Strategic discussions require a mindset that doesn't come naturally to all of us. The activities are warm-up exercises intended to stretch your board leaders' mental muscles and get them ready to dive into strategic issues.
The foundation of any strategy is its assumptions about the future: You plan to make your organization successful in the future you envision. Get your board started with an activity that makes those assumptions explicit, suggests Harrison Coerver, president, Harrison Coerver & Associates. "[This] requires a board or planning committee to think down the road and ask themselves, 'What is our best sense of developments or trends that we see unfolding over the next five years?' You can't go through that exercise without begging the question, ‘What does the association do now in response to that?'"
Coerver does add one caveat: "You're not trying to predict the future, just trying to make your best estimate. The problem with assumptions is that people start to take them for fact; you've got to keep your eye on them."
The "Perfect Storm" Game
A worst-case scenario can be a powerful tool to get your board's strategic juices flowing. Stephen C. Carey, CAE, lead strategist of Association Management + Marketing Resources, asks boards to imagine an unpleasant possible future where the association has gone down the wrong path. To ensure credibility, the "perfect storm" scenario is created using research already on hand or information gathered for the board meeting.
"We ask the board to discuss the future in small groups and indicate what the association could have done differently to avoid such a scenario. We then ask them to bring back two key points that they have learned that are applicable to present day," says Carey. "Using the unknown with a few key facts to create an uncertain future can ensure the board is wearing its strategic hat."
Click here to view sample slides Carey uses to present such "perfect storm" scenarios.
Next Year's Highlights
Boards can become overwhelmed with conflicting possibilities during a strategic discussion. Michael T. LoBue, CAE, president and CEO of LoBue and Majdalany Management Group, suggests an exercise for a group that's stuck.
When dealing with a new client whose planning meeting wasn't progressing, LoBue was inspired to ask everyone in the room to imagine that they'd moved ahead 12 months in time and had been tasked with reporting to the membership on the association's three major achievements in the past year. LoBue says, "What worked about it was that [the exercise] was personal and individual. … Every board member has a strategic vision for the organization, but they may not know how to articulate it." The ensuing conversation pushed board members to describe their vision in a concrete way and gave the group the opportunity to see how those visions overlapped.
It's common for strategic discussions to be all about what an association needs to add to its plate. What if you focus instead on constraints?
Michael LoBue's company has a saying: Organizations need a minimum of two things to be successful—a plan and not quite enough resources to accomplish it. "What that forces you to do is make tradeoffs," LoBue says. "What are we not going to do? What are we willing to live with because we don't have the resources, the capabilities, the capacity to do it all?"
Harrison Coerver suggests asking your board to divide up your total number of staff positions among the association's main strategic priorities—not to reorganize the staff in real life, but to illustrate the relative importance of each goal. "If you really look at strategy, it's about resource allocation," says Coerver. "Good strategy is creative and skillful use of resources to achieve the association's objectives."