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.

association growth:: rethinking the planning process

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.

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.”




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?



7 Principles of Strategic Imperatives: Part 1

Strategic imperatives should follow a specific format that are created, written, and managed with the following principles in mind:

1. Focus on “What”, leave room for “How”

This is a subtle but important part of articulating Strategic Imperatives. Employees want to be informed of the crucial parts of an association’s strategy and given a clear sense of priorities, but they do not want to be told how to do their jobs. This distinction matters, because if you want the Strategic Imperatives to really drive action, then you need association staff to get on board and work towards the solution themselves.

Focusing on “how” to achieve Strategic Imperatives, is restricting and prevents employees from coming up with the best approach for execution. By putting focus on what needs to be done, rather than how to do it, will produce superior results.

2. Define success but not how success will be achieved

This principle builds on number 1. What success looks like for each Strategic Imperative (SI) must be measurable, and specific, but not overly detailed. However, if SI’s are too vague, then staff cannot envision how they can contribute to a solution.

A successful board should be guided by those who bring different perspectives to the table.

3. Communication is key, be careful of spin

In fact, SI’s form a key part of communicating an association’s strategy to staff. This is what strategic imperatives are all about – bridging the gap between strategic and operational planning.

Create the initial set of SI’s completely without spin. Once senior management is united behind the intent of the Strategic Imperatives, then a version can be crafted and broadly communicated. You have a key role in ensuring that SI’s are created without spin, until a decision is made to create a communicable version.

During the process of creating Strategic Imperatives, senior leaders can become overly concerned with what people will think or how the imperatives will sound to staff. Do everything you can to prevent this from happening, otherwise the line becomes blurred between what is spin and what the actual intent of the strategic imperative is.


Stay tuned for more principles of strategic imperatives!

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. 


Deadly Planning Mistakes: Planning to a Calendar Year

Some planning mistakes can damage an association’s ability to grow, improve, and change with the times – planning to the calendar year is one of them.

Whether or not we’re ready to admit it, 2016 is quickly coming to an end and time is running out to meet end of year deadlines.

If there’s one lesson to take away from the turmoil of end year stress, its that appropriate project planning can make all the difference. Associations need to create strong but flexible plans in order to keep up with a constantly changing, and often uncertain playing field. A plan that empowers leaders and employees to strengthen the organization’s values and visions while allowing room for adaptation. But how can a planning process do that if its arbitrarily forced into a calendar year? Sure, structure and discipline are important factors, but we don’t need to let the calendar dictate strategy and execution.

pexels-photo-196650 (1)

The Reality of December 31st

For many organizations, the majority of their execution happens in the fall due to the dreaded deadline of December 31st. But is it ideal for these projects and initiatives to have a late fall execution, and a completion date of December 31st? Of course not. Depending on the type of project, it would have made perfect sense to complete for February 15th, or April 30th, or July 1st…you get the idea. An organization’s plan should adapt to the most sensible dates for each initiative, not the other way around.

December 31st, or March 31st as a fiscal year end, is not a magic project execution date. On a stand alone basis, most projects would be better executed on any other date.


Keep December 31st Open for New Years’ Eve Parties

When you compound the problems by the fact that so many projects are being executed in late fall for a December 31st deadline, the issues are even more pronounced. There are a variety of reasons why choosing December 31st is a poor date for project deadlines:

  • It falls in between 2 major holidays; Christmas and New Year’s Day.
  • Most staff and managers would like to take some vacation time during the Christmas break.
  • Most large organizations put a freeze on system implementations for at least the last week of December.
  • Projects are competing with each other for all kinds of resources.

Alternatively, help your association create an agile planning process based on a rolling 4 or 5 quarter horizon (or a rolling 12-15 month), that way execution can happen when it makes sense.


Data Analysis Tips For Better Association Planning

Within the context of effective association business planning, there may be occasions where you are required to perform data analysis. Whether you working with data that you have collected or have been given data that someone else has collected, we’ve got a few suggestions to help you better prepare and stay organized throughout the planning process.


