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Five Ways to Waste Money on Strategic Planning

Align your strategic plan
Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders. 

If strategic planning is part of your to-do list for 2013, are you finding it hard to get enthusiastic about it? If so, you’re not alone.

Associations often struggle to get full value from strategic planning, and that can make it a frustrating experience. Here are five common ways that resources (cash, time, and goodwill) are frequently wasted on strategic planning – and how to avoid doing the same:

  1. Pretend the elephant in the room doesn't exist. Is there an issue in your organization that everyone would prefer to pretend isn't really happening? Maybe your structure is an anachronistic mess – or you’re out of touch with your members’ needs – or there are strategic threats to your industry itself – or you rely on a source of funds that’s drying up.

    Some concerns feel so enormous that both staff and Board members are used to pushing them aside in order to get through the day. And then when strategic planning time rolls around, nobody has the energy to tackle it. But if not now, when?

    Any plan you come up with will be a work of fiction if you ignore significant concerns.
  2. Don’t do any research. Without research, you are making decisions blind. This doesn't have to be a terrifically expensive proposition, especially if you have some kind of member needs assessment capability in place (if not, now is a great time to get a regular program started). Hopefully you also have a methodology of assessing the overall environment, including both non-members and other external groups.

    At a minimum, however, you will have to take a systematic approach to the research that goes into a strategic planning process; which stakeholders (members; others), which trends, which issues do you need to have a handle on, and don’t have the knowledge already accessible? Invest there. Otherwise you will make decisions that aren't grounded in reality – or you may feel unable to make certain decisions at all.
  3. Ignore tradeoffs. From a good strategic planning process, the Board and staff should have clarity both on what is going to happen in the next 5 or so years – and, likewise, what is not. It should feel like a true choice. If you don’t have these conversations explicitly at the Board level, you risk staff making tradeoffs at the operational level that may not be aligned with the strategic vision the Board set out. Be clear about what you do - and don’t - expect to achieve. Outline the tactical level of the plan, more explicit than the strategies, but not as granular as the annual operational plan. Don’t pretend it’s not going to involve tradeoffs on a daily basis – make sure they’re made wisely.
  4. Don’t tell anyone what happened. If you've gone out and consulted with your stakeholders, they will be curious what you did with their input. Tell them, and keep doing so throughout the life of the plan, including reporting results.
  5. Just stick to business as usual afterwards. Why did you do a plan if you aren't changing anything as a result? Here are some of the things that should be altered after every strategic plan:
    • Board reports – They should be framed by the strategic plan. Anything else should be an afterthought, because it’s either business as usual, or it’s not a priority. 
    • Staff meeting and Board agendas – If you don’t make time for your strategic priorities at both levels, they are guaranteed to fail. 
    • Staff and Board workplans. 
    • Metrics – You should be measuring achievement of your strategic priorities, which means they should affect how you measure employee performance as well. Metrics are an integral part of any strategic plan. 
    • Communications - the language, and sometimes the form, should be driven by the strategic priorities set by the organization, both internally and externally. 
Done right, strategic planning can and should result in an association that is different – more focused, more grounded in the needs of its members and the realities of its environment, and better able to set priorities and achieve results. However, the process has to be thorough, purposeful, and a little bit brave to maximize value for the association and its members.