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.” 




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. 


Start the New Year Right: The Importance of Signing Off

Previously we’ve discussed how keeping progress moving, especially when working with a group, is crucial part of effective leadership. Well 2017 has arrived and with it, the opportunity for association professionals to start the year off on the right foot. A great way to this is by getting sign off’s (whether it is formal or informal), which will ensure everyone is in agreement before you move from one stage to the next.

By knowing where things stand, you have a much better chance of moving to the next stage of the process, rather than people trying to constantly revisit the stage you just finished. Getting a sign off can be as simple as sending an e-mail that says: “I am looking for approval to proceed based on where we are right now, which is…”

If you reach agreement in a meeting, write it on a flip chart, and have everyone grab a marker and sign their name. If there is any hesitation as to the agreement, you will hear about it.

As the person driving the process, you need to consistently test that you still have a strong mandate to move forward, and getting sign off at major process points is absolutely critical.


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.


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.




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.


Best Practices for Effective Vision Statement Sessions

In the past we’ve discussed how the start of a new year is a great opportunity for association leaders to revisit an organization’s strategic plan. More specifically, it’s the perfect time to refresh and strengthen your organization’s vision statement.

A good vision statement is an essential element of every good business plan, and should take priority when it comes to proper association planning. A successful vision statement articulates what your organization aims to be and what the organization will look like in the future. Take caution though, they can easily become overused, abused, and the most poorly written part of your business. We’ve laid out what a good vision statement looks like here.

In order to help you create a strong and practical vision statement, we recommend facilitating a group session. Be sure to ask specific questions, as it is easy to be vague when discussing the future. These 5 practices will help your team articulate an exceptional vision statement:



Be specific about the date:

Depending on the length of your planning horizon, ask them to think about an exact date (ex: 3 years from today). Be specific of what day of the week it is and where they are. Don’t just ask them to think about the future.

Be specific about success:

Most vision statements paint a positive view of the future. Ideally, your vision statement will too, but you must ensure that participants are specific about what a successful future state looks like. If they make a statement that fits our view of a practical vision, but is too vague to be useful, then prompt them to be more specific. Your participants should be able to specifically articulate what success will look like in the future, otherwise the vision won’t be practical.

Use a third party view:

Whenever possible, encourage your participants to talk about what others would see if they looked at the organization in (3) years’ time, for example. One of the most effective scenarios I’ve used is to help them imagine that a newspaper article has been written about the association in the future. You can then ask them in specific terms to describe what is written in the article. I find this small trick allows for more honest, practical, and reasonable responses.

Take a future view:

Again, asking your participants to think about the future is vague. Instead, ask them to imagine that the future is already here. Statements about the future are more reasonable when participants really try to imagine they have already arrived at that future state – especially when combined with the practices described above

Get personal:

Have the participants imagine themselves within the future state they have described. By picturing themselves as part of the vision, your participants will be more specific, realistic, and optimistic about the future.

Group Interviews Yield Positive Results For Association Leadership

When you start the strategic planning process for your association you’ll need to collect information from members. This information will help you articulate your plan later. Last week we went over how to get the most out of one on one internal interviews. This week we are focusing on how to maximize the value of internal group interviews. Like one on one interviews you should make it clear to the attendees that it is not an exchange of ideas; you are there to get answers and insight to specific questions that you have.

Group sessions allow association members to communicate with each other and work as a team. This dynamic collaboration offers insight that one on one interviews cannot match.

Prior to your group sessions make sure to meet with each person who will be attending. Even if you work with them everyday make time for a conversation. As we mentioned last week a 30-60 minute interview is best.

Those individual sessions will help guide the type of questions you ask in the group interview. If you notice different responses to one question in particular considering asking that again in the group interview. Ask clear questions about the issues association leadership are considering to attendees. This will help your group give more informed answers.  


