TODAYS LESSON: Strategic Planning.
Just ask any board members who've been through a strategic plan--they'll tell you the process gives a whole new meaning to the term learning experience. As a volunteer leader, it's not enough to puzzle out the future direction of the association you serve. You also have to become a student of the latest planning techniques, the intricacies of organizational psychology, and the nuances of group dynamics.
But you don't have to start with Strategic Planning 101. ASAE has recently adopted a strategic plan using an approach the board refers to as knowledge-based strategic governance. To give you the benefit of ASAE's own learning experience, here are 10 lessons that its chief elected officer, executive vice president, and strategic planning consultant have to offer.
Starting off right
Lesson 1: Make sure to include thought leaders--not just board members--at the table. Don't restrict your planning committee to board members only, advises Jeffry W. Raynes, GAE, executive director and chief operating officer of APICS--The Educational Society for Resource Management, Alexandria, Virginia. As ASAE's chief elected officer for 2000-2001, Raynes recommends recruiting a variety of your field's best thinkers, ones who can bring fresh perspective from outside the boardroom. ASAE's strategic planning group was made up of 65 people, including board members; top volunteers from ASAE sections, committees, and allied societies; representatives from the general membership; and staff. (More on involving staff later.)
Lesson 2: Think new. These days, the best volunteers--those all-important thought leaders--demand more than dog-and-pony shows and endless discussions of "administrivia." They will only contribute their expertise if they have an opportunity to truly make a difference. For most associations, this means a new kind of thinking about how to do a strategic plan-one that makes the process more productive and more engaging.
To help with thinking new, ASAE adopted the knowledge-based strategic governance philosophy. Basically, the approach blends long-term strategic thinking with short-term planning in a way that allows both board and staff to do what they do best. "What we're seeking to do is to change the process governance uses," says Glenn Tecker of Tecker Consultants, LLC, Trenton, New Jersey, the firm ASAE's planning committee worked with. "By changing process we change behavior, and by changing behavior, we change the culture--from a management to a leadership culture. The board moves from approving ideas that come from elsewhere to exploring possibilities and making choices."
Tecker is such an enthusiast about this planning method because "it allows the board and staff to spend time looking ahead, not back at what has already occurred. When leadership creates the opportunity, and the process, for a board to invest time on issues of high-level importance, no board member ever misses the opportunity to wade through details instead." (For more on this planning process and its results, see the sidebar, "Case Study: ASAE's Strategic Process."
Creating the plan
Lesson 3: Rethink the way board and staff work together. When some boards set a future course, they deliberately relegate the staff to the sidelines. At other associations, the staff manages the entire process while the board sits by with the rubber stamp. But neither of these approaches will achieve the powerful results you can get when board and staff collaborate as equals.
"This is not just a nicer way of doing things--it's a necessary way of doing them," says Tecker. "The kind of work associations are now doing to meet member needs is increasingly sophisticated and technical, which requires time that volunteers are no longer able to give. So they increasingly rely on staff to do things volunteers used to do. This requires a real meeting of the minds so staff can execute the intent of board."
In ASAE's case, board and staff participated equally in the yearlong process of creating the strategic plan. Collaboration was critical not only for creating broad understanding but also for generating buy-in. "Shared discussion leads to shared ownership," says Tecker. It inspires a rich blend of board-staff perspectives on the challenges members face and how to meet them.
The result was liberating. The board could give staff the resources to do a job and then hold them accountable without having to endure detailed reports at the expense of strategic discussion. And the staff benefited from a reinforced sense of trust. After all, Raynes says, "if you trust the staff to manage the day-today operations of the organization, you should be able to trust them to help with strategic planning."
Lesson 4: Set up a structure that moves your strategic plan beyond lofty thoughts and into your annual operating and financial plans. Spelling out your vision, mission, and goals is vital to creating a successful strategic plan. But if you stop there, your association will never actually go to the places your plan maps out.
