Does Your Strategic Plan Need a Refresh?

Now that the world is moving faster, strategic plans risk getting stale quick. Smarter thinking about data and agility can help.

It’s a VUCA world out there. And it’s only getting VUCA-er.

VUCA, as you may know, is an acronym for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” The term began in military circles in the 90s, but it’s since gotten traction in management, and for obvious reasons—so much of strategy-setting at organizations these days involves responding to challenges that can be hard to anticipate or even identify. (Think of what companies like Uber and Facebook have faced in the past year, or old-line retailers like JCPenney.) VUCA is an ugly-sounding term, but perhaps that helps make it an appropriate one—nobody ever said that getting whipsawed by unseen forces was going to be pretty.

Because change occurs more rapidly and is harder to get a fix on now, that’s had an impact on the linchpin of an association’s operations—its strategic planning process. In a recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, three writers from the consultancy Deloitte set their sights on the “familiar, time-delimited planning processes” that risk making associations and other nonprofits slow-moving ships.

The article, “How Adaptive Strategy Is Adapting,” prescribes a pair of tactics to keep organizations from drifting: Getting better at gathering data, and getting better at making strategic changes on the fly. The former requires making sure your leadership team can accommodate information and ideas that you might not have previously considered relevant. “It’s important to intentionally start the strategy process by exploring and opening yourself up to the full range of possibilities for your organization…before then narrowing down and honing in on the strategies that are right for you,” they write.

A leader’s job now demands flexibility, quick response to initial feedback, and swift adjustments.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but association leaders have options: This challenge was one of the main reasons for the creation of ASAE ForesightWorks, a set of tools designed to give associations information on trends that might have an impact on associations in the near future. (For more on the tool, and how some associations have addressed the trends it identifies, take a look at the Associations Now feature package from earlier this year.) As with any anti-VUCA initiative, problems can’t be fixed with simple, programmatic steps. But you can at least widen the range of inputs that your leadership considers—“challenging your long-standing orthodoxies and exploring what’s newly possible given changes in the world around you,” as the Deloitte authors write.

As for getting better at making strategic changes on the fly, that requires more of a temperamental change, especially among top leadership. Some associations have learned to become more nimble in their decision making, in part by creating processes whereby important matters get addressed quickly. But getting to the point of creating those processes demands getting used to operating faster.

Analyzing interviews with 20 global CEOs, INSEAD business professor Stanislav Shekshnia recently argued that today’s leader is effectively a crisis leader, and that the CEO’s skill set will include doing things that project and create stability—steward effective risk management, communicate clearly and calmly, and react fast and intelligently. “Flexibility, quick response to initial feedback and swift adjustments in the course of action – these are the ingredients of effective crisis management,” Shekshnia writes. “None of our experts used the term ‘agile’ but they spoke about everything it implies: short feedback loops, experimentation, adjustments, learning from mistakes.”

None of which is to say that the three- or five-year strategic plan that we’re familiar with is obsolete—associations still do well to create visions and make big-picture decisions about how it will dedicate their resources in the near future. But that doesn’t preclude testing new ideas and getting new information that can drive that next big strategic discussion. And leaders can also use that time to effectively communicate what all that change means to their staffs and volunteers. As the Deloitte authors point out, “while most strategy processes still happen primarily at the leadership level of the organization, the majority of the execution does not.” Responding to whatever your call change—VUCA, disruption, creative destruction—is a challenge for leadership, but it’s also a challenge for everyone who’ll be expected to deliver on your response to it.

What does your organization do to make its strategy-setting process more iterative? Share your experiences in the comments.

(DutchScenery/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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