But dare I start with the endlessly controversial subject of strategic planning? I've heard Jamie Notter (and others) decry this staple of association board meetings as a tool whose time has come and gone, but it wasn't until I read the treatment of it in Humanize that I really understood what he was talking about.
And it's convinced me of one undisputable fact. I need to stop calling what my association does strategic planning.
Because it isn't. Humanize (the book was co-authored by Jamie and Maddie Grant, so it doesn't seem right to attribute anything it says to only one of them) says strategic planning is based on three faulty assumptions:
1. You can predict the future.
2. You can separate thought from action.
3. You can script the formation of strategy.
Since we don't make those assumptions, and since strategic planning is such a derogatory term, why should I persist in using it? To illustrate, let's tackle the honest truths of traditional strategic planning one at a time.
You Can't Predict the Future
...strategic planning is based on the assumption that you can truly predetermine outcomes in this world. It is predicated on the notion that we can sit here, at point A in time, and devise a plan to get us through to point B in the future, knowing enough about how the future is going to play out to make the correct strategic choices today.
That's what Humanize says, and Humanize is right. That is the assumption that two-day strategic planning retreats have when they are organized to create a three-to-five year plan for an organization.
Except we don't have a three-to-five year plan. We have a mission and a set of strategic priorities, and every time our leadership comes together--not just at their annual retreat, but every time--we ask what we know about our current position that would warrant a change to either of these items. Sometimes nothing changes. Sometimes everything changes. Sometimes the things that changed the time before get changed back again. We respect the idea that we can't know what's going to happen in the future. It's hard enough just figuring out what's happening now, and that's where we keep our attention focused. What's happening now and what does that tell us about where the association should go next.
You Can't Separate Thought from Action
This is where our illustrious leaders head off to their strategy retreats to develop their carefully laid plan that is then distributed to the worker bees for flawless execution.
My current board chair has taken to using a different metaphor when talking to people about their respective roles in the association. There are no queen bees and worker bees. We are all both directors and actors in the play.
Granted, different decisions get made in different parts of the association, but strategy and tactics must be intertwined if either is going to be successful. Those who create the ideas have a responsibility in helping to implement them, and those who coordinate programs have an obligation to inform our strategy with their practical experience. For us, the challenge is less one of process and design and more one about finding the human resources and the time in everyone's busy schedules to communicate enough to keep strategy and tactics aligned throughout our organization.
You Can't Script the Formation of Strategy
There is no research that supports the idea that elaborate planning processes work any better than the messy, informal processes that have also been used to create strategy.
This is the point that Humanize and I agree on the most when it comes to strategic planning, and what really tipped me over the edge in my resolution to stop calling what we do strategic planning.
To even call what we do a process is most likely an exaggeration. There is no real process--at least not a single process that we have consistently followed for as much as two years in a row. It's messy, and constantly evolving, with only a handful of guidelines to afford enough structure to keep people grounded and more or less understanding what we're trying to do. I've never written these guidelines down before, and maybe I should. Off the top of my head, they would look something like this:
1. We need a mission that everyone can support, that defines why we exist, and around which we will dedicate our resources and activity.
2. We need a vision for the future, a single or set of envisioned states of being, that inspires people and keeps us stretching to achieve more than we might have thought possible.
3. We need to develop a set of programs that are clearly aligned with our mission and which are capable of moving us towards our vision. These programs should both serve the interests of our members and engage them in the process of their development and execution.
4. We need to develop and employ the appropriate resources so that the programs have the best chance of success.
5. We need to monitor the progress of the programs and evaluate their impact on our mission and their ability to move us closer to our vision. We must make adjustments based on this evaluation, striving for a cycle of continuous improvement.
These guidelines frame the conversation my association has on an on-going basis. Not just at the board retreat, but at every board meeting, on committee conference calls, and day-by-day with the staff. As long as we stay true to these concepts then everything else is up for negotiation and change.
So what should I call this thing that we do if Humanize has convinced me to stop calling it strategic planning?
I have one idealized suggestion. Association management. It is nothing less than the most fundamental value our business model is capable of creating, and no one should shy away from it.