What's Next for Strategic Planning

By: Andrew S. Lang, FASAE

Is strategic planning dead, or is it just evolving? Associations Now gathered five experts to discuss what smart, future-focused plans look like and how to get boards to support them. (Titled "The Future of Planning for the Future" in the print edition.)

When it comes to preparing an association for the future, few tools are relied on more than strategic planning. But is this time-tested exercise still as valuable as it once was? After all, many of the internal operations of well-managed associations have evolved in ways that senior executives couldn't have imagined 15 or 20 years ago.

To consider the relevance of strategic planning in an era of rapid and constant change, Associations Now gathered a group of top CEOs and leading lights in the consulting community for a roundtable discussion facilitated by Andrew S. Lang, FASAE, president of LangCPA Consulting, LLC, in Potomac, Maryland. The participants included:

  • Celia Besore, CAE, executive director and CEO, National Association of Hispanic Nurses
  • Amy Brown, president and manager, Washington, DC, office,
    The Forbes Group
  • Nancy Green, FASAE, CAE, executive director, National Association for Gifted Children
  • Charles Rumbarger, CAE, president, Organizational Guidance Group
  • Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO, Tecker International

The group took the conversation in an interesting direction: Rather than simply focusing on the mechanics of the issue, the participants revealed that political aspects of planning were as challenging—at times even more challenging—than operational ones. For instance, how do you motivate leaders who are reluctant to move initiatives forward? Are boards less adept at dealing with planning than they used to be?

What follows are some of the insights that emerged from their two-hour conversation about this essential topic.

Andrew S. Lang: Is there a mindset today that strategic planning is a necessary evil and not a productive way to help associations?

Amy Brown: I do think that that is a mindset that's coming. People have gotten used to strategic plans that go through laborious processes then sit on a shelf and get ignored by everybody. I think boards of directors say, "We've got to have a plan," but they don't really know what that means.

Charles Rumbarger: Strategic planning has morphed from a periodic event to a perpetual undertaking. Good associations now are planning 24/7 and adjusting as they discover deviations from their original analyses.

Glenn Tecker: Those who have declared strategic planning dead have essentially declared dead something they mislabeled. They were using operational planning as a surrogate for true strategy.

What are some of the issues with strategic planning in a very small association?

Celia Besore: One potential issue is that every time the leadership changes, the new leadership may want to change the direction of the association. We should be nimble and be always looking toward the future, but shifting every two years is not healthy. Some board members may not have a business mindset and may not even understand the process. They need to look at what's happening in the industry, not what's happening today in the office.

Brown: It's a challenge. I'm constantly working with my boards of directors to keep them reined in. Establishing that is my responsibility as the executive director and their responsibility as leaders. I've gotten them focused now. They're good, but it took six years.

Nancy Green: With every new president comes a learning curve, helping them understand where strategic planning fits into their agenda and the implications of the planning process. I think it's important to have a dashboard model in place, to really look at metrics all the time, and to have the discipline to track the same things over time. That is still a fairly new area of expertise for boards.

So how do you take a leadership which is reluctant to change and encourage them?

Brown: I'm very clear with my board. When they were dragging their feet and wasting time, I told them, "You're making a conscious choice. You can continue to be a club and not be proactive, and that's fine. But if you do that, here are the ramifications."

Green: Over the years, I've tried more and more to put data in front of the board. It's not about what Nancy wants, it's about what makes sense in the particular scenario, given the facts in front of us.

Tecker: Most associations actually have a very good history of evolutionary change. I would communicate to the member leaders that the organization does in fact have a history of change, and that it has a tradition of adapting to sustain its relevance. I would also suggest that they need to gather data from the general membership and make the case that regardless of what the leaders of the moment are experiencing, the general membership may be elsewhere.

Besore: We had a crisis at a previous association, and that was actually the best thing that could have happened. It forced the board to ask, "Who are we representing? What is the market really like?" Sometimes failure makes you ask, "OK, who are we?" and that completely changes where an association goes.

