Strategy need not have a vague meaning for your association. Follow this model for applying strategy as an exercise in choosing how to use your resources.
The term strategy shows up frequently in association discussions. Articles recommend that associations have a "strategic board." Volunteer leaders talk about functioning at a "strategic level." Consultants encourage boards to engage in "strategic dialogue."
It certainly sounds good. Who would not want to be strategic? But ask an association volunteer leader or executive to define what they mean by strategic and you will get a wide range of opinions. There is a vague sense that strategy addresses the "big picture" or involves long-range thinking. For some it is simply the polar opposite of micromanagement, or it's being strategic rather than tactical.
A trip to the New Oxford American Dictionary provides some help. Strategic relates to "the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them." While associations generally do well at setting goals and objectives, the "means of achieving them" is an area where improvement is in order. Strategy addresses the all-important "how" we are going to achieve our objectives. In essence, it involves how we use our resources to succeed.
There is a body of knowledge on strategy. Carl von Clausewitz's book On War is generally accepted as the seminal work on military strategy. Peter Drucker was one of the first to address business strategy. He was followed by more contemporary gurus like Henry Mintzberg and Michael Porter. A common theme in their writing involves the deployment of resources, whether they are combat troops or corporate assets.
I propose the following definition: Strategy is the use of an organization's resources to accomplish its objectives. So if we want to be "strategic," we must spend our time and energy on the skillful, creative, and disciplined use of our association's resources to accomplish our goals and fulfill our mission.
Unfortunately, few associations are guided by carefully defined strategy. Instead, they are driven by tradition, culture, history, and politics. When was the last time you listened to a board discuss how it was effectively directing the association's resources on the key result areas? How many opportunities have been missed because they were understaffed or underfunded?
The first step in being strategic is to compile a comprehensive inventory of the association's resources. The first two are easy: human capital and financial resources. But the list of your association's resources is much longer: the association's brand and reputation, its goodwill with members, its partners and relationships, its market position, and its political capital. And if you are making significant progress in an area, don't neglect to take into account your momentum.
Next, play "What if?" Starting with human resources, let's assume you have a staff of 10. How many staff would you allocate to each of the association's program areas if you were starting from a clean slate? Then assume you have 50 members in various volunteer positions. How would you allocate them to your board and specific committees and task forces if you started from scratch?
Then take the inventory you have compiled of the association's financial and other nonhuman resources. Rate how well you are leveraging each to achieve goals or add value to membership.
Finally, identify where the association's resources are underutilized, unproductive, or misallocated. Withdrawing resources from marginal, obsolete, or low-value activities can be the most strategic move an association can make. It is shifting resources from losing propositions to opportunity.
So if you want to be "strategic," start talking about how you can best deploy your association's limited resources. Stop allocating resources based on history and direct them to opportunity. Think creatively about how your resources might be better concentrated on important result areas. And address resource utilization seriously, with discipline and continuity.
Harrison Coerver is president of Harrison Coerver & Associates and coauthor of ASAE's recently released book Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations. Email: [email protected]