A few basic principles for group interviews:

  1. Make sure to keep the group small enough for everyone to speak and be heard.
  2. Remember that people are more vocal when their boss is not in the room. So if you are their direct boss or supervisor do not conduct the interview.
  3. Adapt a set of questions based on the list you used for one on one interviews. Make note of which ones were contentious and which ones had a more universal reaction. Start with one that unifies the group. Don’t be afraid to add questions based on your own thoughts and reflections since the one on one interviews.
  4. Announce to the group at the beginning of the interview what you will do with your notes. Similar to the one on one interviews you will get more frank responses if you can honestly say you won’t attribute anyone’s comments to them directly.
  5. Always tell your group at the beginning that you will send them your notes immediately after the interview. Allow them to recommend amendments to your notes and offer further commentary.
  6. Ask open ended questions, except where you need specific responses. Don’t be afraid to pose the same question several different ways to get the information you need.
  7. Exactly like the one on one interviews aim for a 45 minutes and do not go over an hour.
  8. Send an email to the group prior to the meeting to help them understand how it will be used in the broader process. Emphasize at the beginning of the email before you ask any questions. Always be honest about the reasons for the interview.

Group interviews get participants to take an active role in the planning process. It also gets them talking to each other and ensures everyone is on the same page.

As we said last week most people never seriously consider the future of the organization until someone like you comes along to ask. Do you have any tips for running internal group interviews? If so leave them in the comments or through social media.

Why Association Leadership Should Conduct Internal Interviews

As you start in the strategic planning process you will need to collect information which will help you articulate your plan. Conducting one on one internal interviews, and later group interviews, is a great way to gather that information. First by calling it an interview, you make it clear that it is not an exchange of ideas; you are there to get answers and insight to specific questions that you have.

On top of that association leadership can gain valuable insight in a one on one situation, which may not come across in your group sessions, especially if you are interviewing an introvert.

one on one interview association leadership

Try to have a brief conversation with every single person that will be in your group sessions, before the session even if you work with them every day. Of course a 30-60 minute interview is even better. This simple step takes a lot of pressure off you when you get to your first group session, and you’ll dramatically improve the results. One on one interviews will also give you a better idea of the questions to tackle during group time.

You’ll also hear a lot of the important history and biases in individual interviews that you just won’t get facilitating a group session.

8 basic principles for one on one interviews:

  1. Make sure they really are 1:1. Ganging up on someone in this type of internal interview will not produce the results you want.
  2. Remember that people are more vocal when their boss is not in the room. So if you are their direct boss or supervisor do not conduct the interview.
  3. Prepare a set of questions in advance and type your notes as you go. You can even send the questions to your interviewee in advance.
  4. Tell your interviewee at the beginning of the interview what you will do with your notes. If you can honestly say you won’t attribute their comments to them directly, you will get much more frank responses.
  5. Always tell your interviewee at the beginning of the interview that you will send them your notes immediately after the interview to give them a chance to edit them. This takes off all the pressure and makes for a much more open discussion. You will also get some useful input that your interviewee thought of after the interview.
  6. Keep your questions as open ended as possible, except where you need specific responses Don’t hesitate to ask the same question several different ways to dig out the information you need
  7. Aim for a 45 minute interview and do not go over an hour.
  8. Always provide context for how the interview output will be used in the broader process in an e-mail before and in person the beginning of the interview. Always be honest about the reasons for the interview.

One of the most useful reasons to do interviews is to simply get your participants thinking about planning in advance of your sessions. Don’t forget, most people never really think about the future of the organization until someone like you comes along to ask. Next week we’re going to look at how to conduct a great group interview.

Association Leadership: What A Good Vision Statement Looks Like

Last week we discussed how association leadership should approach your association’s Vision Statement. In this week’s blog we highlight good, the bad, and the ugly of Vision Statements. These are real vision statements that we changed enough to protect the companies and associations that submitted them. Our changes are in [brackets].

vision statement association leadership

The Good

At the end of 2017, Acme is recognized by business, media, and government as the most important authority for Canadian [xyz] issues, and the principal advocate for the [xyz] community. With [X,000] highly engaged members and [X] regional chapters, we have more in diverse revenue and a sustainable business model for an expanded delivery of our mandate.

