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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Do We Really Want to Do That?
- What do you really hope to accomplish?
- How will we know we are done?
- What will Members, Staff and Board be saying to tell us we are successful?
- What happens if we do nothing?
- 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.
Do associations have the same responsibility to create business plans as their profit driven counterparts? In a word: yes. In fact, with funding coming from members, sponsors and donors, associations managers have a higher duty of care to create and execute clear, measurable plans.
Associations have a number of unique complexities that make deliberate, action-oriented business planning essential:
- So called “mission driven” organizations are complex animals. Whether we like to admit it or not, profit is a compelling and focused motive that forces at least some strategic alignment in a profit driven organization. Gaining business plan alignment across a large association to a noble but “soft” mission can be elusive.
- Large parts of many associations run on volunteers, and we simply can’t count on volunteers to behave the same way employees do. While it’s true that employees are driven by a complex set of motivators, volunteers are driven by motivation that is multifarious and amazingly subtle. When employees stray too far from our priorities, we fire them. When volunteers stray too far, we try even harder to engage them.
- Funding can be incredibly unstable, and often overly concentrated on member fees or a single cornerstone program. Most established companies have revenue momentum and diversity that associations can only dream about.
- By their very nature, many associations are torn between equally important, yet highly contradictory priorities. Yes I know that we have competing priorities in our profit driven enterprises, but nothing compares to the choice we face in the allocation of scarce resources in associations.
- Compared to any large company, association organizational structures can be incredibly loose and unwieldy. Whether a federated model, a charter model, or any of the other complex structures under which associations operate, central bodies simply don’t have the same clout as the corporate office of any well-run company.
- With a complex assortment of stakeholders to consider, associations are adverse to risk and change. Given this backdrop, things can move pretty slowly compared to even the largest public companies. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone in a profit oriented company even use the word “stakeholder.”
- A business plan won’t make these complexities go away, but it will help to clarify mandates, priorities, accountabilities and timelines so associations can focus their efforts on the seriousness and importance of their mission.
Increasingly, associations are conducting themselves more like businesses. In my experience, this has not yet reached the disciplined planning and execution that is becoming more common in most large companies. The tools and processes required are similar, but associations must take an even more deliberate and measured approach to planning and execution than profit driven enterprises.