Believe it or not, EssayWriting.Website was started by college students, just like you, who were really good at writing essays while in college. Since then, we have grown quite a bit, but still have a strong connection to how colleges and universities operate today.
  1. Ask questions. People are usually happy to give their opinion so take a moment before you get started to ask the people around you questions. Not only will this help you refine your focus, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run.
  2. Make access clear. Is there a clear agreement that you have access to ALL of the relevant data you will need? You can sign a non disclosure agreement to cover your bases for any special areas that are outside of your regular duties.
  3. Define your boundaries. Avoid getting lost in the data by establishing what is inside and outside the scope of your analysis…before you get started.
  4. Define your objective. It may sound obvious, but digging into data without a clear focus on what you’re looking for will cause confusion and set you back.
  5. Reorganize. Once you know what you want, reorganize the data in a way that suits you. For example, create a spread sheet so you can effectively collect and summarize your data and analysis.
  6. Get a second opinion. Get in touch with a key contact within your organization and bounce your preliminary findings off them. A second pair of eyes can prevent you from going off on irrelevant tangents.

So the next time you are asked to create a draft of your long term financial plan or opportunity analysis you’ll have these 6 tips to keep you ahead of the game.


Tactical Tips for Successful Association Strategy Sessions

In the last blog we discussed the serious side of taking association board strategy sessions seriously. This blog will focus on the tactical tips to achieve the same goal. We have run nearly a thousand strategy sessions over the past 15 years and learned many valuable lessons…some the hard way.

Writers must exercise extreme patience. It begins with learning how to write. It takes many years to become a professional writer. Patience is the characteristic that should never leave writers. Most of the college essay writer service hires experts with this characteristic. Since customers are very different, writers have to be patient and listen to how they need their papers written.

Here are a few basics to running a great strategy session:

  1. Hire a professional facilitator. While the wrong facilitator can backfire terribly, some due diligence can ensure success. This is simple: do not hire a facilitator for an important session without glowing references from another association.
  2. Take your meeting off site. You must separate your session both physically and mentally from day to day operations if you want to get strategic. Make sure the session doesn’t become all about the venue…just take it off site.
  3. Set ground rules up front. This is as simple as it sounds and yet almost never gets done: ask your planning team how they will conduct themselves and what they hope to accomplish before you start. For example, if you can’t get your group to agree to keep the discussion confidential, you have a low likelihood of real success.
  4. Conduct individual interviews in advance. Your facilitator should do this and it is critical to session success for many reasons. Many people don’t do well in a group setting and will provide a wealth of insight in a one-on-one phone call. The facilitator can use this to stoke the session. Volunteer board members have day jobs and just don’t give a lot of thought to your strategy, but interviews within 2 weeks of a session will get them thinking strategically and make them better participants.
  5. Use simple tricks to drive real participation. Some people think, speak and perform well in strategy sessions and some do not. Facilitation tricks need to ensure your strategy isn’t based entirely on the views of your eloquent board members. Give lots of time for thinking and list making individually, in pairs and in small groups before opening conversation up to the larger group. This will help keep people awake too.
  6. Use pre-reads for good not evil. Too many association managers use pre-reads and existing strategy documents to drive a predetermined conclusion…their conclusion. We also see irrelevant pre-read materials pushed just to appear effective. Use pre-reads only if necessary and then only to educate and prepare. Be open to the wisdom of your board.

Good luck.

Association Management Meeting

Do You Want Better Results from Your Association Strategy Session? Take it More Seriously.

A strategy session is arguably the most serious and important thing that any association can undertake. As we often tell participants of our association strategy sessions: “This is not an exercise.” It may feel like an exercise because we often have our board and leadership together away from the day to day, but ultimately we are there to make strategy.

Think carefully about the intent of your session. Do you truly intend to make strategy that will guide and constrain future actions and investments? Do you intend to see actual progress within a year and dramatic progress within 3 years as as a result of your session? If you plan to have an interesting exercise and make some vague proclamations about the future, you will see minimal results. With the wrong strategic intent, you will be having the same strategy conversation again and again. 