In particular:

  1. We understand and address the in-depth needs of our members across a broad industry and sector representation.
  1. Our annual conference is the foremost [xyz] event in Canada with more than [X] exhibitors and [X] attendees.
  1. We are an important career resource for members and the preferred sourcing point for [xyz] roles for Canadian employers.
  1. Our searchable online library of precedents, tools, and resources is a central component of the value we provide members, and the most comprehensive source of [xyz] knowledge in Canada.
  1. We provide timely, relevant communication to our members regarding issues that matter to them.
  1. Our efforts have helped to improve the understanding and importance of the role of the [xyz professional] in Canada.

What makes it good?

It’s relatively short, and they have put the supporting detail in bullet points that could easily be dropped when a sound bite is all that is needed. It’s written in an active voice. This may have thrown you at first to see the words “we are, we have” in a vision statement, but it creates a sense of ownership over a passive voice of “the XYZ organization will…” or worse yet, “a new system will…” This statement is specific about the timing, but not too detailed. Using 2017 creates a sense of urgency, but they recognized that this is still a strategic document, and they didn’t say “March 1” 2017.

They made sure that everything in here is measurable. They didn’t (and shouldn’t) lay out the exact measures in the Vision Statement, but they made sure the concepts are concrete enough to actually track for success.

The statement is written as if it already is 2017, and this vision was written in 2014. Remember this is a vision of where the organization will be, not a strategy, or plan of how to get there. Although the statement is specific and easy to understand, the vision is not a slam dunk. This organization will really have to stretch itself to achieve this vision, and any employee or member would immediately recognize that. Employees would also recognize that under the right circumstances, the vision is achievable.

Although it’s a vision statement, it foreshadows the real priorities of the organization.

The Bad

“The [XYX] is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all those who are interested in risk analysis. Risk analysis is broadly defined to include risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and policy relating to risk, in the context of risks of concern to individuals, to public and private sector organizations, and to society at a local, regional, national, or global level.”

What makes it bad?

It is too complicated and even people in this field will not read it. This is not a Vision Statement at all. It’s more of a description of what this society is and a definition of their work.

The Downright Ugly

“To be the leading global force in advancing science to enhance human, animal, and environmental health.”

What makes it ugly?

This could be for almost anything. This statement is far too vague to be valuable. Furthermore it won’t drive any action because anyone that reads it will not take it seriously. Finally, it doesn’t make sense grammatically.

Now you know what to look for when reviewing your association’s Vision Statement. 

Association Leadership: Crafting A Strong Vision Statement

vision statement

The new year is a great time for association leadership to take stock of their current strategic plan. If you are in the process of this already you are likely considering if your organization’s Vision Statement matches what you are actually doing.

A strong Practical Vision Statement puts a stake in the ground that managers and employees feel compelled to reach, and guides the rest of the non-profit business plan.

Part of the problem with Vision Statements is that many organizations articulate them for the wrong reason: because everyone else has one. Then, unfortunately, they put them on their website and other prominent places where their employees, donors, members and competitors can see them.

If your management or board wants to create a vision statement merely as a show piece, stay away. Help them with their vision only if they see it as an important first step to a really great business plan.

Don’t Flaunt it Unless You’ve Really Got It

Don’t get us wrong, if you have a great Practical Vision Statement, flaunt it. After creating the Practical Vision Statement, you can carefully craft a version that can be communicated to various stakeholders.

If you set out to create a vision statement that sounds nice…that is what you’ll get. It probably won’t be that useful. Our advice is that you set out to create a great Vision Statement to help guide the plan and run the business. You can worry communicating it later.

Start from Scratch

We have all seen terrible vision statements. Occasionally you even see one that you think is really good. When you do, print it or copy it down and file it away so you can show it to your participants when you are helping them articulate their own Vision Statement. Maybe your organization’s Vision Statement is already in your “ugly file”.

A word of caution: don’t try to sit down and rewrite a really bad vision statement. If the Vision Statement is that bad, likely so is the underlying vision. Convince your participants to throw it out and start from scratch using the principles and methodology outlined in our Strategy and Business Planning Toolkit.

Next week we’ll analyze an example of a good Practical Vision Statement so you can understand everything that goes into it.