Are Strategic Plans Still Useful for Associations?

May 13, 2021
May 13, 2021 Staff Writer

When the pandemic disrupted your association’s work last year, did you immediately consult your strategic plan for advice? Probably not.

Instead, you saw challenges and worked to overcome them. The immediate threats were operational and your solutions were, too. Your office had to shutdown? Your staff worked from home. Your large meeting was dangerous? You pivoted to virtual. Your industry was deemed non-essential? You lobbied lawmakers and regulators.

The threats to your association were transactional. Your immediate challenge was to offer the programs, services and events that brought in enough money to pay the rent and meet payroll. The challenges were immediate and serious, but were they strategic? Again, probably not.

But as things slow down, it might be time to evaluate changes to the environment and develop a strategy for moving forward. The pandemic may have brought substantial changes to your world. How will you meet those changes? And how will you plan for them?

Strategic Planning Promised But Didn’t Deliver

For decades, strategic planning has been the prescribed method for directing the work of a company or an association. Henry Mintzberg writes in The Harvard Review that strategic planners were created to help a company do business:

“When strategic planning arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s, corporate leaders embraced it as ‘the one best way’ to devise and implement strategies that would enhance the competitiveness of each business unit. Planning systems were expected to produce the best strategies as well as step-by-step instructions for carrying out those strategies so that the doers, the managers of businesses, could not get them wrong. As we now know, planning has not exactly worked out that way.”

Mintzberg goes on to suggest that strategic planning is not strategic thinking. “Indeed,” he writes, “strategic planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with the manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.”

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He writes that strategic planning is analysis; strategic thinking is synthesis. The strategy-making process should be “capturing what the manager learns from all sources (both the soft insights from his or her personal experiences and the experiences of others throughout the organization and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that the business should pursue.” 

Is Mintzberg right? He certainly offers a new vision of strategic planning, and strategic planning has changed in the decades since the 1960s. Now we’re facing a major disruption due to the pandemic. So what advice do other strategic planning experts offer about today’s environment?

Time Is Not On Our Side

The current, rapidly-changing business environment certainly doesn’t help make the process any easier. Christine McMahon, CEO of the FedCap Group, wrote recently: “Simply put, we do not have the luxury to develop plans that may not come to fruition for three to five years out. Funders, payers and donors across the spectrum are increasingly scrutinizing education, health and social service agencies, requiring greater transparency and accountability…”

Evaluate What Has Not Changed

Bill Conerly, a senior contributor to Forbes, wrote: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s best to begin by thinking about what has not changed. For most companies (and non-profits and government agencies), the mission has not changed. However, if your mission has been to pack thousands of people into a cruise ship, or to hold raves with hundreds of people dancing close together, or to design brick and mortar stores for commodity products, then a lengthy discussion of corporate mission is in order.”

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Be Flexible

Laura Stack, a contributor for The Business Journals, writes that she’s not convinced strategic planning is required, but if you create a plan, she advises flexibility. “As cultural, technological and economic factors constantly change, modern businesses have to embrace change and adopt strategic plans — if you do create them — that can change at a moment’s notice. Rigidity has been replaced with agility, flexibility and speed; the ability and willingness to stop on a dime and give back a nickel’s change, then take off in another direction as necessary.”

Change Can Be Positive

David Ingram of the Houston Chronicle suggests that changing strategy can have positive effects on the organization. “New strategic directions can help a company to adapt to changes in the legal environment or the marketplace. New strategies can help a company to perform more effectively or cost-efficiently, or can help them to enter a new, more profitable industry or market segment. Changes in strategy can also help a stagnant company to reclaim its former growth rates.”

So there are lots of opinions about the value, meaning and execution of strategic planning. The experts agree that an association needs direction and strategic planning has value, but the content of a strategic plan has evolved. If Mintzberg is right that we need strategic thinking instead of strategic planning, how do associations develop their visions and then operationalize them?

Fortunately, we spend a great deal of time thinking about how to define and act on your strategic goals. We call it your strategic line of sight. When you do it right, your people will experience their work as more meaningful, and you’ll probably start finishing projects ahead of schedule and under budget. Reach out if you’d like to learn more.


Photo by Aleksandra Boguslawska

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