A Better Plan for Strategic Planning

Plenty of people argue that strategic planning needs to be more visionary. A little flexibility---and perhaps a name change---could do the trick.

I could fill a notebook with all the quotes I’ve come across about futility of planning:

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

“Man plans, and God laughs.”

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Do you call strategic planning meetings in your home and write up plans?  Probably not!

That last quote comes from Peter Drucker, who knew perhaps better than anyone the difficulties organizations have with visionary thinking and execution. As long as I’ve been talking with association leaders, I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the value of strategic planning. Strategic plans are essential for the health of an organization, one argument goes; they’re just well-intentioned documents that sit on a shelf, goes the other.

In Search of an “Aha”

The latest shot across the bow on this subject comes from Anna Caraveli, who in researching a book on better association models has determined that most associations engage not in strategic thinking but in strategic programming—that is, making plans that largely echo what the association has already done. That’s not just short-sighted, Caraveli wrote in a blog post last week; it beggars common sense. Real transformation can’t be planned for; it’s about taking advantage of surprising changes:

How have unexpected opportunities, life-transforming occasions and Aha moments occurred in your life? Meeting your spouse or partner? Coming across a great job or project opportunity? Figuring out an imaginative solution to garden pests with your neighbor? Making a key life decision to change a behavior as a result of a new insight you had?  Do you call strategic planning meetings in your home and write up plans?  Probably not!  You learn by living and experiencing.

Caraveli’s commentary—not a rant, exactly, though there’s plenty of fire behind it—speaks to the frustration many associations feel when it comes to setting direction for their organizations. She’s right to suggest that boards could stand to be more improvisatory. But you can’t run an organization waiting for those “aha” moments to arrive. And if improvisation isn’t in your skill set, you’re in for a lot of awkward moments before you start meeting with success.

Time for a Name Change?

The trick, as ever, is to create a structure for strategic planning that leaves some room for creativity.

How to do that? Caraveli includes a long list of suggestions drawn from her research. As I read them, they essentially broke down into two directives: 1. Create small teams to work on new ideas, and 2. Bring in outsiders to assist. Both are good recommendations, partly because they notably avoid the thing associations fear most when it comes to strategic planning: the strategic planning session.

Which leads me to my own, admittedly inexpert, piece of advice for retooling the process: Let’s kill the term “strategic planning,” which has become so hidebound as to undercut its best intentions. A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in a conference room while some actual experts discussed the subject, and toward the end of the conversation they proposed some new models in the area. Charles Rumbarger, CAE, discussed a “futures committee,” a task force that would look specifically at where the changes are coming from. Amy Brown discussed a similar arrangement, calling it a “customers’-customer analysis.” The latter term is a little clunky, but I admire how it summarizes exactly why associations do strategic planning in the first place. Your members’ customers are where the rubber meets the road in terms of revenue, value, and overall effectiveness, and knowing their issues goes a long way toward knowing your own.

Think of an ad hoc group like that as a designated “aha” engine—which in itself wouldn’t be the worst new name for a strategic plan.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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