Are association leaders, boards, and staff any more adept at strategic planning than they were 10 years ago?

Green: They have become more adept. It was a sink-or-swim issue. Competition has increased exponentially for associations. Technology is more complex. That's forced association leaders to become better at strategic thinking and mining data. The economy over the past five years has forced my board, at least, to be the most strategic it has ever been, simply because we can't deliver the nice-to-do programs anymore. It has to be about return on investment.

Tecker: The only good thing Sarbanes-Oxley has done that wasn't already in place in an effective association is that it made many boards more attuned to having defensible information as a basis for confident decision making. That has pulled "knowledge-based" thinking a little further into conversations.

How do you develop a coherent strategy addressing program operations and finance when things are changing so fast?

Brown: We want boards to understand the market that is not only affecting the members, but what's affecting the members' customers, because ultimately that's where you'll see the biggest change. In my case, the members are dental anesthesiologists, but am I really worried about what the dental anesthesiologist needs? No. What I want to know is what patients need and what they're feeling, because that will ultimately direct what the association does. Some associations are getting more attuned to that, but I think we've got a lot more work to do.

Tecker: I think what is necessary is clarity and consensus around a number of decisions. One of the decisions is, "What is the purpose for this organization existing?" The second is, "What are we trying to accomplish as an organization?" The third is, "What path will we take to accomplish those things?" and then the fourth is, "How will we know if it's working?" To me, it's less important what you call the answers to those questions than that you have a continuous conversation about what the answers will be.

Are there any bold new models for strategic planning?

Rumbarger: Yes. I say the most valuable committee you can add to your list of working groups should be a futures committee, made up of blue-ribbon people especially qualified because of their knowledge of specific issues: economics, regulation, legislation, education, whatever. This group is put together and assembled a couple times a year. Quarterly is the most common. Its sole purpose is to do one thing: to answer the questions, "Where is change coming from?" and "What are the pressures or opportunities we're going to have to respond to?"

Brown: We've employed a similar strategy. We look out, we say where we want to be, and we work back from that. To do that, we have to know what's impacting the world around us. We call it a customers'-customer analysis.

Tecker: There doesn't need to be a committee-like infrastructure. There are a variety of ways to gather the necessary information, and a blue-ribbon committee is merely one. Also, assuming that members know what they need from their association and asking them for advice is probably the most frequent error made in the planning process. Most members can tell you what their experience is and what's going on in their world. But they are likely not to have sufficient understanding of the capacity and position of the organization to be able to make good judgments about which of those needs or opportunities the association is well positioned to assist them with.

How many goals should a strategic plan have? I myself have been astonished to see strategic plans with over 25 goals in them.

Besore: That's way too much and could lead to a dilution of the association's resources and focus. Industries change very quickly. My association serves nurses, which isn't an industry some would think changes rapidly. But the Affordable Care Act has accelerated change. I think our strategic plan should be for no more than three years to account for rate of change and to straddle different board leadership.

Tecker: If you're looking at the statement that says, "Here are the outcomes we are trying to achieve, these are the areas in which work will occur," it should list no more three to five, if you force me. But there is no such thing as a best practice here.

I know that if an organization has north of 25 objectives, it's a bad plan.

Tecker: I certainly concur. If it has north of 25 objectives, it is more likely an operational plan, business plan, or job description for the association rather than a strategic plan. A strategic plan is about where you want to go, not where you are.

Rumbarger: Try this at your next board meeting: Say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to write down the five top purposes of this organization." Then collect those lists and see if there's any relationship between them. When you've got 62 answers, it's time for the organization to refocus on what its purposes are.

Let's say you've got a limited budget and a limited set of goals, but you have a new president who comes in with the intent of "having the best year ever" while you're trying to stay focused. How do you respond?

Besore: First I'd see if there's a second or third board member who can be brought into the conversation, who can try to explain why things should not be done that way. Having a budget helps keep the board focused on what we can do.

