responsibility to do their part to reach these targets, however it should be clear who is ultimately on the hook for their failure or success.

The Plan

Most importantly, the communication should tell everyone what plans are in place to address each specific target. Be sure to point out any gaps in the plan, or where future planning will be needed.

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Communicating Targets During the Financial Planning Process

A major component of an association’s financial planning process is target setting. Targets have the ability to inspire an entire organization, and how they are set up can have as much of an impact on people as the targets themselves. Whether or not the targets will be successfully executed depends on how well they are communicated.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when communicating targets:

Clarity

The numbers have to be crystal clear. This is the time to avoid ambiguity or confusion about the workings of an organization. The only thing worse than not communicating targets is communicating targets that confuse the foot soldiers about what is truly important.

Context

The communication of targets (especially the high level, strategic ones) is a relatively top-down exercise. However, staff and managers deserve to understand the context with which the targets were created. People will be more inclined to buy-in and get behind the targets when they understand the thinking behind those targets.

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Consider the Audience

Depending on the audience (highly educated or not, blue collar, white collar, internal or external), and how they are positioned will make a big difference in communicating targets well.  

The Spokesperson

Who the communication comes from tells people a lot about the level of importance to the association. Divisional level targets should be communicated by the head of the division or region, whereas high level, strategic targets should be communicated to the whole organization by the CEO or ED.

Stay tuned for more insight into improving target communication skills.

Your Role in Effective Business Planning: Know When to Take it Offline

An important role in effective association planning is to keep things moving smoothly, so whenever you are working with a group of people and progress becomes stagnant, you feel bogged down, or when a high level of agreement on a certain point is required, it might be a good idea to take the details off-line.

When this happens we recommend the following:

  • Call a break, and talk to the boss – or better yet talk to the 2 or 3 people that are causing the deadlock, and ask them how they propose to solve it so the group can move forward. This works like a charm.
  • Ask who would like to work out the details and bring back a proposal to move forward.
  • “Park” the item to the end of a meeting, or a later date.
  • Suggest that you will take the item off line, and propose a solution.
  • Put a place holder in your document, and keep writing. Highlight it, so you remember to come back to it later.
  • Strive for “conditional agreement”. In a recent executive planning session, an exceptional facilitator asked our non-agreeing participants to list the conditions for success that everyone would need to see in order to agree to the proposal on the table. This not only highlighted the hesitation in the room, but also allowed us to move forward.

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Best Practices for Effective Vision Statement Sessions – Part 2

Last week we discussed the importance of a strong practical vision statement and 5 ways to go about facilitating sessions for it. Here is some continued insight into association planning and executing effective vision statement sessions for your team.

 

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Work in a group:

From experience I can tell you that articulating a practical vision statement is nearly impossible with only 1-3 people. There really is incredible synergy in the wisdom of a group. These leaders will need to define and execute the strategy to achieve the vision, and if they had a role in the creation of the vision, the chances of successful execution are much higher.

Include the right people:

The vision is owned by the senior team of any organization, in particular the CEO or ED. If the entire senior team can’t make it to the session, reschedule.

Take it off-site:

Take your team somewhere you won’t be distracted by everything that goes on in the office. Just getting away really helps give everyone a fresh perspective. In many of the organizations I work with, taking the team off-site sends a signal to the teams, and the other employees, that the work is important.

Work from the bottom up:

Although the overall process is more or less top down, describing the practical vision of the organization is the wrong time for a top down exercise. Using all of the techniques listed here, brainstorm as many components of the future state of the organization as possible, and then group all the things that fit together to come up with the main components of your practical vision statement. This not only makes a better statement, it ensures that everyone is heard, and that the vision of a few people isn’t forced on everyone.

Forget about spin:

This is a confidential session of the organization’s most senior people, which means everything should be on the table, and nothing should be sacred. Very specifically tell your participants that it is their job to articulate the true, raw, vision of the future. Repackaging and communicating the practical vision statement is a job for another day. When you see spin happening during your session, do your best to stop it, your participants will thank you later.

Stay away from strategy:

Although the practical vision statement is part of strategic planning, this is not a strategy. I can’t express how important this is: The practical vision is a statement of what the organization looks like at a specific point in time in the future. How we will get there will come later in our process. The entire business plan will depend on the foundation of a practical vision statement, so make sure it is solid.

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