Once members of ASAE's board voted to accept the strategic plan in August 1999, they deliberately took steps to continue being engaged in the planning process. As a result, at every board meeting they work on what they call mega-issues, the broad challenges ASAE needs to face to set the ultimate direction of its long-range plan. And every year, the board members conduct a formal review of the strategic plan's assumptions, remaining mega-issues, and objectives (which explain and enrich the goals).
A big part of all this involves staff aligning implementation with the budgeting process and business plan. Developing a schedule and making everything feed in at the right time has been challenging but vital. So has linking staff performance evaluations to the plan's objectives.
Having created a practical framework, the staff and the plan's working-group members now feel free to forge ahead, says Linda H. Chandler, CAE, ASAE's executive vice president. When circumstances dictate changes, they don't have to wait for board permission. Nor can anyone use a far-off board meeting as an excuse for getting little done.
To make sure everyone is on track, ASAE's senior staff and board members did their first annual review and refinement of the strategic plan at the August 2000 board meeting. Their goal was not to rewrite the plan but rather to revise parts of it as needed if the environment changed or something became unworkable. Tying the plan to the day-to-day is important for a board moving from what Tecker calls the react-and-ratify model to the define-and-delegate approach. "It has moved the ASAE board from being a management board to becoming a governance board," he says. "The board pays attention not to how something is being executed but rather to what is being accomplished."
Lesson 5: Realize that although parliamentary procedure still has its place, that place isn't as big as it used to be. While creating its new plan, ASAE often used a dialogue-and-consensus model. Instead of beginning with a motion to consider a topic, the board would use already-distributed background materials as a springboard for discussion and deliberation. Then, sometimes "a hot group" would be assigned to come up with further information; other times the board would then return to Robert's Rules of Order for a motion and a vote. (During the formal part of the meeting, when financial and audit reports needed approval, Robert's still ruled.)
For at least half of the board's considerations, Robert's Rules were suspended. "The gavel, the constraints, and the structure of parliamentary procedure gave way to a process that's more human," Tecker says. Adds Chandler: "It was not a difficult transition. It was a welcome one."
Lesson 6: Cut down the board book. Once you focus most of your time on strategic issues, your board book no longer needs to be an encyclopedia-length tome.
Chandler notes with a wry laugh that ASAE's board books used to run nearly 400 pages. No more. In part this is because board meetings no longer focus on as many housekeeping routines as they used to. It's also because when board members want to see meeting minutes, routine reports, and updates on general happenings, they can now view them on E-Board, a limited-access section of the ASAE Web site just for volunteer leaders. "By communicating in between meetings," Chandler says, "we're not overwhelming everyone with information about details at the time when they should be coming to the board meeting to think strategically."
Thanks to such changes, for its most recent meeting in December 2000, the board book, including background reading, was significantly reduced. The message, says Chandler: "Let's use our volunteers' time, experience, and knowledge to really make a difference."
Lesson 7: Be sure to build in ways to measure your progress. "The importance of inclusion of measurement can't be overestimated," Tecker says. For each of its new goals, ASAE provided key measures that the board will use to monitor over three to five years to see if progress toward the goal is actually achieved. It allows the board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility while resisting micromanagement.
Forging into the future
Lesson 8: Remember that a plan should be a work in progress. "Your plan is never going to be perfect," Raynes says. "When you go in trying to develop the perfect plan, you get caught up in the process and may never deliver the product. But when you realize it's an ongoing process--a journey, not a destination--you can steel yourself to the realization that you're going to have to continue to do this on a regular basis. After all, what is relevant today may not be relevant tomorrow. It requires vigilance to be relevant tomorrow."
To reinforce this idea, ASAE never actually published a final plan. Instead, the plan was posted on the ASAE Web site, where it's accessible to all and easy to update as needed. "That sends a message that we expect to evolve," says Chandler. Even so, ASAE did create a video to explain to the members at large how the plan was created and what it would mean. (For more about the video, see the sidebar, "Resources.")
