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Strategic lessons.

Strategic planning is now a recognized management tool in associations. At the American College of Cardiology, Bethesda, Maryland, our six-year effort is as much learning-about our industry, our organization, and the planning process itself--as planning. Now three years into implementation, we have both highs and lows on which to reflect. The ideas that follow aren't the pros and cons of the strategic planning process, but what we can see in hindsight.

It costs

Strategic planning does not come cheaply--not when it's done right. In 1985 as we initiated our process, the college committed significant dollars to hire a management consultant. He brought a proven, logical planning process and started us down a planning road that met our unique needs. In hindsight, the expenditure was well worth the effort, because it gave us a framework: a plan for the plan.

It was costly. Besides the consultant's fee, we spent an average of $16,000-$20,000 per year to hold three or four committee meetings. And because the planning process is data-driven, we had to set aside funds to survey our membership and other relevant audiences. That expense recurs: This past fiscal year we spent approximately $10,000 to update external intelligence and reassess members' changing needs and expectations for the organization.

Beyond dollar resources, the time committed has been considerable. While the college commits only about one fourth of a staffer's time as liaison, member involvement has been enormous. The committee of 14 has met an average of four times a year for at least a full-day session. While this may not sound exorbitant, there is the opportunity cost of having the organization's best and brightest involved in planning as opposed to doing. Yet there is consensus that the time is well spent and that a commitment to planning necessitates a committee that meets regularly.

Limit the scope

The crystal ball gets foggy beyond two years. While the committee intended the long-term plan to approach a 10-year horizon, it became clear early in our process that planning beyond four or five years is very difficult. In fact, we consider ourselves astute to push the planning horizon out by two or three years because of the tremendous changes in technology, government, and society that are shaking the health care industry.

The association's Futures Conference attempted to explore and visualize what the health care field would look like in 10 years. While the conference was intellectually stimulating, integrating the information into the planning process has proven challenging. For example, the future of cardiovascular imaging technology is likely to be noninvasive; but what our members need now is information about current invasive technology. We concluded that shorter planning horizons-about three years--are more useful and appropriate.

We have not, however, given up exploring a long-term future view. In fact, we find that if our future view is blurred, we explore more broadly, since we may be looking for many manifestations of a trend. We're prepared to respond to almost any situation.

The committee is key

Perhaps it is obvious that the committee selected to guide the organization's strategic planning process is an important group of individuals. Yet it's tempting to use this committee to honor those who are in, or have been in, leadership roles. The college avoided this temptation and developed a charge that required the involvement of leaders as well as mainstream members.

Like other associations, we find that leadership is not representative of the general membership. In our case, physicians in academia are much more likely to have the time to pursue leadership positions than physicians primarily involved in patient care. Therefore, we purposely sought private practitioners (who represent 80 percent of the membership) to be on the committee. We included members representing various segments of the organization. For example, while the membership is primarily adult cardiologists, we have on the committee at least one pediatric cardiologist, one cardiac surgeon, and a member currently in a training program (truly the future of the organization).

For the college's planning process, this conscious effort not to make the committee homogeneous has proven valuable and stimulated dialogue. As just one example, the private practitioners on the committee are more sensitive to government intervention in care delivery than are the academicians, who tend to be sheltered from this issue. Had we not heard the outcry from the members in the trenches, we certainly would have overlooked, or at least downplayed, the importance of the college taking a stronger advocacy role.

Even with the unique makeup of the committee, member survey data and external scans of the environment are constant reminders that 14 individuals cannot speak for the whole membership. Over time, we've developed a healthy sensitivity and acknowledged that we must solicit and listen to input from the membership.

Member-driven is better

A staff-driven process is like leading the horse to water. Unless the members know it is their plan and their process, they will neither participate in nor abide by it. This was our posture from the beginning. However, we learned it's not easy to get members to take ownership in their plan or be enthusiastic about planning.

Sometimes planning involves housekeeping activities that have very little appeal to highly motivated professionals. In these situations, staff has learned the importance of preparing concise agenda materials that get right to the decision to be made. Staff presents a situation clearly and outlines possible courses of action. This minimizes the time that members have to spend wading through administrative issues, lets them use their time and expertise on bigger issues, and still keeps them in the driver's seat.

