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Why Association Boards Must Step Back from Strategy: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna • May 25, 2018

This is Part I of a two-part series on this topic. In this column, we consider why associations are long overdue to bring the era of strategic planning to an end, and why limiting board involvement can facilitate the shift to strategy as a process of learning.

In my 2012 ebook, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future, I declared “the era of strategic planning is over” and tried to make the case against continuing to pursue this fundamentally flawed approach:

“For many decades, having a strategic plan has been the sine qua non of association management practice. Despite its inherent contradictions and obvious weaknesses, the work of strategic planning continues unabated in associations, perhaps because boards and CEOs have been told at every opportunity their organizations must have a strategic plan. It is a potent dictum of association orthodoxy, and yet…strategic planning…is a largely pro forma exercise designed to extend the seductive yet perilous illusion of organizational control. It hardly makes sense for associations to devote their limited time and financial resources to the work of deep and detailed planning for a future that continues to unfold in unexpected ways…”

Sadly, at that time, my attempt to persuade association decision-makers to abandon strategic planning failed. Six years after I wrote the words above, strategic plans endure as staple items in the world of association management. Nevertheless, strategy as an exercise in planning continues to be a detrimental choice for senior decision-makers who recognize the serious impact societal transformation has already had during this six-year period and who want to build their associations to thrive in the years ahead.

3 reasons associations must think different about strategy

Let’s consider three reasons why associations must think differently about strategy, including the need to limit the board’s involvement in the work:

  • Strategy must emphasize short-term value creation: The depth, intensity and pace of societal transformation demands that association decision-makers operate within two different yet connected time horizons. The short-term horizon is what I call the “strategy window,” an always-shifting period of 36 months, while the long-term horizon is the “foresight horizon,” an always-shifting period of 84 months beyond strategy. (FYI, the sum of those two numbers is 120 months, or ten years.) Taking place in the context of the 36-month window, strategy as a process of learning is all about listening with intention to networks of current and future organizational stakeholders.

Through strategy as learning, associations strive to build an empathic understanding of stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes and also to collaborate with those stakeholder networks in an ongoing effort to design and experiment with compelling value offers to spark additional learning. Limiting board involvement in this process keeps the focus of strategy as learning on stakeholder concerns and inspires greater imagination and creativity, while freeing the board to focus its attention on long-term thinking within the foresight horizon.

  • Strategy must include new contributors: As described above, perhaps the greatest benefit of strategy as a process of learning is the opportunity to involve a far broader set of stakeholders in these conversations, including stakeholders who operate beyond current association boundaries. By inviting these ‘unusual suspects’ to be direct contributors to the work of strategy, associations can cultivate greater diversity of thought and perspective within the process, build unexpected yet mutually-beneficial learning relationships and possibly identify valuable assets and resources (both tangible and intangible) that might otherwise remain hidden and inaccessible.

Limiting board involvement lessens the influence of sacrosanct association orthodoxy on strategy and creates a more generative learning context in which new contributors can reshape association thinking about what matters most to stakeholders.

  • Strategy must capitalize on technology: To support the inclusion of new contributors and amplify the overall impact of strategy as a process of learning, associations must implement robust technologies that are carefully designed to enable meaningful conversation, collaboration and experimentation. For associations accustomed to conducting strategy work exclusively through in-person gatherings, the introduction of technology may prove a unique challenge, and most of us know from personal experience the selection of any technology tool or platform can create unintended consequences.

Associations must be thoughtful in how they approach these choices, and responsive in addressing any contributor concerns. In the context of societal transformation, however, the need to integrate technology and capitalize on what it affords to the work of strategy as learning is absolute. Limiting board involvement may make it simpler for all stakeholders to adopt more powerful technologies, as well as assist with nurturing a safe space for exploring unorthodox and disruptive ideas.

Next Month

Strategy as a process of learning is a necessary shift away from the serious problems created by traditional board-centric strategic planning approaches. In Part II, I will examine what boards can do to enrich the work of strategy through a commitment to stewardship and the consistent practice of foresight, and help accelerate the long-term progress of their organizations and stakeholders toward the future.

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