Monday, May 15, 2017

Let's Stay the Course

I continue to put the necessary pieces into place for our annual strategic Board retreat. This week it was a discussion with our outgoing and incoming Board chairs about the strategic conversations we want to build an agenda around.

In our annual cadence, this is traditionally the meeting where one Board chair passes the gavel to the next, and as a result, we typically ask the outgoing and incoming chairs to tag-team on the agenda. The outgoing chair leads the business aspects of the meeting (call to order, approval of minutes, review and discussion on progress made to date), while the incoming chair leads the strategic aspects of the meeting (how will we define success in the coming year and how should our resources be allocated). It has worked well for us.

Something that has worked less well, but which is also traditional for us, is some sort of environmental scanning exercise. Our Board meets only three times a year, including this retreat, and the other two meetings are typically of shorter duration, so the retreat is often the only time when we have the freedom and flexibility to pull our heads up out of the business of the organization and take a deliberate look around. And that's how I usually describe it to the Board chairs when we come to this planning discussion. It's an opportunity to momentarily put our association's strategy aside, examine and discuss the external forces that are shaping our industry and our world, and then use the insight gained to return to and, if necessary, reshape our strategy.

And frankly, that's hard. Around the Board table, it requires a shift in thinking. For a moment, we have to stop thinking about steering the ship and we have to start thinking about the winds that are blowing. Over the years we have tried a number of different structured exercises in order to make the need for these mental transitions more apparent. Most recently we have relied on a kind of SWOT survey. Prior to coming to the meeting we ask all the participants to respond to a few short questions about the organization's internal strengths and weaknesses and the environment's external opportunities and threats, and then we comb through the results to identify areas of common response. At the Board table we spend time going through those common responses, discussing if any warrant actions different from the ones we are already taking.

It works, but it is always clunky. I tend to think that the clunkiness is just the nature of the beast. Any environmental scan always reveals things that are difficult to deal with, and there tends to be an unwillingness to admit defeat on any front. If we took the time to bring these things up to the surface, ignoring them or deciding to do nothing with them feels like losing, or worse, like we're wasting time.

Maybe that's why this year, in consultation with my outgoing and incoming Board chairs, we have decided not to formalize any such environmental scanning exercise at all. We've been doing a good job over the last several years, I was told, building a clear and coherent strategy for addressing the issues that matter most to our members, that opening the door to wholesale change would be counterproductive. If there are environmental factors that need to be considered, we'll consider them in the context of implementing the strategy we have already determined.

It was a refreshing perspective to hear from my Board leaders, this acknowledgement that the association is doing the right things, and that rather than contemplating another change in direction, they would prefer to stay the course and give us the time we need to reach our destination.

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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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