Monday, January 28, 2019

Avoiding the Rubber Stamp

As a kind of follow-up to last week's post on the differences between strategy development and strategy deployment (at least in the way that my association's Board are working to define those terms), I had another conversation on the same subject this week with another Board leader, and this one had a decidedly different feel to it.

I was talking to this Board leader about a piece of our next meeting agenda that he was going to lead. He's the chair of one of our Board's strategic task forces, and his role is to lead a thoughtful discussion among his task force on the selected subject, and bring a set of recommendations back to the full Board for action. And the subject we discussed for his task force was decidedly on the deployment side of the spectrum that I described last week. It had to do with resourcing a program that had already been well-baked into our agreed-upon strategy. The discussion at the task force table was going to be focused on determining if the program was achieving the outcomes we sought and, if so, how much it should be resourced and scaled-up in future years.

To help prepare for the conversation, my staff had put together a short briefing presentation that our Board leader or the lead staff person could give to the task force. It included a quick definition of the program, the outcomes it sought to achieve, the degree to which it had been resourced so far, the tangible outcomes it had produced, several lessons that we had learned in working on its execution, and a financial projection for possible resources that could be dedicated to its growth.

In reviewing all this information, our Board leader seemed to simply nod his head. He had only one question for us. What if the task force simply says, "Looks good. Do that."? What are we going to talk about for the other eighty-nine minutes?

Ah yes. We want the Board focused on strategy deployment, but strategy deployment is the staff's job, so too much focus there can lead to an unproductive dynamic that most association professionals are familiar with. Staff brings their plan of action and the Board rubber stamps it.

One of the ways to avoid the rubber stamp is to only focus the Board's attention on the deployment plans that require increased investment in order to achieve. Reviewing the planning process for the association's Annual Conference, or dues renewal process, or anything else that is easily and non-controversially budgeted for every year is a waste of the Board's precious time. There are no strategic decisions to be made in these spaces, only tactical ones.

The program we're planning to discuss is different. If we were planning to keep it at its current level of investment and impact, there would be nothing for the task force to discuss. But we are contemplating a dramatic increase in resources, growth, and impact. That's not just money that can't be spent on other programs, in our specific case, it's money we may need to pull out of our reserves, and it will also require the addition of staff to help execute it. All three of these realities -- although certainly within the realm of deploying our existing strategy -- are strategic decisions in their own right.

Because it's not really the individual steps of the deployment plan that we'll be asking the task force to discuss and the Board subsequently to approve. It's really the decision to move in this direction -- one that will costly, will prevent us from moving in other desired directions, and will be difficult to retreat from if it turns out worse than we expect. That's the core of the discussion that should be had at our Board table, and that is anything other than a rubber stamp.

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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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