Strategy and Execution

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One of the most vexing challenges for any organization has to do with strategy and execution. How does an organization determine its strategy? Once determined, how does the same organization effectively execute it? By no means do I consider myself an expert in this area, but both questions fall squarely on my plate as the President/CEO of a 501(c)(6) trade association. Indeed, two of the bullets on my job description put those responsibilities into very clear terms:

  • Strategy: Coordinates the establishment of the organization's short- and long-term strategic goals and objectives, as developed and approved by the Board of Directors.
  • Execution: Directs the organization towards meeting its goals and objectives.

There. Do them. But how? Well, that's what I'm still trying to figure out. And this blog will be a repository of my experiments and musings on the subject.

Here's an index of the related posts appearing here:

Board Engagement

01/28/19 - Avoiding the Rubber Stamp
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.

01/21/19 - Strategy Development and Deployment
Upon reflection, it was probably another instance of our imprecise choice of words causing confusion among well-intentioned professionals. I wasn't proposing that the Board discuss a change to our strategy. I was proposing that they discuss a change to the tactics that we have been pursuing in order to achieve our strategic outcomes.

03/21/16 - It's Working...Now What?
Last week I bragged a little. But there's something else I didn't say. A question that was on everyone's mind and which a handful of people even voiced. With this clarity, with this understanding that we had arrived at the summit of the strategic mountain we had been climbing for the past few years, came another realization. Now what?

03/14/16 - It's Working
Funny thing happened at my Board meeting last week. The plan we've been working on for a year or more, the plan to elevate the conversation out of the weeds of programs and activities and into the clear horizon of vision statements and success metrics, actually started to work.

Board vs. Staff Roles

10/16/17 - When Action Items Aren't Action Items
The problem, as I see it, is therefore not with the suggestions themselves, but with how to position those suggestions in the context of Board discussions and decisions. In other words, are they action items? Are they the kind of Board decisions that should be duly noted in the minutes, and to which staff resources should be assigned in order to ensure their execution?

10/09/17 - When Governance Means Governance
A planning discussion with my Board chair for keeping the Board "out of the weeds" and focused on either: (a) determining the outcomes the association should achieve; (b) monitoring whether or not the plans put in place by staff were achieving those outcomes; or (c) allocating the resources needed for successful execution of those plans. In the view of my Board chair, those were the only kind of discussions that would keep the Board squarely in its governance role.

01/23/17 - Association Staff and the Marriage of Strategy and Resources
It was an exciting and productive exercise, and the revised budgets and proposals are going back to our Board next week. It will be interesting to see what they make of it. To me, if nothing else, it was a textbook example of the level of decision-making that is best performed at the staff level of an association.

06/22/15 - The Very Essence
The exercise has got me thinking a lot about my role and the role of my Board and, by extension, the role of association staff executives and association Boards in general. And I think the very essence of their complementary roles can be expressed in the following list of questions, and understanding that each has the final responsibility for answering them.

05/11/15 - The Association CEO Is a Storyteller
If you need your Board to have a series of connected conversations that lead to coherent strategy and execution, you won't get it if all they do is show up and speak off the top of their heads. So you, as the CEO, you have to be their storyteller.


12/11/17 - Working Committee Have Plenty To Do
I'm pretty pleased with the documents. They are a kind of contract with our committee members. They inform on our strategic direction, but they also make it clear that we can't effectively execute the necessary programs without their input and direction.

Communicating Your Strategy

03/06/17 - The Song Remains the Same
Strategy that changes too frequently, I think, can reflect a lack of commitment among an association's leadership. A bunch of new strategic objectives each year generally indicates a leadership group that is not unified or clear on what success looks like in their environment.

11/21/16 - Because I Said So
When I'm tempted to say "because I said so" it generally means that I haven't communicated or defined the strategy well enough. If I had, there would be no disagreement and no situation where saying "because I said so" would appear necessary.

Financial Strategy

07/15/19 - The Right Way
The goal of the exercise, after all, is not to code expenses in the "right" way. The goal is to get everyone in the organization to code expenses the same way. Remember that the next time you're in a group that seems to be arguing over the right way to do things. Getting it right is often far less important than getting everyone on board.