Lesson 9: Orient new board members to the plan so they'll buy in. Like many associations, each year ASAE retires a third of its existing board members and welcomes new ones. To keep a five-year plan alive even after everyone who worked on it has left, each year new board members participate in a plan-orientation session just for them. They also take part in the annual review of the plan, when the board and senior staff go into breakout groups for discussion of assumptions, mega-issues, and objectives, and their ongoing relevance.
Of course, just as important is buy-in on the part of the new chief elected officer. Rather than worrying about what his or her personal legacy might be, Tecker says, chief elected officers must champion a long-term direction together.
Lesson 10: Allow for nimbleness. In the end, the ideal plan should place few constraints on the speed and originality with which a board works. As Tecker says, your future leaders should have room to make judgments about the best ways to respond to the problems and opportunities they face. The goal is to have a solid structure that never-the-less offers flexibility.
Asked what he would do differently about the ASAE planning process, Raynes thinks for a moment and says, "Nothing. Even our occasional missteps helped create an opportunity to increase our learning. Sometimes you need to make a mistake to identify areas you neglected to look at."
That's a lesson in itself: The inevitable errors you may make with your strategic plan can provide your own textbook case in what to do better in the future. Look at things that go wrong as reminders to keep moving, keep changing, and stay relevant to your members. After all, as Raynes says, "relevance is what this is all about. You cease to be relevant and it's all over. This whole process is a way of keeping up with changing times."
Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.
ASAE's Planning Framework
Throughout ASAE's strategic planning process, it used a framework based on the model shown below. The model integrated the elements of the strategic plan so that conversations about the future fell into four distinct planning "horizons." Thoroughly integrated within the plans and the planning horizons were the three major components: the core ideology, the envisioned future, and the goals of the three- to five-year plan.
10-30 years: 5-10 years: Core Ideology envisioned future critical factors Core Purpose Core Values big, audacious goal assumptions about the future vivid description of achievement of goal mega-issues strategic choices 3-5 years: 1-2 years: Core Ideology strategic planning action planning Core Purpose Core Values goals, objectives, and strategic plan annual strategies review organizational strategy priority setting value discipline program planning annual business plan
CASE STUDY: ASAE's Strategic Process
When ASAE undertook its new strategic planing process in 1998, it made a conscious decision to think different. That's why the leadership chose an approach it calls knowledge-based strategic governance. The goal was not just to chart a course for the foreseeable future. It was also to create a model for strategic decision making when circumstances change--as inevitably they will.
The following summary of the planning process is adapted from "ASAE Charts Its Future" in the June 1999 ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.
HOW ASAE'S PLANNING PROCESS WORKED
To lay a firm foundation for the plan under the knowledge-based strategic governance approach, the Strategic Plan Task Force started by determining ASAE's core ideology--a broad statement of who ASAE really is. The core ideology consisted of two parts:
1. The core purpose, which describes what the association expects to accomplish. ASAE's core purpose is "to advance the value of voluntary associations to society and to support the professionalism of the individuals who lead item."
2. The core values, unchanging tenets that define what is essential to the association's worldview. The following are ASAE's core values:
* Visionary leadership forever open to new ideas.
* Integrity evidenced by ethical, honest, and credible behavior.
* Service to society.
* Dedication to the freedom to associate.
* Commitment to association management as a profession.
* Belief in the value of collaboration.
Ideally the core ideology (mission, values, and envisioned future)--association's reason for being--are valid and versatile enough to last a century. To fill that tall order, the task force met as part of the November 1998 ASAE Board of Directors retreat to grapple with the core ideology. In addition, the group looked ahead 10-30 years to an envisioned future--a description of what the association will try to become or do in that time. ASAE's envisioned future is "to be essential to advancing the role of voluntary associations in a democratic society and indispensable to association professionals."
