Monday, November 2, 2015

Action Plans Describe The Steps Staff Will Take

I've previously provided an example of an Operational Plan, the new term I've introduced in my association to describe a document owned by me and my staff. Comprised of three distinct elements, each one nesting in the one that precedes it, our Operational Plan describes how the association will go about achieving the success metrics identified by our Board of Directors.

I've already addressed the Goals and the Program Objectives, the first two of those three elements. Now I want to spend a little more time talking about the third element: the Action Plans.

To understand Action Plans you really need to understand the two elements that nest above them. Goals define the distance we want each Success Metric to move. Program Objectives define the things we will achieve in order to traverse that distance. And Action Plans are the steps we will take to achieve those objectives.

Here's an example I previously provided. The Success Metric is increasing donations to our Foundation. The Goal is increasing them from $817K last year to $828K this year. One Program Objective to achieve that Goal is to renew memberships in and grow participation in our giving society (named after Blaise Pascal). And the Action Plan associated with that Program Objective looks like this:

1. After renewal invoices are sent, confirm renewal status of all existing Pascal Society members.
2. Write and produce the 2015 Donor Impact Report.
3. Disseminate 2015 Donor Impact Report at 2015 Industry and Economic Outlook Conference and recognize Pascal Society donors there.
4. Mail 2015 Donor Impact Reports to all renewed Pascal Society members, including personal notes of thanks for specific company employees engaged in specific programs.
5. Send new Pascal Society logos to all members with instructions for use.
6. Identify candidates within the NFPA membership—those who have made large single donations and those with interest/connection to our research goals—and solicit them for Pascal Society membership.
7. Organize Pascal Society recognition and recognition activities at the 2016 Annual Conference, including the special VIP event for Pascal Society Gold members.

Specific, concrete actions that staff will perform over the course of our operational year that, when added together, spell achievement of the Program Objective to which they are aligned.

Typically, when I describe this element of our Operational Plan to others, I inevitably get asked the two questions. First:

When do you set these Action Plans? Is there any room for adjustment? How can you possibly chart a course of action for an entire year?

In fact, we do set the Action Plans at the very beginning of our operational year, but have a cadenced process in place to deal with the unexpected contingencies that often arise.

It works like this. Our Board meets three times a year. At the June meeting (near the July 1 start of our fiscal year), they determine the Success Indicators for the year. Shortly thereafter, I work with staff to set Goals, identify Program Objectives, and describe Action Plans for the year. Then we quickly get to work on them. Just prior to the next Board meeting in October, we assess the status of the Action Plans, and report progress against their Program Objectives, and their impact on our Goals at the Board meeting. Following that meeting, I meet with each staff person to discuss and possibly update the Action Plans for the rest of the year. Sometimes the action steps are behind schedule, sometimes they're ahead of schedule, and sometimes they have stopped completely due to some unforeseen circumstance. These October meetings allow us to recalibrate if needed, making sure Action Plans will help us achieve Program Objectives, and making sure Program Objectives will have a positive effect on our Goals.

Then we get back to work on the plans. Except we do the whole review process a second time--assess, report, discuss and update--at the time of our Board's third meeting in March.

It sounds like a lot of work, I know. And it is, both for me and my staff. But I think it's important, because it accomplishes three very important things.

(1) It keeps staff activity focused on concrete things--things we can actually do;

(2) It gives me as CEO an opportunity to test whether Action Plans are really adding up to Program Objective success and, if not, to make adjustments; and

(3) By connecting these activities to measured success against the Goals, it gives our Board an opportunity to address resource limitations in the organization without micromanaging staff activity.

This last point is especially critical. Even though I spend a lot of time working on Action Plans with the staff, the Board does not see them. If our actions are moving us towards our Goals, the Board will see that in the Success Indicators that we include on the agenda of each of their meetings. If they are not, that lack of progress will also be seen in those Success Indicators, and discussion at the Board table remains on what we need to be doing to achieve success, not what we need to do to complete action plans.

And the second question:

Who's in charge of these action plans? What happens when they are behind schedule or not progressing at all? Who do you hold accountable?

Every Action Plan--and more precisely the Program Objective to which those Plans are attached--is assigned to what we call an individual Staff Leader. This is the person responsible for making sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved. Notice that I did not say this Staff Leader is responsible for completing the Action Plan or achieving the Program Objective themselves. The reason I make that distinction is because an Action Plan almost always requires the efforts of more than one person--and sometimes entire teams. This is why we have chosen the term Staff Leader to describe their role. That individual, has to lead other staff in order to make sure the Action Plan is completed and the Program Objective is achieved.

What happens when the Plan is behind schedule or not progressing at all? And how do I hold the Staff Leader accountable? Well, stay tuned. That's fodder for a lengthy blog post of its own.

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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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