How to Put That Strategic Plan Into Action

By / Nov 21, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Strategy-setting is useless without an implementation plan. One association leader shares how her board got smart about tactics.

“And how will we implement it?”

That’s one of the more exasperating but essential questions a board can ask itself. A board can throw a lot of time and effort into creating a considered and forward-thinking strategic plan, but one reason the “plan that just sits on the shelf” is such a cliche isn’t so much because strategy discussions are insincere but because a tactical discussion never got added to it.

Nancy Barrett, CAE, executive director of the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists, has been working to address the issue, in part by making sure a tactical plan is closely attached to the strategy discussion. After COMP’s latest strategic plan was approved, Barrett encouraged the creation of a task force dedicated to tactical planning. Strategies often have a lot of different timelines and different goals, so to keep track of it Barrett created a spreadsheet that outlines the strategies, their related tactics, and their progress.

“You have to sit down and poke at your strategy and ask, ‘Is this really practical?'”

“There’s a way of clearly seeing when something is supposed to happen and what some of the dependencies are on other things that are going on in the organization, such as if additional funding required, which is very helpful for the budget process,” she says. “We can quickly, at a glance, say, ‘OK, in 2018, we want to do these five things. They need this much money to do them and they’re dependent on these other activities and they will need these kind of additional resource.’”

Meredith Low, an association consultant who worked with COMP, says that there’s often a tension in boards when it comes to tactics; volunteer leaders are often encouraged to think ambitiously about their futures but fail to have that back-to-earth conversation about implementation. “If you’re going to do a great job with group strategy sessions,” she says, “the reality is that you have to sit down and then poke at your strategy and ask, ‘Is this really practical? How are we going to do this? What are the implications? Are there strategic implications for the implementation that actually affect the strategy?’”

In a recent white paper, “Turning Strategy Into Action,” [PDF] Low discusses some elements of an effective tactical planning process. One of those involves encouraging patience and recognizing that—as COMP’s spreadsheet shows—implementation takes time and usually has multiple moving parts. “Time and tactics will change,” Low says. “Maybe the tactic ‘Assess Your Approach to Issue X’ turns out to be ‘Don’t touch it, it’s not for you, it’s not something you should be getting involved with.’ Or you may say, ‘We’re going to develop this new revenue stream,’ and the first step is a feasibility study, and it says you’re going to lose money on it, so don’t do it.’ That should be expected.”

Low points out that it’s also important to acknowledge that the changes don’t just affect the board—staffers can be deeply concerned about their jobs, especially if a new tactical approach puts a previous goal under threat. “You can run into tricky situations where you’re asking them to design a world in which they don’t have their job or they don’t have half their job.” In that case, she says, the conversation can often successfully shift on one about what creative changes need to be made, rather than slashed budgets and obsolete job roles.

“Very often a tactical development session with staff is a lot like a strategy development session with the board, and it often is very freeing,” she says. “If they understand why the strategies are what they are and can at least buy into the logic, even if maybe they wouldn’t have made exactly the same choices, we can ask, “If you are going to be the organization that has this strategy, what do you have to be great at, what do you have to be capable of?’”

Beyond that, COMP’s Barrett says it’s important to keep the progress on tactics in front of the board on a regular basis, not to encourage them to get into the weeds, but to keep them in the loop on what’s being discovered during the implementation process. Barrett is using a straightforward stoplight-themed reporting system to do that: “It’s done by strategy and by tactics so for each tactic, there is a stoplight, red, green and yellow. Green means we’re on-track, yellow means we need some more information or some more analysis if there’s something missing, and red means we got to do something here. Then, for each of those tactics, I say what board decision is required, so that it’s really clear what they have to do.”

What does your association do to move its strategic goals into tactics? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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