Monday, June 11, 2012

A False Sense of Closure

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I'm prepping for my association's annual strategic Board meeting this week, so my mind has been occupied with how to facilitate a conversation that (A) begins with the association's existing foundation of activity and accomplishment over the past year, (B) engages the forward-thinking part of everyone's brain, and (C) results in a vision and action plan that is either within the association's current reach, or includes the appropriate mechanisms to develop the necessary resources to go after the big prize.

It's a challenging balancing act. To be honest, (A) makes (B) difficult, and (B) makes (C) difficult. If you successfully orient your Board members with your track record of activity over the past year, how do you keep them from digging into those weeds, and if you successfully keep them focused on the horizon, how do you temper their ideas with the honest limitations of the checkbook and staff hours?

So it was an interesting week for me to stumble across this post by Anna Caraveli at The Demand Perspective blog. In it, reflecting on work done by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, she dissects the good and the bad of traditional strategic planning processes. For me, the big takeaway comes near the very end:

Do not expect your organization's direction to emerge from a formal process all at once. Instead, develop capabilities for systems-wide innovation, reinvention, reconfiguration, openness and flexibility through which your association will be constantly renewed and re-aligned with the market.

Her caution is well noted. Expecting my association's direction to clearly emerge from our day-and-a-half strategy session was exactly what I was doing (unconsciously, I think). And this desire--to come to closure and have a plan set firmly in place--is really the only thing that makes the dreaded transitions from (A) to (B) to (C) necessary. Viewing the retreat as a singular event--a place where decisions are made--forces the conversations we will have there into certain channels--channels that are more focused on their own need for completion than the reality of the market in which the association operates.

But looking at the retreat as part of an on-going process, the need for closure dissolves harmlessly away. Yes, let's take a look at where the association has been and what we've been able to accomplish (or not) over the past year. And yes, let's talk about the changes in the marketplace that are affecting our industry and all of our businesses. And then let's try to put both discussions into the same box and decide how they're connected (or not) to each other. It'll be messy, but at least we'll be dealing with the reality of our environment.

Then, rather than forcing ourselves to make decisions about what to do next or differently, lets take a look at how adept our system is at capturing and acting on this kind of intelligence. How often do we have that conversation? Seriously, have we ever had that conversation? For many associations, the unfortunate reality is that there usually isn't time. Rather than create a process that engages leadership at a level it can be most effective, they struggle to wordsmith a set of goals and objectives so everyone can leave the meeting feeling like they accomplished something.

It's closure, but it's a false sense of one. You may have your direction, but you've left the organization no better able to adapt to the next shift in your environment. Hopefully, when that shift occurs, it will coincide with the timing of next year's retreat.


  1. Wow, this is a great post. One of the three fatal flaws of strategic planning (from Mintzberg's book) is that we feel compelled to fit it into a formal and rigid process. You can't do B before you finish A, so you bring A to closure--even when that's impossible. But what you're talking about is actually building the strategic capacity of the system--to be able to "adapt to the next shift in your environment." And honestly, I don't think it matters if it coincides with the timing of next year's retreat. You don't have to schedule it like that. You simply need to do the hard work that is required during that retreat, whenever it is, and then connect it with the ongoing strategic conversations you are (or should be) having all the time.

  2. Thanks, Jamie. The remark about shifts coming at scheduled intervals was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. In other words, if you only talk strategy at yearly intervals, then you better hope shifts in your environment only happen on the same schedule.

  3. Beautifully said. I love your concept of "the need for closure." I think it applies to all aspects of life when we force reality to artificially conform to our intellectual constructs so that we can have "closure" at the time we choose. Both you and Jamie make me think that planning (lke life itself) is not at all about reaching "closure" but about journeying alongside your stakeholders-- constantly discerning nuanced clues and providing fresh solutions.

    "Rather than create a process that engages leadership at a level it can be most effective, they struggle to wordsmith a set of goals and objectives so everyone can leave the meeting feeling like they accomplished something." Great insight. No wonder that few of these lists of objectives, visions, values etc. make any difference for the association.

  4. Thanks, Anna. We do it mostly to ourselves. I've been in my fair share of those wordsmithing sessions, and they seldom have any resonance three months down the road.