02/05/18 - Oranges Are More Important Than Apples
Lately, I've been spending more time than usual on my association's financial operations. After many years of outdated practice, I've decided to bite the bullet and redo my association's account codes and reporting system so that they are better aligned with the current strategy and programmatic focus of the organization.

Focusing Effort

10/01/18 - Is My Bonus Plan Needlessly Complicated?
Hopefully you can see how I've mixed rewards for personal success with rewards for team success. We all need to work together to achieve association goals, so those rewards are shared. We each have to contribute individually if we are to achieve our individual goal, so those rewards are not shared. But everyone should have a stake in making sure their team members achieve their individual goals, otherwise we risk decaying into jealous arguments over who has "easy" and who has "hard" individual goals.

04/24/17 - Prioritizing Sends a Message
In an environment like ours, where numerous initiatives have to keep steadily advancing for the year to be considered a success, making a handful of goals much more difficult than the others will help give those few areas the special emphasis you may think they deserve.

07/18/16 - What's Your Number One Priority?
I tried an experiment at our staff meeting last week. I told everyone that we were going to go around the table like we traditionally did, but this week the only thing I wanted people to describe was whatever their number one priority was for the week ahead. Nothing we did last week. Not everything we planned to do this week. Just the one thing we each most needed to get done in the next couple of days.

The Four Disciplines of Execution

03/19/18 - We Feed Our Own Whirlwinds
4DX doesn't tell you to do anything different with the whirlwind. Indeed, the whole system is premised on the idea that each individual in the system can commit themselves to just one important thing in addition to the urgent reality of their whirlwind. But isn't there, in fact, something that can be done about the whirlwind itself? Isn't there a way to reduce the number of things that are in the whirlwind and which chronically demand the organization's attention?

01/08/18 - The Importance of Making Commitments
We've been conducting these weekly WIG meetings for about six months, and some new attention and energy has certainly found its way to our WIG as a result. But until just this past week one important facet of these WIG meetings had completely fallen off my radar screen -- the importance of making commitments.

08/01/16 - Bonuses Should Reward High Organizational Performance
Just because only two of ten goals were achieved last year does not mean that the targets were set too high. Because the targets are not meant to be indicative of our ability to achieve them, but indicative of the level of success that is necessary to grow and improve the organization. That's why I am justified in attaching bonus incentives to them.

02/29/16 - 4DX Is Harder Than It Reads, Part 2
So, having chosen our association's success metrics--measurable indicators closely tied to the outcomes we seek to achieve, which are within our ability to affect, and which tend to get lost in the whirlwind of program activity--as our Wildly Important Goals, or WIGs, I was ready to move forward with the experimental implementation of 4DX in my association.

02/22/16 - 4DX Is Harder Than It Reads
My May 2014 post on the management book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution (also known as 4DX) has been getting some traction lately. Two people have reached out to me in the last month to see how my experiment with this strategy execution system was working out. The answer? Not as well I hoped, I'm afraid.


09/10/18 - Growth for Growth's Sake
"Simply getting bigger to be bigger is not strategic enough in my eyes." I agree. And I've tried to defend that point of view at my association's last two strategic planning sessions. I use the word defend because in both cases there were voices on our Board who seemed to advocate a "getting bigger to be bigger" strategy.

05/08/17 - Goals Lead to Tactics
I recently had an interesting conversation with my staff that helped reinforce the importance of choosing the right goals.

05/01/17 - When Goals Seem Impossible
How does one know that seemingly impossible goals are doomed to failure unless one has tried both conventional and unconventional strategies to achieve them?

Measuring Success

05/27/19 - Explaining Red Lights Is Good, But That Doesn't Make Them Not Red
The process of explaining why a light is red should never lead to changing the color of the light or the substance of the goal in question. Doing so risks creating a false level of success for the organization and, most damaging, a false understanding of the organization's execution capability. Because at the end of the day, that's what all these green, yellow, and red lights are actually measuring -- the ability of the organization to first say what it is going to achieve, and then achieve it.

12/17/18 - Program Goals and Marketing Objectives
One way might be to focus attention not on the volume of the marketing activity that is taking place, but on the effectiveness of the marketing activity in delivering its message to the intended audience. In other words, stop counting how many articles you publish, and start tracking (and driving up) how many members click on the link in each article that takes them to your conference's registration page.

