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

 

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.

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  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.

 

The Power of a Wiggle Proof Association Vision

Wiggle proof plans start with a vision for the association that is written as a guide for board and management rather than a marketing piece for your website. Every statement about the future must be challenged with the same questions:

  • How will we know we have arrived?
  • How will we measure success when we get there?
  • How will you and I be held personally accountable for the success or failure of achieving each part of the vision?

This is huge stretch for most associations and program areas because we have been trained to be vague about the future. We think visions need to sound good enough to put in a brochure or on our website. This isn’t true. We must endeavor to create a vision of the future that’s actionable and measurable. Whether it’s for yourself, your team, your program, or the entire association, your vision needs to compel people to do stuff and scare them a little at the same time. Whether it’s for your team or your entire association, building a bullet proof vision is the best way to start at the top of the pyramid to remove much of the permission that exists today for slow progress. Most people do not want to fail. If we make the path to a shared vision clearer, compelling and more measurable, most of us will follow that path.

Association Vision

Analysis Paralysis in Association Management: Caution or Curse?

Proceeding with no data can be careless, even foolhardy. Unfortunately, as you know, that happens all the time. That’s another kind of laziness altogether when we are just too lazy to perform reasonable due diligence to make an informed decision, so we make an uninformed one. We shoot from the hip. We’ll talk about that later.

Right now, I’m focused on the opposite thing. I’m focused on those situations where we keep asking for more data in hopes that the thing awaiting execution just fades away. Or like a court case, we create so much confusion that we sow reasonable doubt, and decision making is paralyzed.

Paralysis by analysis. Isn’t this really just another stalling technique? Isn’t this really just a form of high brow procrastination? Another way to keep backburnering something until it goes away? There are real fears hidden in this one. There’s the fear of making a decision that will turn out to be wrong. There’s the fear of making a well informed strategic bet. It’s a fear of relying on our experience and living up to our seniority to make an assumption. As association manager, as association executives, as the people running our organizations, this is what we get paid for. We are being paid to make well informed decisions, predict trends, make assumptions and take risks. We are being paid to make strategy.

Association Paralysis by Analysis

Association Risk Aversion: Is it Just an Aversion to Action?

Risk aversion. “We are a risk averse culture.” I hear this one on a regular basis.

I facilitate a lot of association strategy sessions with organizations of all size. Public companies, private companies, public sector, associations, and not for profits. A common occurrence in all those sessions is that I often find myself asking the same question: “why haven’t you tried this before?” At that point in the meeting when the clear objectives start to emerge, I might say something like: “This course of action seems like a good strategy for your organization and you are all in agreement. You have many of the skills and resources to accomplish what you are proposing.Why haven’t you tried this before?”

Someone will usually say: “That’s a good question. This is a very risk averse culture.” Big Pause. “We have never really dedicated the effort to figure out how to get started on this one.” Bingo. Let’s rename Aversion to Risk to “Aversion to Action.”

Association Risk Aversion

Fear of Failure or Fear of Hard Work?

Fear of failure is another one of my favorite euphemisms. Of course we are all afraid to fail and this fear could certainly be heightened in less enlightened workplaces where an overall culture of fear or intimidation is prevalent. In some organizations, people really are afraid to fail. That is not what I am talking about. I’m referring to situations mostly where the fear should be gone, but we just are not putting forward the effort to move ahead.

Let me give you an example. When I help associations define their strategy, we always try to identify a handful of strategic imperatives. Essentially, what are those 5 or 6 critical priorities that must be accomplished in the next 12 months if we hope to be on track to our vision? Invariably, most organizations define at least one or two strategic imperatives that start with the word “leverage.” “Leverage our member data.” “Leverage our XYZ system to maximize value.” This makes sense. We build systems and processes and practices and we just don’t use them effectively enough to get our value out. These things take time. But what would you think about a strategy where every single strategic imperative started with the work “leverage?” I know what I think. I think those organizations start a lot of things and don’t have the discipline to finish them and follow through to achieve their original objectives.

I suggest we rename fear of failure to fear of follow through.

Fear of Failure in Associations

Making an Investment in Association Strategy

There is a strange dichotomy in associations in recent years. While more associations have more money sitting in reserves than ever before, boards are reticent to invest in strategy. We have all heard how public companies are holding unprecedented amounts of cash at the expense of shareholder value. Those companies should either invest in future growth or release bigger dividends to shareholders. This is analogous to the state of many associations today.

My biggest frustration after every successful planning process with associations is the hesitation to invest even small percentages of reserves in strategy. This money ultimately belongs to your members and they expect you to put it to the best use to drive your association’s mandate forward. Making strategy is the absolute obligation of the board of the day. It may be scary, but today’s board must make real strategy that binds future boards and drives future decisions across the operation. Real strategy almost always requires an investment.

I’m not advocating putting your organization at undue risk in future tough times. I’m advocating modest investments to make real change for the benefit of your members. Do you want to grow? Do you want to improve your education or advocacy efforts? Do you want to drive greater value to members? Make the investment.

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Association Strategy and Planning For All The Right Reasons

If you set out to create strategy for something that sounds nice on your website, that is precisely what you are going to get. Strategy and planning should never be entered into for the wrong reasons:

  • Because your board told you to
  • Because you plan every year
  • Because your members expect to see a strategy document
  • Because you just want another binder on the shelf

Good association strategy and planning comes from good intent. Making real and substantive change, gaining alignment of board and staff, driving more value to members…these are all good places to start planning. The words don’t need to be fancy, but they will come easily if you plan for the right reasons.

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Top 5 Questions Association Executives should Ask When Considering New Strategy

Do We Really Want to Do That?

  1. What do you really hope to accomplish?
  2. How will we know we are done?
  3. What will Members, Staff and Board be saying to tell us we are successful?
  4. What happens if we do nothing?
  5. How will we measure success?

Strategy may be all about making choices, but it is critical to understand what those choices really mean. The more time we can spend understanding our objectives, the less likely we are to make bad strategy. Association members count on us to spend our resources wisely. Clear objectives is the first step.