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Why Association Boards Must Step Back from Strategy: Part II

By Jeff De Cagna • June 28, 2018

This is Part II of a two-part series on this topic. In this column, we 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. You can find Part I here.

In Part I of this series, I suggested that by entrusting strategy to a more diverse group of contributors who bring different and more generative ways of thinking about and addressing stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes in than their predecessors, and who can effectively apply powerful technologies to their work, associations can limit the detrimental influence of orthodoxy in their strategy as learning efforts, while nurturing greater creativity and imagination.

In addition, by relinquishing their traditional hands-on role in strategy-making, boards can free themselves to provide more meaningful assistance to advancing their organizations’ strategic intent, as well as their own governing intent.

Advancing governing intent and strategic intent

As we have discussed previously, I define governing as an intentional and dynamic process for enabling the coherence, capability and continuity of the system. Devoting attention to each of the requirements of this definition is the essence of the board’s stewardship responsibilities, and boards can make plain how they propose to work together with staff and other contributors to move their organizations forward through governing intent. Governing intent, usually shared in the form of a stewardship statement, is a specific expression of the outcomes the board will strive to achieve through their stewardship, and helps to create a stronger connection between purpose (the association’s reason for being) and strategic intent (the ways in which the association proposes to create value with and for its stakeholders through an ongoing process of learning.)

Let’s take a closer look at how boards should operate in this context, including the role of foresight.

Boards must focus their attention on the long-term

Strategy as learning (expressed by strategic intent) helps create short-term coherence for stakeholder value creation through the association’s business model. The board can enrich ongoing conversations around strategic intent by concentrating their attention on understanding, anticipating, and preparing their associations for long-term plausible futures and directing actionable futures intelligence into the strategy as learning process. As the primary stewards, the board is the only group that can do the work of nurturing the organization’s long-term coherence, with the support of other contributors. The duty of foresight is the board’s shared commitment to making that happen, and this commitment can be expressed with clarity through the words of the board’s stewardship statement as a matter of governing intent.

Boards must champion investment in the right capabilities

Through their intentional learning with the future, the board can better prepare itself to recognize plausible futures that are beneficial for their associations, stakeholders and fields, as well as the futures that create the most significant level of threat. Boards can use their constantly-developing foresight to offer more informed guidance to staff and strategy contributors as the association determines how to invest in necessary organizational capabilities that advance strategic intent today, as well as the ability to remain resilient and adaptive to unfolding challenges tomorrow.

In this context, instead of functioning as buyers who are preoccupied with operational considerations, the board can be champions for pursuing intelligent and vital investments in people, technology, and other resources that will give the association and those it serves the best opportunity to thrive in the years ahead.

Boards must be wayfinders

For many decades, the board has been expected to know most of (if not all) the answers to difficult questions based on the decades of experience the directors bring to the table, both within their fields and the association itself. In a world experiencing societal transformation, however, there are vastly more complicated questions that the board’s largely backward-looking experience does not necessarily qualify them to answer, especially those related to value creation decisions for stakeholders who face different challenges, pressures, and prospects.

Instead, the board must play a role better suited to a long-term orientation: wayfinder. Put simply, the notion of wayfinding draws on the ancient Polynesian tradition of navigation that relies on a deeper awareness of the world around you. The duty of foresight places the board at the front edge of wayfinding for the association, and by adopting a consistent practice of foresight, the board’s wayfinding activity can help accelerate the pace of short-term strategy work, as well as strengthen the association’s ability to navigate and sustain continued progress toward the future, even in the face of the disruption created by transformation.

Boards Must Step Back from Strategy

In 2018, it is time for association boards to let go of strategic planning. Really. It’s time. Other contributors can pursue strategy as learning and tend to short-term concerns. For boards, the primary stewards of every association, the next governing challenge is to embrace the duty of foresight, take the long view and learn with the future.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff consults with and has served on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). Jeff can be reached through online chat, on Facebook or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.