Monday, October 24, 2016

Defining the Right Ends Takes Time

That's one the observations I took away from my association's latest Board meeting. Defining the right "ends" (i.e., the high-level outcomes the association is in the business of achieving) takes time. And by time, I don't mean hours or days. I mean years.

Hear me out.

My Board adopted a modified version of the Carver Policy Governance model five years ago. As part of that adoption, they wrote their own Governance Policy, which attempted to spell out, as clearly as possible, the differing roles between the Board and the staff executive when it came to strategy and execution. Here are the actual clauses from that document:

“Ends” determination is a pivotal duty of the Board. The Board will determine what results are to be achieved, for whom, and at what cost, and clearly express these “ends” in the mission, strategic priorities, ends statements, success indicators, and budget of the association.

Tactical responsibility is delegated to the CEO. The “means” employed to achieve the association’s “ends” are the responsibility of the CEO and the staff members and association volunteers he or she assigns and recruits to assist him or her. In providing needed direction to the CEO, the Board will only describe the “means” that are unacceptable, and will neither approve nor micromanage staff-level activity. The Board will rigorously monitor the performance of the CEO, but only to the degree that identified “ends” are being achieved without violating the unacceptable “means.”

These ideas were first written down and approved in October 2011. The Board then immediately turned its attention to its part of this new strategy and execution model: determining the ends (the results that were to be achieved, for whom, and at what cost). They quickly adopted a series of statements to describe these ends and to provide direction to me, the CEO, regarding tactical directions to pursue.

Going back and looking at some of those early statements, I realize now that they were very much less statements of expected outcomes and much more statements of expected areas of activity. Examples of those early statements include:
  • Promote competitive advantages of fluid power over other technologies.
  • Drive and support pre-competitive fluid power research.
  • Develop and connect members to talent pipelines.
It may seem obvious now, but these were not ends statements at all, and it took us some time to realize that. We eventually came up with a new term to describe them: strategic priorities. They were priorities the association needed to focus on, and each required a significant allocation of time and resources by the CEO, but if the Board was going to take its responsibility for determining the ends seriously, they still needed to craft specific statements describing our expected outcomes.

Looking back through the record, it would be three years before the term "ends statements" made it into our lexicon, with an attempt in October 2014 to create not just clear statements about expected outcomes, but also associated metrics (or success indicators) by which we could determine objectively if those ends were being met.

To continue the example, the statement above describing the need to "Develop and connect members to talent pipelines had, by this time, evolved into the following strategic priority: "Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce." Within it, however, the Board now defined three statements of specific result or outcome:
  • Young people understand fluid power’s potential as a technology and as a career path.
  • Technically-trained individuals have successful pathways to long-term careers in the fluid power industry.
  • NFPA connects its members to the talent they need to grow their businesses and advance fluid power technology.
These are much closer to true ends statements, each describing a desired future state while remaining agnostic about how such a state should be created. For clues in that direction, the Board needed more specific statements of strategic intent, something we would call success indicators because they would define the measurable areas of progress that would tell us if the end they supported was being achieved. In the example of "Young people understand fluid power's potential as a technology and as a career path," three such success indicators were identified:
  • Young people are accessing information on how fluid power works and its impact on the quality of life.
  • Number of middle and high school students participating in fluid power-themed curriculum and extra-curricular activities is increasing.
  • Number of graduating high school seniors enrolling in curriculum that includes fluid power at 2- and 4-year colleges is increasing.
Now, if you look at some of those statements in outline form...

I. Strategic Priority: Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce.
     A. Ends Statement: Young people understand fluid power's potential as a technology and as a career path.
          1. Success Indicator: Young people are accessing information on how fluid power works and its impact on the quality of life.

...I think you can begin to see how these different statements about priority, result, and metrics have come, in the overall, to represent what I'm now calling the strategy agenda of my association. In the above example, I've shown the outline for one success indicator, within one ends statement, within one strategic priority. At the time those shown were approved by the Board, there were three strategic priorities, seven ends statements, and twenty-six success indicators. That made for a longer, but still digestible, agenda for what the association should be tooled to achieve.

And although that's the basic framework that the association has been in since, over the intervening two years, each Board meeting has been an opportunity to discuss and revise the statements themselves, bending them ever closer to true statements of priority, result and metrics. The strategic priorities have become more generic, defining wide, but finite areas of association activity. The ends statements have become more results-focused, stripping out many of the still-embedded means and focusing solely on the intended outcomes. And the success metrics have become ever more aligned with the ends themselves, providing a clearer and clearer tactical pathway to follow in order to achieve the strategic objectives of the association.

It's been a journey of five years. And although I doubt we'll ever be ready to carve any of these statements in stone, we've clearly made a ton of progress. The Board is much more adept at discussing and defining what must be achieved, and I am in a much better position to define and allocate the necessary resources with confidence. We're on the same page with regard to what should be achieved and what it will take to get there.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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