How Strategic Planning Is Different in a Post-COVID World

Yancey--Strategic Planning July 2, 2021 By: Drew Yancey

Moving forward, strategic planning will require a focus on innovation, along with leadership adjustments that include an expanded vision, broader inclusion of leadership, and milestone markers for accountability.

“I don’t think we can plan the same way.” Those candid words came from the board president for a large food association. He was grappling with how to proceed with developing the organization’s three-year strategic plan in the wake of the pandemic.

I couldn’t agree with him more. Historically, associations have focused their strategic planning efforts on incremental improvements to current offerings, not on fundamentally creating new value. In a pre-COVID world, with stable industries and annual in-person events, this made relative sense.

But that’s no longer the case. Our traditional ways of connecting have been cut off, and members are increasingly looking to their associations to help them innovate their way out of the many existential threats they face. And that’s precisely where the problem lies. As Marketing General Incorporated’s 2020 benchmarking report showed, while associations now see an increased need for innovation, most lack a structured process to achieve it.

How can associations close this innovation gap? By refocusing their strategic planning on innovation, it’s possible to make rapid progress. Here are three steps association leaders can take now:

Expand the vision. Most associations operate on a very narrow definition of innovation that limits innovation to improvements on new products or technology. But innovation is much more. I define it as “the consistent execution of new value for stakeholders.” Looking at it this way reveals the potential associations have to become powerful engines of innovation because they often interact with a variety of stakeholders: members, affiliates, suppliers, etc. What challenges are your stakeholders facing that you can help solve? That is great place to begin any innovation effort.

Engage the entire association board and leadership. Traditional association strategic planning often limited decision making to a small core subset of leadership. But innovation is a team sport, and often the bigger and more diverse the team, the better. Associations are in a position to leverage their broad ecosystems to enhance innovation outcomes.

Experimentation is the fastest and cheapest way to reduce risk and ultimately deliver new value.

Create phased milestones. Strategic planning is not a one-time event. It is an iterative process, and innovation strategy requires a precise balance between form and freedom. In my work, I rely on a tried and true three-phased approach:

  1. Start broad and plant as many new ideas as possible.
  2. Grow those ideas by clustering and vetting them, so that they are prioritized based on their potential and executability.
  3. Harvest the top priorities through experimentation and adaptation.

This is what makes strategic planning that is focused on new value creation fundamentally different from traditional strategic planning, which often moves from idea directly to execution. Now more than ever, associations and their members are dealing with significant unknowns, and experimentation is the fastest and cheapest way to reduce risk and ultimately deliver new value.

The board president who said we can’t plan in the same way faced significant challenges in strategic planning for his organization, due to a large board and an all-virtual format because of the pandemic. But by using these three steps to innovation, he was able to overcome them. Now the association has a clear path for growing its membership and fortifying its business model in a post-pandemic world with more than $500k in new value creation opportunities.

Closing the innovation gap is not easy. As we are fond of saying in the innovation world: “If innovation were easy, everyone would be doing it!” But we must because the rewards are substantial.

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.