09/24/18 - Measuring Success Is Hard
Because with all of these rules in place, it is entirely possible that we have baked into our investment policy a measure of success that the other requirements of the same policy make impossible to achieve. It's a little like expecting the test pilot to break the sound barrier, and then giving him a Piper Cub to do it in.

08/28/17 - Moving the Goal Posts
Yes, moving the goal posts means re-engaging with all of your organization's stakeholders and doing the difficult work of re-educating them on your essential purpose. But keeping the goal posts where they are means turning what might be your organization's greatest endeavor into a make-work exercise.

08/22/16 - You Can't Please Everyone
You can't please everyone. But if you've identified and are hitting the right performance metrics, you can rest assured that you're pleasing enough people to warrant maintaining the course that you're on.

01/04/16 - Take Baby Steps Towards the Right Metrics
Here's another fact about metrics that many organizations get wrong. The first metrics you select won't be the right ones, but you need to measure them anyway.

12/14/15 - Tracking Metrics Isn't Easy or Free
What is sometimes less apparent is how difficult and time consuming it can sometimes be to actually track those metrics. Collecting data, organizing it, sharing it with others, thinking about what it means--these tasks all require time and effort. Too often, in my experience, these tasks are just assumed. The time it takes to perform them is never included in the calculations associated with staff time and focus.

07/06/15 - "We're Clearly Doing Things Right...
This disconnect between success in programs and success in objectives is something that troubles many associations. We can grow membership, we can increase conference attendance, we can come in over budget in revenue and under budget in expense, but does any of that mean we are fulfilling our mission or realizing the visions described in our ends statements?

Our Strategy Agenda and Operational Plan

10/24/16 - 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.

11/23/15 - Yellow Lights Really Do Mean Caution
But we also have to be scrupulously honest about where things are not going according to plan. It has taken some time, but a kind of discipline has now been established around yellow lights, where I remind people that they don't mean failure. Yellow lights really do mean caution.

11/02/15 - Action Plans Describe the Steps Staff Will Take
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.

10/12/15 - Program Objectives Define What Staff Will Actually Do
I've previously defined the Program Objectives this way: the controllable things staff will do in our attempt to accomplish our goals. And "controllable" is the most crucial concept to understand the difference between a Goal and a Program Objective.

09/28/15 - Goals Define How Much You'll Move the Needle
The piece of the puzzle that I want to dig into more deeply here is how important it is, in my opinion, for the Board to have free reign in determining the success indicators, but how equally important it is for the staff executive to have free reign in setting the associated goals.

09/14/15 - An Example of an Operational Plan
With these concrete examples I hope the linkages between the elements of our Operational Plan are more clear.

08/31/15 - The Essential Elements of an Operational Plan
Our Operational Plan is comprised of four nested concepts, our: (1) SUCCESS INDICATORS, the directional metrics of success determined by our Board, from which we identify our (2) GOALS, the degree or distance each success indicator will be advanced in a given plan cycle, from which we determine our (3) PROGRAM OBJECTIVES, the controllable things staff will achieve in our attempt to accomplish the goals, for each of which we set our (4) ACTION PLANS, the tactical steps we'll take throughout the plan cycle to achieve each program objective.

08/17/15 - The Link to the Operational Plan
Now it's time to turn our attention to the Operational Plan--another new term I've introduced, but this one represents the essential work product of me and my staff. In essence, it describes what we will do to achieve the measures of success defined in our Board's Strategy Agenda.

07/27/15 - Success Indicators Show Movement Towards Your Vision
Success indicators show movement towards the vision you've outlined in your ends statements. They are metrics, things that can be measured, whose progression unquestionably means that your are achieving the ends that you've identified for your organization. Sounds simple? They're not. They are, in fact, the most challenging part of the Strategy Agenda.

07/13/15 - Ends Statements Describe the World You Will Create
End statements are the newest part of our Strategy Agenda, having incorporated them for the first time just one year ago. Before that, we had our mission and our strategic priorities, and then we went directly to the program objectives and action plans that made up our operational plan.

06/29/15 - Strategic Priorities Define the "Businesses" You Are In
The simplest way to describe what we mean by strategic priorities, I think, is to say that our strategic priorities describe the handful of ways we are able to fulfill our mission. They essentially describe the major "businesses" that our association is in.

