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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Professional Associations and the Strategy Gap

By Michael Clarke. Originally published in the Scholarly Kitchen on November 13, 2013

Mind the (Strategy) Gap

Mind the (Strategy) Gap

As a consultant, a lot of my time is spent working with, or talking about, strategy. In some cases, I might be explicitly working with a client on strategy. In other cases, an engagement—which might be principally focused on product development, marketing, pricing, or some other matter—often requires a working knowledge of the organization’s existing strategy.

Frequently, in this type of engagement, when the topic of strategy comes up and the client is a professional association or other not-for-profit, I find there is not a clearly articulated and documented strategy or strategic plan (the two are separate things, as I will discuss further below). Or if there is a strategic plan, it sits gathering dust and no one can even recall what it says. Invariably, I hear that they had a consultant in last year, or maybe the year before, to create this strategic plan.

“There are some good ideas in there but we just haven’t used it,” is a common refrain.

Another is: “The world is changing so fast a strategic plan is pointless – everything we come up with may be irrelevant in five years. The iPhone is only five years old – how could anyone have predicted the importance of mobile five years ago?”

The iPhone (or sometimes Facebook) has become the poster child for why strategy is now irrelevant. Paradigm-shattering technologies—black swans alighting in from the consumer space—are upending how association members interact with information and each other so rapidly that we have to be in a position to think on our feet, and not remain beholden to an outdated document.

I agree that new technologies for the consumer space (among other things) are shortening the shelf life of planning, however, I draw precisely the opposite conclusion regarding strategy: Things are changing so fast organizations must have a strategic framework in place to inform their decision-making and to help them determine which technologies are worth adopting and how they might be most effectively deployed.

While most commercial organizations have developed strategic frameworks, and many now have leadership roles dedicated to strategy, not-for-profit organizations tend to focus less on these activities. While some of this “strategy gap” may be due to relative resource scarcity and its associated time pressures (“we are too busy doing our day jobs”), there are also structural and governance issues at play, particularly in the case of professional associations.

As Joe Esposito insightfully notes in his post “Governance and the Not-for-Profit Publisher,” where in commercial organizations strategy development is the province of the CEO and his or her executive team, the locus of strategy in professional associations is usually with the board of directors. This can present a number of challenges, including the frequency with which board appointments rotate, board members with political or advocacy agendas not aligned with the core mission and activities of the association (the “pet issue” problem), the sheer size of some boards, and board members who are not experts in the business activities of the association (e.g., publishing). [For more on governance and organizational structure at professional associations I recommend Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations by Coerver and Byers].

The lack of both institutional knowledge and business expertise combined with sometimes-unwieldy boards often leads to one of three outcomes:

  • Hiring a consultant to “give us a strategic plan.” As mentioned above, such plans are subsequently used to adorn the bookshelves because no one at the organization “owns” the strategy, and it may not be executable as it does not take into account resources and skill sets currently in place at the organization.
  • Tasking staff with developing strategic plans for their respective divisional areas (e.g., publishing, meetings, education, membership). The result is typically a jumble of incompatible strategic plans that do not roll up into a holistic organizational strategy, are not connected to budgeting (and therefore might as well never have been drafted), and of which the board feels no sense of ownership. If these disconnected plans do get funded, they are unlikely to result in organizational success because they are not aligned with a common strategy across the organization.
  • Avoiding strategy development all together (citing the iPhone or Facebook as justification). This is a de facto embrace of the “head-in-sand” strategy.

