Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I told the Board, "Your strategic plan is shallow and vapid!"

I stood before the Board of Directors, their strategic planning document in my hand, and said, “Quite frankly, this is shallow and vapid.”  Then, with a dramatic flourish, I threw their cherished strategy on the floor.

What the in the name of Section 501(c) of the United States Internal Revenue Code was I doing?

It all began as I prepared to facilitate my client’s upcoming board meeting. As I read their strategic plan I became increasingly detached; the discussion of mission, goals and tactics seemed lacking somehow. I felt much like the fellow below:

It was a much different situation, however, when I finally met the Board and asked them to talk about their hopes and aspirations for their association. It was exciting to listen as they talked about the stakes of succeeding, what the association could achieve in ten years.


The problem: The written plan captured none of the excitement I felt during my discussion with the Board. I realized that tired old format of mission, goals and tactics wasn’t cutting it; it read more like a laundry list of things to do rather than a focused set of decisions. And this was a huge problem because the written plan was the main tool for communicating the strategy.  No wonder most of the staff and members were unenthusiastic. No wonder the board was having trouble getting buy-in and support!

At this point, you might be wondering what happened after I declared their plan “shallow and vapid” and threw the document on the floor. Well, there was that long and uncomfortable silence. Then, with a rueful smile, the President said, “Shallow and vapid? You know, my wife often says that about me.”  That bit of humor broke the ice, the board understood. We then moved on to the fundamentals: how to talk about strategy so staff and members understand what it is happening, its importance and are more likely to be enthusiastic supporters.


1. Start by using the, “We must__, so that___” statement.

A Board and the Executive should be able to articulate the essential core of their strategy with a statement such as: “During the coming year WE MUST (take a specific action leading to a positive result).  We’re doing this SO THAT a (benefit of strategic importance is realized).

If you are unable to explain it this succinctly, if you can’t convey what’s at stakes for your members, your strategy won’t inspire anyone and it won’t make much of a difference in the long-run.

2. Identify where to “hit-the-ground-running.

If you want to mobilize staff and volunteers in support of the strategy, don’t hand them a list of tactics. Instead, have them identify those activities which meet two criteria: 1) They will have an IMPACT (i.e., contribute in a meaningful way towards the plan); and 2) They are FEASIBLE (i.e., the association has the resources, staff, skills, etc. to make it happen).

In other words, you are identifying activities that helps the association "hit-the-ground-running." The Impact/Feasibility Grid is an excellent tool for identifying such activities; those fitting in the upper right hand corner represent activities where your association can hit-the-ground-running.

3. Get Serious About Setting Priorities.

On a scale of 1-to-5, where is your association? 

It’s all too easy to argue that an association has many things on their plate, thereby making excuses about the difficulties of setting priorities. However, there is no escaping this simple fact: a strategy represents a set of decisions about the future, about what to do and what NOT to do.

The Board and Executive who are unwilling to make tough decisions or support efforts to take marginal programs off the plate end up having no credibility when they talk about strategy and priorities.  

'nuff said!

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