Without engagement from all stakeholders, your grand plan for a new strategy is likely to fizzle. Making strategy discussions inclusive can help.
“It just sat on a shelf.” At this point I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard an association leader use that phrase to describe what happens too often to a strategic plan, or what they fear will happen to the one their board has just approved. Strategic plans are often composed in a spirit of ambition and enthusiasm but always risk withering when the time comes for implementation.
Fixes to the problem don’t come easy. One possible path, suggests strategy consultant Dave Algoso, is to think of strategy less as a specific goal and more of a process. “More than something you have,” he writes in a recent (paywalled) article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “strategy is something you do.”
More than something you have, strategy is something you do.
But how, exactly? One of Algoso’s main prescriptions is to get discussions of strategy away from abstract language and frame them in terms of the people who will be affected by a strategic shift. That may involve directly including them in the discussion process.
“Define the multiple user groups of the strategy—the staff, board members, partners, donors, and others who will be part of the process and/or will make use of the results—and map their journey,” he writes. “What does it look like from their perspective? How will their participation bring their insights into the conversation, help them take responsibility for the outputs, and also meet their needs?”
Asking those questions can be especially important when it comes to staff, who will most likely bear the greatest responsibility for implementing a new strategy. “[Executives] are privy to all conversations, while [staff] see only pieces,” he writes. “Make up for the difference by overcommunicating the process and its results, sharing what you’re learning and what it means.” (You may have heard that one before.)
Creating an understanding that everybody should be involved in a strategic planning process isn’t a small thing. McKinley Advisors’ recent Economic Impact on Associations Study shows that staff can be eager to put a strategy into action. But boards can be resistant to go deep on strategy, often because they’re averse to change. Highlighting the effect on multiple stakeholders of doing nothing can be motivating, research has shown.
Bringing as many stakeholders as possible into conversations about strategy is also important because it’s how you’ll eventually get clarity on its success—a strategic plan that engages the meetings department but not membership likely isn’t doing it right. But this doesn’t mean association executives need to lay down diktats about how departments should put a new strategy to work, Algoso argues.
“Teams need to embed the strategy by tailoring it to their specific work and by building their own agility,” he writes. “At the team or program level, adaptive management moves away from prescriptive activity plans and tight controls and toward a flexible approach that will allow teams to respond to organization-level changes and to pursue the innovations that might bubble up across teams.”
In other words, the strategy isn’t going to seem meaningful unless everybody feels like they own it. So, Algoso says, make noise about it, so that people can see it in action.
“Structure staff meetings around strategic objectives,” he writes. “Highlight implementation progress and challenges in the newsletter. Paint your top goals on the wall above the reception desk.” That is, put the strategy everywhere—except on a shelf.
What do you do to ensure that your strategic plan is a living document? Share your experiences in the comments.