From the Front Lines

Association Hunger Games: Victory or Defeat?

By Aaron Wolowiec • July 5, 2017

A 2013 Harvard Business Review blog post suggests that, “Execution is a minefield … Agendas compete. Priorities clash. Decisions stall. Communication breaks down. Timelines get blown. It’s never a question if these problems will happen; it’s a question of when and to what degree.”

Can you and your organization relate?

In “The Hunger Games” franchise, when Katniss and Peeta enter the arena, they’re often unsure of what extreme terrors they will face as tributes. Most horrifying is in “Catching Fire,” when the geography of the arena is based on a clock dial. In first the book and then the movie, fans are treated to 12 terrifying zones where unimaginable obstacles include paralyzing fog, monkey mutations, giant tidal waves, blood rain and lightening storms.

And while association professionals don’t routinely find themselves navigating these extraordinary circumstances, the Association Hunger Games offer challenges that are no less potent than those faced by Katniss and Peeta. Consider the most common pitfalls associations face implementing strategy. They include lack of detailed planning and accountability, unclear expectations and prioritization, and poor communication and coordination.

According to a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Companies typically realize only about 60 percent of their strategy’s potential value because of defects and breakdowns in planning and execution.”

(And, yes, you can easily replace the word “companies” with any functional area or department within your organization. As a supplier, you might also think in terms of “sales” or “services.”)

This execution gap suggests that what we plan to do usually doesn’t align with what actually gets done. The resulting gap represents lost opportunities and revenue. For most organizations, that might include a loss of conference attendees, a decline in membership or a slip in non-dues revenue – some or all of which could severely devastate an organization’s bottom line.

So, how does this translate to your organization? Consider, for a moment, what you have to lose. Every situation will be different; however, following are just a handful of the outcomes at risk:


Operational Organizational Personal









In fact, a 2011 Forbes magazine article supports this claim: “82 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs feel their organization did an effective job of strategic planning. Only 14 percent of the same CEOs indicated their organization did an effective job of implementing the strategy.”

To close this gap and to conquer the challenges they face, organizations should simply SPICE up their approach to focused implementation. Specifically, SPICE stands for scan, plan, implement, communicate and evaluate. This simple, non-linear framework for implementation planning and execution is most effective once key organization stakeholders develop and deploy an intentional strategic plan.

First, SCAN the terrain. Assess the strategic plan based upon recent performance. Then conduct a comprehensive SWOT analysis, assessing the competitive strengths, identifying organizational weaknesses, and exploring both opportunities and threats of external origin. Finally, determine the issues that need to be addressed based upon findings. In many ways, scanning is the key to superior execution. After all, it’s difficult to correct implementation issues if they’ve not initially been identified.

Then it’s time to PLAN. In the planning phase, be inquisitive and ask lots of questions. Select a tool to collect, organize and maintain the responses to these questions. It could be a simple Excel spreadsheet or something more sophisticated like Basecamp, a popular project management platform. Questions may include, but are not limited to:

  • What needs to be done?
  • Who needs to do it?
  • By when?
  • With what resources?

When you’re ready to IMPLEMENT the plan, first make sure leadership embraces it before rolling it out to all team members. Then schedule key checkpoints, invite input from your colleagues and be on the lookout for barriers (both perceived and actual). Likewise, be sure to help your colleagues clearly prioritize actions and, of course, monitor the plan obsessively.

When you COMMUNICATE, articulate specific actions needed and the outcomes desired. Simon Sinek suggests that when we think, act and communicate starting with why we can better inspire others to action. Moreover, check in frequently to field questions, and ask your own probing questions about process, workflow and unexpected issues. It’s vital to broadly share progress, challenges and successes along the way.

Finally, don’t forget to EVALUATE. This should look and feel a little like a SportsCenter instant replay. To get started, identify the following:

  • Progress toward goals and metrics.
  • Performance against the plan.
  • Feedback from colleagues and stakeholders.
  • Lessons learned for next time, including the “done wells,” the “do betters” and even the “don’t dos.”

In narrowing your own organization’s implementation gap, what positive changes can you make in both the short- and long-term to how your team executes its planning efforts to ensure the odds are ever in your favor?

About The Author

Aaron Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, CTA, is a learning strategist and meetings coach for leading trade associations and individual membership societies across the United States. Committed to the latest research and trends on learning, intentional networking environments and meaningful transfer exercises, he launched Event Garde, a professional development consultancy, in 2011.