Monday, June 16, 2014

Staying Above the Line

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This week I'm getting ready for an upcoming strategic retreat with my association's Board of Directors. There's a lot of prep work involved. In addition to setting a strategic agenda for the upcoming year (our fiscal year begins July 1), we'll take a look back at our progress over the past year. That means a lot of reports on projects and programs, many of them distilled down to a single set of green, yellow and red lights--a one-page overview that is meant to convey a general sense of organizational progress, and to highlight any weak points that may need deeper examination to determine how they can be best overcome or eliminated.

I've written about these "stop and go lights" before, and maybe I'll write more about them after the Board meeting, but I only bring them up now because they are just one of the ways that I try and help our Board stay above the line.

What line am I talking about? The one between strategy and operations, of course, and it's very important for Boards to stay above it if they are going to help an association achieve more than it otherwise would.

But there is a bit of a quandary here. Strategy can't be completely separated from operations--even in an annual strategic retreat. Talking blue sky strategy can be a helpful exercise, but if there isn't an understanding of the current operational competencies and capacities of the organization, you run the risk of creating a strategy that is wonderful, but unachievable.

So the struggle at every Board meeting is to provide Board members with enough information about the operational progress and plans of the organization so they can put their strategy work in the proper context, without leaving them with the impression that they are there to fix, direct, or change operational programs and priorities. Yes, Board members, we need measurable objectives and we need success metrics, but we need them at the strategic level, not the operational one.

So I'm trying something new to help make that distinction even more clear. It's a worksheet that shows our current vision statement, the strategic objectives by which we think we'll achieve it, and the supporting programs that have been put in place to move us in each of those directions. They're all connected and it's important to understand how they knit together, but I have very intentionally taken the list of programs and placed them in a shaded box.

It's meant to say very clearly: They're there. You can see them. We can even talk about them so you can better understand what the organization is doing to try and achieve our strategy, but they're shaded out because you're not supposed to touch them. You need to stay above the shaded area--above the line--and focus on the vision, the strategic objectives, and most importantly, the criteria by which we will know that we are actually achieving them.

If that sounds parochial, it's not intended to be. All it is is an attempt to help the Board members stay focused on their very difficult job of describing what success will look like with enough specificity that an action plan with a realistic chance of getting there can actually be created.

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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