Why Your Strategic Plan Will Probably Fail

March 30, 2021 Staff Writer

 When the pandemic hit last year and forced us all to rethink everything we do, did you consult and update your strategic plan in light of the massive disruption you were facing?

 If you did, congratulations! You are probably working with a responsive strategic plan that actually helps guide your association.

 If you didn’t, you’re in great company. Most associations, in fact most businesses of any kind, have static strategic plans that stay safely in huge binders until someone pushes to overhaul them.

 It’s understandable. Roger L. Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article:

All executives know that strategy is important. But almost all also find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options. An executive may well fear that getting those decisions wrong will wreck his or her career.

Strategic planning, as most associations do it, helps to alleviate that fear of an unseen future, but a study done by Bridges Consulting Group and reported in an article by Tanya Prive on Inc.com found that 67 percent of strategic plans fail. I would suggest that even well-intentioned plans become obsolete sooner than their expiration dates, in part because we cannot accurately foresee the future.

 Predicting the future, however, is not the only problem I see with most strategic planning efforts. Why would your strategic plan fail?

Four primary reasons exist:

  • The future is not as predictable as we think it is. (As I’ve said.)
  • Strategic planning is too formal and not creative enough.
  • Our strategies are too top-heavy – centered on how the executive level is driving change throughout the association.
  • Strategy is developed alone in a room full of advocates, with very little data and input from the marketplace to inform decisions.

So we wondered: How can associations develop strategic plans that are actually living guides, responsive to changing circumstances?

 We looked for possible examples outside of the association world, and we found that models meant for entrepreneurs also satisfied our needs. Entrepreneurs are ambitious people who aren’t satisfied with slow growth in their companies. They want real growth, and they want it now.

What is Your X-Factor?

The first step in creating a responsive strategic plan is to identify your association’s “X-Factor.” Verne Harnish defines the X-Factor in his book, Scaling Up, as an underlying strategic advantage your organization has over the competition – something that would help you secure ten times, maybe even one hundred times the results that your industry would expect you to achieve. It’s something that would be very hard for your competition to recreate or do themselves. It’s core to your whole business model.

Articulate Your Key Drivers

Once you’ve identified your X-Factor, you can begin to articulate the key drivers that will make you successful and support your growth. Drivers are as individualized to each association as each association is to its members. You can’t borrow drivers from another association, but perhaps a couple of examples will help get you thinking about your organization.

Do your members need your help to compete against larger players in the industry? If your staff supported members in key areas, reducing their need for additional staff, and making them more successful, would that make your association irreplaceable?

 Or perhaps your members value your speed at alerting them to major shifts in research or policy. Are you structured to ensure a fast response when it’s time to issue some type of alert?

Plan More Frequently

If you understand your X-Factor and have identified drivers for your success, we think you should revisit your strategic plan every quarter. I know that sounds like ongoing drudgery, but I’m not talking about rewriting a 300-page document every quarter. Go ahead and set up one- to three-year targets, but don’t get stuck in the details. Instead, figure out three to five key goals that need to be accomplished in the next 90 days.

 Your 90-day goals should, of course, be tied to your longer targets, but you’ll be adjusting them every 90 days as your environment changes. You’ll need to get used to making big strategic decisions more frequently than once a year.

Let Culture Drive Your Strategy

Real growth combines strategy, execution, and culture. So you can’t afford to ignore your culture if you want to grow. You can establish drivers that tie directly to your X-Factor, but if your culture is telling your staff to go in a different direction, your strategy will fail.

 Remember our definition of culture: the collection of words, actions, and thoughts that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued inside the organization.

 Culture, by clarifying to everyone what is valued, will drive your staff’s behavior, therefore the two concepts must be integrated internally. Your culture must value the behaviors that drive the success of the enterprise.

Tools of the Trade

We know how hard it is to keep everyone moving in the same direction. It gets harder in large organizations or when most of us are working from home. Sometimes new technology can come to the rescue.

All of the Blue Cypress companies, including ours, use a unique platform called Align. Align isn’t a project management software. Instead, it keeps our key goals front and center every day. We can be sure we’re working on the most important tasks for the company and for ourselves to meet our goals, rather than getting off track with less-important work.

Getting Started

If you’re excited about transforming your strategic planning process into one that’s responsive to changes in the marketplace, we’re here any time. Our culture-driven coaching program gives you actionable strategies you can use today to build a more dynamic and strategic organization. Find out more about business coaching and the Rockefeller Habits for associations.


Photo by Jon Flobrant

Align - software that helps align strategy and execution