At last count I’ve been through strategic planning with 75 associations, most of them multiple times. After all that, here’s my big takeaway. Strategic “planning” is a misguiding misnomer, especially given the outcomes it is intended to produce. So...Free your association's organizational mind and nourish its soul. Stop strategic planning and create a culture of strategic thinking fed by an evolving image of an ever-changing environment.
Flawed Purpose: Associations tend to mix strategic planning with business planning. The two are very different things, one flowing from the other. The desired outcome, forward progress, is best achieved when embodied not as a planning process but as a thinking exercise. Strategic thinking is an exploration of possibilities, weighing the pros and cons of likely outcomes and making choices about direction – and that’s all it should be. As an exploration of possibilities it should as unfettered by structure, process and its traditional terminologies as we can make it. Business planning is the structured, procedural methodology to implement directional decisions that flow from strategic thinking. Business plans direct and, if properly structured to do so, actually form the operating plan and budget.
I'm over-weary of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) assessment as a task during strategic planning (or any) meetings. Truth be told, it is an incredibly boring, time consuming exercise. And too often it is used as information as thinking, not for thinking. I wholeheartedly agree that SWOT data can be useful in creating a shared context for strategic thinking. But SWOT alone is too limited in scope, and it should not be a discussion focus at thinking sessions. 'What is' dilutes and often inhibits creative thought and talk about what 'could be'.
There are plenty of ways to gather useful data and array it for decision makers, not as a static snapshot but as a continuously evolving image from which strategic thoughts evolve. SWOT assessment should be relegated to a supporting role in a more broadly based scope of ongoing research, the results of which are continuously updated and made available 24/7/365 to everyone in the association. Beyond SWOT topics it should include all of the 'what is' information necessary to make it a daily-use tool that facilitates strategic thinking by everyone, all the time. And when the association conducts a formal strategic planning event, the participants should have already absorbed the relevant 'what is' context information so that all of their face-time is spent strategizing for what 'will be'.
Inadequate Depth of Players: I wholeheartedly agree with those who say we need to broaden the base of strategic-thought players beyond committees and the board. If you buy into strategic thinking instead of event-centric planning, you can engage huge numbers of people in exploration, ideation, outcomes visioning and impact assessments. Frequently deployed, properly focused questionnaires, surveys and straw polls, town hall meetings and governance assemblies engage people from all association audiences and perspectives in strategic thinking. Arraying the results and making them available – to everyone, all the time – feeds the 'what is' database, keeps the creative juices flowing and informs the choices/decisions not just at strategic thinking events but as a matter of course in the day to day decision making process.
Document-Centric Strategic Management: Dump the (expletive deleted) strategic plan document. Changes like those I’ve suggested would make obsolete the albatross that either sits on a shelf ignored, or consumes huge amounts of energy to monitor and update.
Instead multiple players would, informed by all that thought sharing be engaged in ongoing strategic thinking, interspersed with frequently revisited directional choices and decisions. The results of all that direct adjustments to business/operating plans where documents have a bigger role. And that's a subject for another day.