06/15/15 - A Mission Is Short and to the Point
In my experience, that little word "by" is a dead giveaway that you've left the realm of the mission and you've strayed into the territory of vision or objective. Any time you start talking about how your going to accomplish your mission, you're not talking about your mission any more. You're still talking about something important--something that clearly belongs on your strategy agenda--but putting these elements into your mission risks obscuring the vital purpose of your organization.

06/01/15 - An Example of a Strategy Agenda
With these concrete examples I hope the linkages between the elements of our Strategy Agenda are more clear.

05/04/15 - The Essential Elements of a Strategy Agenda
Our Strategy Agenda is comprised of four nested concepts, our: (1) MISSION, our overall purpose, from which we derive our (2) STRATEGIC PRIORITIES, how we will achieve our mission, from which we set our (3) ENDS STATEMENTS, the outcomes each strategic priority will achieve for our members, from which we identify our (4) SUCCESS INDICATORS, the metrics by which we'll know that we're achieving the outcomes.

04/27/15 - A Strategy Agenda Is Not a Strategic Plan
Unlike too many strategic plans in the association world, our Strategy Agenda doesn't deal at all with what we intend to do. It deals only with what we intend to achieve, and how we will know when we achieved it. And it is owned solely by our Board of Directors.

Scenario Planning

07/23/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 6
I ended the previous post with a comment that, in the process of defining the external factors that will most dramatically affect the course of our industry, and of identifying the strategies and tactics that our association should employ in order to help those things happen, we sometimes discovered factors that were clearly going to affect our industry's future but for which, given the association's resource pool and existing strategic focus, we had a difficult time defining strategies or tactics for our organization to productively employ.

06/25/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 5
I ended the previous post with a comment that, after making two adjustments to the scripted Scenario Planning process we were using, I would discuss how we decided to frame our discussion of strategic implications at what is now our most recently completed Board meeting.

06/04/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 4
I ended the previous post with a comment that I would reveal in a future post the second decision we had made to help our Board focus their discussion on the strategic implications of our four scenarios at our upcoming Board meeting.

05/21/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 3
I ended the previous post with a comment that we needed to resolve some unexpected problems with the structure of the exercise as we prepared to complete it at our upcoming meeting in June 2018.

04/23/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications, Part 2
I ended the previous post with a comment that the only thing left to discuss was the process by which we'll determine which future is actually occurring.

04/09/18 - Step Four: Discussing the Strategic Implications
I ended the previous post with a comment that, now that we had our four scenarios and snapshots in hand, it was time to begin discussing the strategic implications of everything we have done.

03/26/18 - Step Three: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario, Part 2
I ended the previous post with a comment that, before moving onto step four of the Scenario Planning process, I had to discuss how the descriptions developed for each of the four possible futures combine together into four different snapshots.

03/12/18 - Step Three: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario
I ended the previous post with a comment that with our four future scenarios in hand, our Board was ready for Step Three of our process: Writing Snapshots for Each Scenario.

02/26/18 - Step Two: Creating Scenarios Based on Megatrends, Part 2
I ended the previous post with a comment that, after a pre-meeting survey on the Megatrends facing our industry, our Board would have to select just two Megatrends and define two alternate futures for each in order to create the four scenarios that would make up the bulk of our exercise. To help them do that, we had provided them with a list of suggested Megatrends and futures, based on the common themes we saw in their survey results.

02/12/18 - Step Two: Creating Scenarios Based on Megatrends
I ended the previous post with our decision to construct a short, one-question survey for the Board members to respond to prior to our Board meeting. We asked them to tell us the Megatrends that they see having the greatest possible impact on our industry in the next five years.

01/29/18 - Step One: Identifying the Megatrends
A Megatrend is an external force acting on the industry our association represents. It is something everyone agrees will create change in our environment, but for which few can accurately predict the full impact of that change. It could reasonably force our industry in multiple possible directions.

SWOT Analysis

02/15/16 - Choose Your Objective Before You SWOT
One thing that's often missed, however, turning this helpful exercise into a colossal waste of time, is the need to pick an objective before conducting your SWOT. Without an objective in mind, the exercise does little more than generate a bunch of words.

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