This is not to say staff members should always take the backseat. Just the opposite. Through our planning process, we are learning how well staff and members can work together. The staff members, for example, are considerably better equipped to identify organizational issues. Similarly, we find that as our staff becomes increasingly specialized (e.g., health policy experts, marketing and communication experts, statisticians, meeting planners, and so forth), the members come to rely on and expect their expert input. The healthy respect afforded competent staff enhances a member-driven process.

The committee solution

Think before throwing a committee at it. Since the strategic planning committee began implementing our plan, we've created eight new committees. While a sound rationale can be made for each, creating a new committee is often too simple a solution; it has the same feeling of satisfaction as moving a problem from your in-box to someone else's.

The lesson we are still learning is that there are often other innovative or creative means to address gaps or concerns. For example, we are making better use of ad hoc task forces and subcommittees to tackle a problem, propose a solution, and then disband unless otherwise needed. In addition, the onslaught of new committees taught the leadership something about the allocation of resources needed to staff these efforts. In fact, the good news was that the increasing number of committees prompted the leadership to set guidelines for establishing new committees. Now all new committees must come to the board with a well-defined charge, first-year operating budget, and full-time equivalent staff requirement.

Can we do less?

For the college, the planning process was synonymous with doing more, not less. Particularly in the early stages of implementation, members and staff had trouble with the notion of cutting existing activities. Our mind-set was to grow, not consolidate. Success was when we initiated a new committee or activity; but we are learning this is not so. As the process moves forward and activity evaluation becomes more rigorous, the committee has opted to drop and consolidate activities. There is an emerging understanding that astute resource allocation means funding activities high on the priority list, and not funding those low on this list or those that are no longer in step with the strategic plan.

The spin-off effect

Our experience with strategic planning has been positive. Many of the pluses, however, are the fringe benefits of practicing good management. For example, we have tightened our operational planning and begun to see how strategic and operational planning can work together. To link the strategic plan to committee activities, for instance, each of 57 committees must submit a yearly program of work identifying the specific goals and objectives each proposed activity will address. This process has focused dollars, staff, and volunteer member time on activities that directly impact our strategic plan.

Here are a few other pluses:

* We created guidelines for new products and services, committees, and liaisons. We've found we need to control the temptation to stray from the plan. So now, to propose and approve a new product, service, or liaison, we require a clear indication that the activity will have a direct impact on one or several goals.

* The external scanning process has helped sensitize us to other players in our field. As we studied the industry, we reacquainted ourselves with other associations, coalitions, and even new forprofit licensing partners. Now we are more realistic about those issues we can tackle alone and those that necessitate strong strategic alliances. We are also careful in selecting and maintaining the alliances that have the greatest ability to impact the plan.

* The strategic planning process is such that those who serve on the committee (including staff) are forced to understand more about the organization than they would otherwise expect (or want) to know. In this regard, the committee has provided excellent training for future leaders and facilitated inter-departmental staff communication.

* We think our environmental scan processes are fairly good, but we realize issues will sneak up on us: We need to be reactive as well as proactive. For example, in technology assessment, the college has two committees. One proactively selects diagnoses and therapies and develops comprehensive guidelines. The second is activated on an ad hoc basis by requests to assist in assessing a new or emerging technology. Both work.

Strategic planning is done because it's worth doing. The process, from monitoring the environment to crafting the mission statement, and from implementation of objectives to evaluation of efforts, must be a labor of love. The vision espoused in the mission statement is not pie in the sky and not taken lightly. A well-designed planning process forces an organization to focus and refocus on its mission rather than wallow in the goodness of its cause.

Our mission was written with great care and is held up as a realistic pursuit. The continual planning process affords opportunities to reexamine the future, refine the plan, and recommit to an effort worth doing. We have learned that recommitment of effort also makes the planning process worth doing.

Lisa K. Olson is associate executive vice president of the American College of Cardiology, Bethesda, Maryland. For more information on related topics or ASAE's Finance and Administration Section, call Wayne Miller, (202) 626-2781.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:strategic planning
Author:Olson, Lisa K.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:1809
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