Beyond that description, an envisioned future has two parts: a BAG, or big, audacious goal; and a vivid description of what it will be like to achieve that audacious goal. Here are ASAE's big, audacious goals and a vivid description:
The true value of voluntary associations in a democratic society has been realized: Associations are essential to advancing society.
* Every American will be actively supporting the work of a voluntary association and will value the opportunity to do so.
* Every democratic society will enjoy the benefits of an active association community.
* ASAE will be the undisputed leader in advancing, promoting, and supporting the value of associations to a democratic society.
* ASAE will be the nexus for realizing the full potential of an interdependent community united by a common interest in success. Collaboration will fuel innovation, promote the growth of knowledge, and produce enhanced value for all partners.
* Every American will understand the important contributions associations make to advancing American society. As a result, the standing and value of the profession of association management will be enhanced.
Because the core ideology and envisioned future should last such a long time, identifying and articulating them is not easy. In ASAE's case, focus groups and phone interviews conducted soon after the November 1998 meeting showed that the concepts that had emerged weren't clear to test audiences. So the task force conducted electronic meetings facilitated by the Tecker consulting team, to refine the core ideology and envisioned future and to consider research about what forces would affect ASAE in the next 5-10 years. In addition, results of the ASAE Foundation's Environmental Scan helped guide this process.
It was from this audience research, scan results, and these choices that the basic strategic plan emerged--the three-to five-year focus on what ASAE will do to move closer to achieving the big, audacious goal. The plan itself involved first developing a set of goals that described the condition or attributes that ASAE wanted to attain. These goals were revealed by examining the assumptions about the relevant future and the strategic issues and choices identified earlier. From each goal came a set of strategic objectives, which are mile-stones achieved on the way to accomplishing the goal. Strategic objectives were the first real description of the work the plan would require. The objectives were written to enrich the understanding of each goal's intent.
After refining the core ideology and envisioned future and developing the draft goals and strategic objectives over winter 1998-1999, the board shifted its work. The plan and process had, to this point, focused on what needed to happen--on issues of strategy, which constitute the part of the process owned by the leadership team. What lay ahead was focusing on how to make the what happen--a task that the leaders agreed should be owned by the staff and volunteer workgroups of ASAE, not by the board.
The how unfolded via the plan document (the five goals and strategic objectives), from which evolved organizational issues involving governance issues, staffing structure, and workflow management. The three-to five-year plan also drove ASAE's annual work plan, including the annual business plan (incorporating staff and committee priorities), the operating budget, and the annual review of progress to date. Under this model, the board conducts an annual review of the progress toward the goals and reviews the priorities of the annual business plan.
Most important to the success of the strategic plan: clarity of role between the strategic focus of the volunteer team and the operational focus of the volunteer team and the operational focus of the staff. While goals and objectives are set by the ASAE Board, initiatives--which need to be more fluid to respond to a changing environment--are set by the volunteers and staff who are doing the work.
Once the above elements were in place, ASAE's volunteers and staff were ready to set the priorities for the plan's first 3-5 years. These priorities now drive ASAE's annual operating and financial plans.
* "KNOWLEDGE-BASED STRATEGIC GOVERNANCE: THE ASAE EXPERIENCE." This video chronicle of ASAE's initial evolution to knowledge-based strategic governance introduces board members and staff to an approach for helping boards govern more effectively. (Product AMR230006; $16.95 for ASAE members, $22.95 for nonmembers.)
* STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR ASSOCIATION EXECUTIVES, by Gerald L. Gordon. This step-by-step guide outlines the strategic planning process for chief staff executives and volunteers. The author draws from lessons in private-sector planning, introducing practical applications and how-to advice, while emphasizing the importance of reasonable expectations throughout the strategic planning process. (Product AMR216750; $37.95 for ASAE members, $45.95 for nonmembers.)
* "THE BOARD'S ROLE IN STRATEGIC PLANNING." The importance and process of ongoing strategic planning are explained in this pamphlet, which helps board members understand their role. (Product AMR210570; $12 for ASAE members and nonmembers.)