How do you take an association strategy session seriously? While there are a number of tactical things you can do (which we will talk about in the next blog), the most important way to ensure progress is to openly discuss and agree to the seriousness of your session, the expected outcomes and hardcore objectives. Your Executive Director, Board Chair and facilitator should discuss and agree to the following well in advance of the session:

  • What specifically will be different or better as a result of the session? What do we truly hope to accomplish during the session?
  • Will the team create a strategy during the session that actually binds this board and future boards?
  • Will most of our association’s strategic spending in the coming years be largely dictated by our decisions in and shortly after the session?
  • Will most of our structure, resourcing and hiring decisions be dictated by our decisions in the session?
  • Will the decisions in this session likely cause us to stop, de-resource or back-burner some of the projects we are working on today?

If you answer the above questions affirmatively, you have strong intent to be successful. Your next challenge is to convince all your session participants that they are making strategy that will impact your association (and often your industry or profession) for many years to come. Not everyone will believe you and not everyone will want the responsibility that comes with this level of seriousness and obligation. From our experience many participants will be truly surprised at the expected impact of the session and most of them will step up to make an effective strategy.

Association Strategy Sessions

Association Strategy Sessions

Association Website Strategy Calls for Commitment, Competition and Accountability

Association website strategy calls for commitment, competition, accountability Your website is vital to your association’s overall success. Member recruitment, retention and engagement are all fueled by this essential communications medium.

Between your broad audience and the abundance of information you need to convey on your site, it takes a consistent strategy to channel those interactions. Even more so than for your for-profit counterparts.

“In some ways, associations have more of an obligation to be thought leaders on the Web than companies do,” says Association Hub Expert Peter Wright. “The professionalism, efficacy, and searchability of an association website are probably more important than a company website.”

To have an effective association website, you must have a disciplined website strategy to optimize your site for search engines. We’ll repeat: To be top of mind, you have to be at the top of Google.

Association managers often don’t understand that you have to earn that top spot. You not only have to earn it, but also maintain it. Otherwise, you run the risk of relinquishing the prized pinnacle to your competitors. What, you say you don’t have any competitors? Of course you do.

“You’re competing for the mind space of your members and prospective members,” says Wright. You’re competing for time and attention span. For the time it takes a busy individual to find your content and engage with it, versus another organization’s content. You’re competing against every other form of content that people consume on the Web. And there are mountains of it.

More importantly, you’re competing for those coveted spots on Google that reinforce your relevance to your audience. Whether you appear at the top, middle or end of the list, or worse on the second page of results, speaks volumes to your target market’s perception of your association as a thought leader.

No. 1 isn’t good enough You’re not just competing for the top spot. You’re battling for several spots at the top of the search engine results pages, or SERPs. “You don’t want to just bump number 1 back to the number 2 spot,” explains Wright. “You want to take the number 1, number 2 and number 3 spots. You want to take as much of that top page as you can. You can actually push your competitors right off the page.” “You can say you’re the voice of your industry, but if that’s not apparent on the Web (meaning you dominate the SERPs), then you’re not a credible leader.”

Plan, execute, measure Earning those coveted spots takes hard work. There are no shortcuts. You need to have a strategy with clear objectives and then measure the results. This is where many associations stumble. “All they know how to do is measure how many hits they get. That’s a starting point, but we need to go much deeper than that. Are we having the desired effect? Are we actually engaging members? Are visitors following the call to action? Are people signing up for our conferences? All those things,” says Wright.

It’s crucial that association executives designate an association staff member to be accountable for your website. This person will oversee the website development and ongoing improvement, including strategy, planning, content creation, and coding. “Make it a priority, commit to it, have a strategy for it, and then have clear accountabilities,” says Wright. “In the end, it will take more than one person to build and maintain a successful site. You need a marketer that knows about SEO (search engine optimization), a writer that can write for humans but get help from the SEO expert, and you need a developer,” explains Association Hub Expert Jim Beretta. “It takes a village.”

Wright and Beretta will host a free webinar on March 24 and a hands-on workshop on April 23, both dedicated to retooling your association website for maximum ROI. Visit the CSAE site for details.

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore the 10 Steps to Retooling Your Website, including the site audit, primary and secondary keywords, and on-page and off-page optimization tables. Plus you’ll learn about power pages, gated content, and the perils of black hat SEO tactics.