Three Steps to a More Focused and Effective Strategic Plan

Yancey-three steps May 4, 2022 By: Drew Yancey

The more priorities a strategic plan has does not make it more effective. Drilling down on a few essential ones makes all the difference toward achieving real results. Here are three ways to make it happen.

“We completed 66 of 72 tasks last year. Is that good?” The genuine question came from a befuddled board president for a large healthcare association. He was assessing the activities of the organization’s current strategic plan as they were about to embark on the next three-year planning effort. 

It’s a common tendency: measuring the success of an association strategic plan by the number of activities or tasks completed. But activities and results are not necessarily the same. For example, if you are trying to summit a mountain and you’re measuring progress based on how many steps your Apple Watch has tracked, is 4,000 steps good? It depends on where those steps are taking you.

You could be working hard—and getting nowhere. Unfortunately, that is where many associations find themselves when it comes to their strategic plans. For too long, we have evaluated the quality of a strategic plan based on the number of priorities and activities needed to support those priorities. The more priorities the better, right?

Organizational science suggests the opposite. One study found that there was an inverse relationship between the number of strategic priorities and an organization’s revenue growth. Companies with fewer than six strategic priorities consistently outperformed, while those with more than six priorities reported higher levels of resource allocation challenges, organizational waste, and lack of clarity about whether their activities created value for stakeholders.

Strategic planning is not a one-time event. It is an iterative process that should start broad by brainstorming new value creation opportunities, but then narrowing those down to the “vital few.”

An association’s strategic plan must ultimately be evaluated based on results achieved, not activities completed. When we put the focus on results, it becomes clear that less is more. The world is increasingly complex and noisy. Association leaders and boards have significant demands on their time and energy. A strategic plan should identify the vital few priorities and outcomes that warrant precious focus.                    

How can associations design and execute strategies to ensure success in the right direction? Three steps are crucial.

Radically Prioritize

Strategic planning is not a one-time event. It is an iterative process that should start broad by brainstorming new value creation opportunities, but then narrowing those down to the “vital few.” These are the strategic initiatives that are going to make the highest impact on an association’s stakeholders and require the most coordination of resources.

To arrive at the vital few, association leaders should take their broad set of initiatives and force rank each of them through two different metrics: How valuable is this initiative to our stakeholders and how complex will it be to execute? By averaging the two scores, a simple 2x2 matrix emerges that will classify every initiative into one of four categories:

  • Low value/high complexity. Put these priorities aside for now and perhaps revisit them down the road.
  • High value/low complexity. Execute these priorities immediately. They also don’t necessarily require the resources of a strategic plan.
  • Low value/low complexity. These are either low-hanging fruit or distractions and should be given scrutiny if included in the strategic plan.
  • High value/high complexity. These are the vital few and should be the focus of the strategic plan.  

Turn Priorities Into Clear Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Identifying three to five vital few priorities is an important starting point for a strategic plan. But priorities and good intentions do not automatically translate into execution and results. That requires turning each priority into a clear goal.

An OKR framework ensures that a priority moves into an actionable goal with quantifiable outcomes. OKRs tell us that a priority becomes a goal when we have a clear objective with measurable key results. For example, for each priority, what does success look like (the goal), and how will you know if you have achieved success (the key results)?

Assess Progress and Adjust as Needed

An effective strategic plan does not sit on the shelf, only to be reviewed once or twice a year. It is a dynamic, living document meant to guide an association’s ongoing prioritization and resource allocation. The OKR framework enables associations to assess progress frequently so they can celebrate wins, identify potential roadblocks, and make adjustments in real time.

When it comes to an association’s strategic plan, there is beauty in simplicity. Reducing multiple “strategic initiatives” down to a vital few OKRs clearly articulates the outcomes that need to be achieved. By shifting the focus from activities to results, associations will be able to execute better and its leaders and board will be more engaged and empowered.  

Drew Yancey

Drew Yancey, Ph.D., is the founder of Teleios Strategy, a leading strategy advisory firm. He has more than 15 years of strategy consulting and executive leadership experience across multiple industries. He has authored two books and is a frequent keynote speaker.