Effective Management

Should You Change Your Strategic Plan?

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COVID-19 disrupted many associations’ long-term expectations as organizational priorities and goals had to be sidelined, at least temporarily. But that doesn’t mean you should reject the strategy you and your board designed. Instead, rethink it.

An ironic twist in a pandemic that isolated people from one another is that many association board members had more face time together—even if the faces were on screens. As COVID-19 set in, associations accelerated governance meetings from quarterly to monthly or even weekly, conducting more discussions about whether they needed to change or narrow the scope of their strategic plans in the face of radical disruption.

But Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of the governance consultancy Tecker International, is skeptical that more meetings have resulted in increased engagement with strategic matters. “We see many boards meeting more frequently for shorter periods of time, with less robust discussion about real issues,” he said.

Frequent but surface-level conversations can lead to rash and arbitrary decisions to retool a strategic plan. Better for associations to dedicate more attention to putting their current plan to work, Tecker says, however often they meet.

“There should be time directed toward two things,” he said. “One is a future issue of specific importance, so that everyone has an informed conversation about what’s coming. The second is progress being made in the current strategy, so the board is able to direct attention to parts of the strategy that may need to be reconsidered.”

Governance consultant Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the leadership consultancy Vista Cova, says the pandemic has encouraged many boards to rethink their strategy, especially if they’ve made challenging adjustments. “They’re asking, what’s our opportunity to rethink our direction, now that we’ve developed some new skill sets around innovation?”

Frequent but surface-level conversations can lead to rash and arbitrary decisions to retool a strategic plan. Better for associations to dedicate more attention to putting their current plan to work.

Strategic Exploration

But rather than retooling an entire strategic plan, Aplebaum says, boards might instead explore which customers, members, and stakeholders aren’t well understood within the context of the current plan. “You can ask, in the next six to 12 months, which audiences should be our priority to explore and get to know better?” he said. “That gives you an opportunity for strategic insight rather than shifting the entire direction of the organization.”

Tecker still recommends that boards generally adhere to a three- to five-year strategic plan, with its fourth and fifth years dedicated to new environmental scanning to determine if the premises of the plan are still valid. But just as important as the content of the plan, he adds, is board members’ level of buy-in. By a plan’s third or fourth year, the board will likely include new members who were not directly involved in strategy-setting, and the staff will need to work with the whole board to sustain a sense of ownership.

Annual board orientations provide a good opportunity for those strategy refreshers. In that setting, “you can bring the existing board, the incoming board members, the outgoing board members, senior staff, and committee chairs together,” Tecker said.

Structure Check

The end of a strategic-plan period is ideal for some board self-assessment with strategic goals in mind.

“At the same time you’re doing [organizational] health checkups every two or three cycles, you’re also doing a check of your leadership structure, to make sure you have the right structure in place to advance the strategy,” Aplebaum said. “This is a moment in time when I see many organizations do that and realize, ‘Our structure is too much about who you know.’”

COVID-19 has unquestionably shifted the conversation about how strategic goals are met: There are more discussions around technology, remote work, and support for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and those are fair game for boards. But Tecker stresses that such conversations require a board that’s oriented well and in alignment with the association’s main goals.

“The organization needs to be led by its strategy and its policy, not by the personalities of the moment,” he said.

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.

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