It is not atypical for an organization to rotate, over the course of a few years, through all of the above approaches to strategy. These approaches also highlight some misconceptions about strategy that further frustrate attempts to develop an effective strategic framework. These misconceptions include:

  • Strategy is “planning.” Strategy asks and answers a set of interconnected questions. These questions are simple (though the answers often are not) and might include: Where does the organization want to be in 3–5 years? What will the association do (and just as importantly, not do) to get there? How does the organization differentiate itself from others in the marketplace? What capabilities will the organization need? The answers to these questions create a strategic framework for the organization that helps staff at all levels align the many strategic choices that must be made on a regular basis with the overall strategy.
  • Strategy is cumbersome. An organization’s strategy should be able to be captured on a single page or slide.  A strategy is not a detailed document—it is simply the answers to the set of questions described above. A strategic plan, which is usually a longer document, follows development of strategy and describes how the organization will execute the strategy. Depending on the organization’s size and culture, even this later document can be concise.
  • Strategy is optional. If an organization does not ask and answer these questions, it has nonetheless made decisions. Its decisions will likely include continuing to do exactly what it has been doing, regardless of changes in its competitive environment, customer or member needs, stakeholder demographics, the markets in which it operates, the wider economy, or relevant technologies. By not developing a strategy, an organization has essentially decided not only that none of those things have changed, but also that the organization is in precisely the same place it wants to be in the future. Of course, conditions outside of the organization will continue to change, so this “strategy by default” is unlikely to succeed even in maintaining the status quo.

Bookshelves are filled with literature on strategy. Classics include Peter Drucker’s The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, and W. Chan Kim’s Blue Ocean Strategy. The best recent titles on the topic may be Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin and, for those that prefer a historic perspective, Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman. Joe Esposito’s article “Strategic Planning and the Not-for-Profit Publisher” and “Strategy is Dead. Long Live Strategy” by Dana O’Donovan and Noah Flower of the Monitor Institute also make my list of essential reading.

And while there is much written on strategy (what it is, what it does, what questions it asks and answers), the literature on how to craft and implement an effective strategy, especially within the context of the particular challenges faced by professional associations and other not-for-profits, is much thinner. This is a problem as it is the how of strategy—its development and implementation—where organizations often fall short.

There are unfortunately no quick fixes. While strategy should not require an over-engineered, cumbersome process, it does nonetheless require the time and dedication of senior leadership—and a commitment that extends beyond the term of the current chair of the board. At minimum, I have found, from my firm’s work with numerous professional associations over the years, that the development and implementation of effective strategy requires the following ten steps:

1. Plan for strategy discussions. At a commercial organization, the executive team usually develops strategy, often with the assistance of a Chief Strategy Officer. Because everyone involved is immersed in the company, its businesses, the markets it operates in, and the nuances of its competitive landscape, strategy development can be relatively quick. A strategy retreat might require as little as a day or two. Professional associations often require a different approach as the board of directors is likely to have differing degrees of technical and business expertise, as well as differing levels of institutional knowledge. The process will likely be longer, with several strategic discussions spread out over 3–6 months, with regular phone calls in between. As noted below, it may be necessary to conduct a situational assessment and provide some educational background on the association’s business activities to “level set” knowledge among the board. Outside (or in-house) experts may be required for portions of the discussion. A facilitator can also be extremely helpful in eliciting constructive ideas from the board and bringing them toward consensus. All this will need to be planned and scheduled in advance with leadership committed to the process.

2. Educate and assess. It is critical to get everyone on the board up to speed, so that strategic decisions can be made that are based on educated viewpoints. This process might include educating the board on the current state of the organization and its main business areas, the competitive environment in which those businesses operate, new technologies and their implications, changes in customer’s/member’s professional information and educational needs and habits, shifting member demographics and their implications, and so on. It may also be appropriate to educate the association’s leadership team on the concept of strategy itself, what it is and is not, and what questions will need to be asked and answered. A consultant can be helpful at this stage, to organize and present information in a way that the board can easily consume (short slide decks rather than lengthy reports), conduct any needed market research, and provide an objective situational assessment.

