Associations do a pretty good job at articulating their vision or purpose. They know why they are here and how they intend to save their particular corner of the world. Those visions then get translated down into some medium-term objectives and strategies that are captured in the traditional strategic plan. These days, I’m seeing plans that extend out no more than three years.
Some of these three-year plans are better than others, of course. If you take what you have traditionally done (networking, education, and advocacy) and then set three year goals around those three areas (again), I’m not sure I’d label that “strategic.” The good plans, though, show a clearer connection between that long term vision and where you want to be in three years. In other words, you’re choosing your three year goals/strategy specifically because you are betting they are the key stepping stones toward you eventually saving the world like you expressed in your vision.
What puzzles me, however, is what associations do after they clarify their three-year direction. In short, they jump right to activities. Once the three-year plan is approved by the board, they start next year’s budgeting process, where departments angle for more money to do more activities that they think will contribute to that plan. Not surprisingly, those activities look a lot like what they did last year, since that’s what they already know how to do.
This is where the strategic plan stops being strategic, but the problem is not with the plan—the problem is you don’t have a solid system for managing implementation. Implementing a strategy requires a system, not just a budget and a sequence of activities. That system, at a minimum, must accomplish three things.
First, the system should identify clear capacities that need to be built for you to hit your three year goals. You don’t go from today to saving the world without building new capacities. More specifically, you’re not going to hit those three year targets without putting some new things in place that will get you there. It could be entering a new market or expanding an existing product line, but the system cannot ONLY have targets—you need to identify the capacities that will be the platform for your next stage of growth.
Second, the system must establish clear annual and quarterly priorities. You know the old saying: if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. But when you take your strategic plan and then declare it will be accomplished by doing everything you did last year, that’s kind of what you did. A good system of implementation establishes a small number of areas that are strategic priorities for the next year, backed up by a subset of priorities for the next three months.
These priorities don’t reflect everything you do—your system must pull out a subset of things and elevates their importance because they are connected to those three-year capacities. So even if your annual meeting brings in 70% of the revenue, it might not be a priority because it’s disconnected from those capacities. You’re still going to do it, obviously, but you’ll make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the current priorities.
Third, the system should have metrics that promote learning and agility. Metrics can be a challenge, because it’s too easy for them to become random targets. So instead of trying to come up with the perfect target, think of your metrics more as the outcome of a “model.” If you’re picking “Launch 5 new on-demand online courses” as a quarterly priority, you should have already come up with a rough model about how that will happen AND how it will move the needle on your bigger priorities. You still may be wrong about that target, but if that happens, you can use it to LEARN and improve your modeling.
The agility part comes by picking the right milestones. These are in-process metrics that you track while you are implementing, and they should be good leading indicators of whether you are on track or off track with the overall target. When these are off, it enables you to make changes in the middle of the quarter in order to get closer to your end target. So if you do your metrics right, they become a source of learning and agility, rather than frustration and blame.
These are the three core elements of a system for implementing strategy. Having a beautiful vision and strategy without a rock-solid system for implementation is like having a beautiful Ferrari, but without an engine. It’s a clear representation of exactly what you want, but without the means to achieve it.
If you have recently wrapped up a strategic planning process (or have one on the horizon), please get in touch with me about how we can help you build out your implementation system now, so you can take that vision and make it a reality. You just bought a Ferrari. Make sure it has an engine.
Photo by Obi Onyeador