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Shouldn't a strategic plan actually include a strategy?

Imagine we were going to sit down and take a look at the strategic plans of, say, 10 associations we know well.

Would we be able to match the plan to the organization?

We should be shocked – but I wouldn’t be surprised – if the answer was no.

Given the effort associations put into their strategic plans, why do they often sound interchangeable and generic? Why is it so difficult to discern the actual strategy underlying them?

Let’s first note the difference between a strategy and a strategic plan. The strategy answers the question of how you are going to succeed. What choices are you going to make to achieve your mission?

The strategic plan, which often takes on a bureaucratic mind of its own in the non-profit world (not that the corporate world is immune from this), describes how the strategy will be delivered. Roger Martin, a leading business thinker, has described a strategic plan as “a budget with prose.”

Strategy represents a set of decisions. The strategic plan is just a tool, the document that captures those decisions, with their nuances and implications. The plan is a tool, but it’s not the decision-making itself.

I can think of a few reasons why strategic plans are so generic, some of which are easier to tackle than others:

  • The organization lacks strategic capabilities, whether among the board, the staff, or both. Strategic planning remains at the operational/tactical level where the team is more adept and comfortable.
  • There are internal political issues which mean the strategic issues don’t get fully discussed, or agreement isn’t reached. Vague strategic language may be used as a compromise, which really just kicks the can of resolving the political issues down the road. 
  • Insufficient time was allotted to the strategic planning process, or decision fatigue set in, so the strategic plan was rushed to completion.

Now, if the strategic plan lacks sufficient clarity to really articulate an actual strategy, what does it really matter? Surely you will just get on with implementation and figure it out somehow.

And the answer is yes, you will implement something or other, but it’s certainly not going to be a strategy that you can clearly evaluate, measure, or adapt. And the wrong people will be making strategic decisions.

Your staff and volunteers will make day-to-day decisions about how the association does business, but they won’t be executing on an aligned strategy, with the risk they are investing in the wrong activities and paying attention to the wrong things. There may be a strain on your senior staff as they try to guess the intentions behind the vague strategic statements.

Strategy is about choice, and about action – associations need to make these choices clearly and explicitly, execute on them effectively, and communicate them purposefully. A strong strategic statement should correspond to the actual situation you face, be identifiable and executable, and be subject to scrutiny through measurement as to whether the strategy was effective.

Without those features, it’s not really a strategy. It’s just words on a page. They may have cost a lot in time and money to write (and which may be called a strategic plan), but which will not realize the value that a real strategy can create for a committed organization.

So, how does your strategy hold up to scrutiny?

I’m looking forward to discussing these topics at the Engaging Associations Summit on July 24-25 – hope to see you there.

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.