3. Build consensus. If the board and the association’s executive team as a whole do not own and embrace the strategy, you are not done. Unlike at commercial organizations where the CEO usually makes the final call, differences of opinion on a not-for-profit board can be hard to mediate. And while such differences are healthy, at the end of the day the association has to make explicit decisions about what it will and will not do, where it will focus, and how it will get from where it is now to where it wants to be. If consensus cannot be reached, all members of the board and executive team must at least be supportive of the strategy and agree to put aside reservations for the time being. You do not have a strategy until this takes place.

4. Own your decisions. The association’s board and executive team must make the set of decisions that comprise an organization’s strategy themselves.  A consultant can help with education, situational assessment, competitive analysis, planning, and facilitation but cannot develop strategy—cannot make decisions—on behalf of the organization’s leadership.

5. Develop coordinated strategies for major divisions. While the organization should start with a holistic strategy for the enterprise, for larger associations, each major division (membership, publishing, meetings, education, advocacy, etc.) will need to develop a divisional strategy that closely aligns with the organization’s enterprise strategy. The enterprise strategy must come first, with each division’s strategy then mapping to the enterprise strategy. Otherwise, the divisional strategies will not align with the enterprise strategy or with each other, causing the organization to go in too many directions at once. Think of a boat with many oars in the water rowing in different directions—the destination is never reached.

6. Develop a strategic plan. A strategic plan describes how an organization will execute its strategy. It should include concrete actions, assign responsibility for those actions, specify the (re)allocation of resources, specify the establishment of supportive organizational structures, specify training systems, specify program or program areas to be reorganized or eliminated, and describe timetables. As with Step 5 above, larger associations may require strategic plans for each major division. Strategic plans, while necessarily longer than an organization’s one-page strategy document, need not be dense tomes—they can and should be as concise as possible while still capturing the essentials.

7. Communicate strategy to the organization. A strategy is a concise artifact that should be easily digestible and understood by everyone in the organization. While it is unreasonable to ask every staff member to be able to memorize the strategic plan (though managers should be well acquainted with it), every single staff member at the association should be able to understand and describe the organization’s one-page strategy. In fact, this is imperative. Given the speed at which organizations must move today and the myriad communication channels through which staff at all levels now correspond with members and customers, it is critical that everyone at the organization have a solid understanding of where the organization is headed and where its priorities lie.

8. Link to budgeting. Strategy must come before, and be linked to, budgeting. If an association’s budget is not informed by the set of strategic decisions the organization’s leadership has made and embraced, then it might as well not have bothered with any of the steps above, as the organization is using the budgeting process as a (very bad) surrogate for strategy development. Imagine an organization that decides that it needs to better recruit early-career members through adoption of new communication methods and the development of more relevant information products, and then fails to fund any of these activities. If resources are not aligned with strategy, the strategy will fail.

9. Identify performance milestones and align incentives. These are indicators that the strategy is being executed and that the results are in keeping with projections. Milestones might include new product launches, new advocacy or marketing initiatives, organization of new meetings, shuttering of divisions or activities that are no longer needed, revenue targets, membership targets, or any number of things that will give the board indicators of how successful the association’s staff is at executing the strategy and, assuming that the strategy has been executed, how the strategy is performing. All staff with responsibility for executing a portion of the strategic plan need to clearly understand their area of responsibility and objectives. Performance evaluations, bonuses, and raises all need to be linked to strategy execution.

10. Monitor and adjust. While tactics are often fluid, strategy should not need to be to be revisited outside the context of regularly scheduled board meetings (except when a major change has taken place either at the organization or in the marketplace). That being said, a good strategy is also one that is adaptive. Organizations should be monitoring both the marketplace and its internal execution and be prepared to make adjustments when needed, either to planning (more frequent) or to the strategic framework itself (less frequent).

Given the pace of technological change, new sources of professional information and community, the increasing competition for attention, shifting demographics, and an uncertain economy, an effective strategy is more important than ever. While professional associations may face more challenges to developing strategy than commercial organizations, these are challenges that can be overcome. Professional associations can close the strategy gap by incorporating these steps into their strategy development and implementation processes.

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