Rumbarger: When I was young, I used to think I took every new job with a pocketful of chips, and every time I had to be a cop and tell the president they couldn't do something, I used up chips, and my prayer was, "Let the year run out before my chips run out." So, every time I can use a board to be the cop as opposed to me, I do that.

Once you have a plan, how do you get support from members?

Green: That's my question: how best to bridge between that blue-ribbon panel and your stakeholders, who are very bought-in to different perspectives around the organization. You're going to have to sell this thing once you're done with it. Making the plan come alive is almost as important as creating it.

Tecker: Obtaining the support of members actually begins with obtaining their support for the process you are going to use. If they do not trust the process, then they are unlikely to trust the product that comes out of it. There are some times where the objective is to reinvent the organization, and that would suggest a particular level of meaningful involvement for certain kinds of groups. Then there are some times when the objective of the process is simply stability for a period of time. That creates a different set of criteria in determining who would be involved at what level.

What are some of the pitfalls you've seen in the strategic planning process?

Green: I often encounter this statement from the board: "We need to be developing new partnerships and alliances. Go out there to the other education groups and start forming partnerships." That is not strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is asking the question, "How can we build alliances with the key education groups most important to our agenda and long-term goals? How will we define success?"

Rumbarger: The number-one thing I've seen after more than 40 years is that plans—or things called plans—are often used as cover for other purposes. When times turn bad, probably half of so-called strategic plans are initiated to prove somebody wrong, to say the exec is no longer capable or the president is wrong.

Tecker: Sometimes, saying that an executive has "failed to execute strategy effectively" is used as a surrogate for the things they really don't like about the exec. But more often than not, I find that an effective process for planning strategically, as well as a board where the meetings focus on the strategy, tends to be the greatest support to a healthy relationship between a board and exec that you can have.

Rumbarger: I would absolutely agree, and I think a strategic plan is the best third-party influencer you can always have in your pocket at all times.

Web Extra: On Getting Buy-In for a Strategic Plan

Rumbarger: You have to have a sufficient number of your current board of directors involved in the process so that the report of [a strategic planning] committee will be accepted by the board. If they're kept out and then brought in, they'll reject it. The more expert people you can get involved in data gathering, the better you are. This has got to get by the board, so it's got to be [made up of] people credible to them, knowledgeable to them, respected by them. It can be your general counsel. It could be your accountant. It could be anybody else that really has a portfolio at the table.

Green: It's important to get buy-in in advance of putting your stake in the ground so you can say, "We invited your input and here's what we've done with it." I think that is really critical. The communication of [the plan] has to be as mindful and proactive as developing the plan itself. We have to make it concise so that it can be adopted by all the communication avenues of the organization. At our annual meeting, the president had six talking points and went to every stakeholder group and said the same thing. I put more weight on that consistency of message now than I used to, having been through this process several times.

Brown: You've got to get board members, planners, or executive directors who know what they're supposed to be doing, and can articulate the plan. Our president serves two years in one of my associations, and I think that actually helps in our world because they get their teeth cut. They know what's coming down at them. They know exactly what we're supposed to do, and that's what we do. There needs to be some education. People need to know what is expected of them when they're in these roles.

Besore:If we want the plan to be embraced by everyone, we have to include as many people as practical. We need to bring the whole board; we need to bring in our chapter leaders and those who volunteer in our committees. We recently started having corporate members, and we are developing an advisory committee of businesspeople who are related to the industry. I'm promoting the idea of bringing them into the conversation. Their view from outside the day-to-day activities of the nursing profession can provide new insights as to where the profession and the healthcare industry in general may be heading.

Tecker:What I have observed is that if you have a committee, a group of volunteers responsible alone for driving a process, it's not likely to be sustained over time. In a smaller association, what you will do is you will take advantage of the resources that you have. You will gather together the board and staff, you will probably gather some information, both externally and internally. If you're smart you'll do market research, which is what's going on in your members' world, and member research, which is what your members are thinking, and the aggregate of the two creates kind of a framework.

Andrew S. Lang, FASAE