Change leaders are defined as having the capacity to envision a defined future, clearly communicate the vision, and convince others to implement it. At the same time, they are extinguishing shorter-term fires and dealing with everyday responsibilities.
Today, more than ever, as association leaders confront new realities and change, strategic thinking and planning becomes a business imperative. Strategic thinking and planning includes the progression of thoughts and ideas and the road map leading to future success and change.
What makes a successful strategic thinking and planning process and, ultimately, a successful plan?
- The importance of building on strengths as distinguishing characteristics from other competitors. Greater emphasis is placed on building on core strengths over building up weaknesses. While it’s important to improve upon weaknesses, greater traction will be made when you build on core strengths. Several important questions to consider: What are our core strengths? What are we known for? How can we build on those strengths and our distinguishing brand identity?
- The importance of viewing strategic planning as a separate, but integrated process from ongoing operational planning and budgeting. Strategic thinking and planning should be viewed as a process to define areas of focus rather than a document to include all the important products, services, and business lines of the organization. We tend to want everything to be strategic; therefore, we include everything in the strategic plan. The plan becomes a glorified operational plan rather than a truly strategic document. The more focused the plan, the more likely it is to be achieved.
- The importance of staff participation for ultimate buy-in and plan implementation. Staff involvement is critical to the success of the strategic plan. This does not mean that all staff must be included in every step of the process. Experience tells us that if staff feels heard they are more likely to support the established outcomes. Offer staff a chance to provide their insights into the organization’s future direction and the industry’s current and future environmental conditions. The strategic planning session should be attended by your senior leadership team, representation from your board of directors, and possibly, outside experts. A larger group of staff may be involved in reviewing the plan prior to implementation as well as involved in creating the implementation strategy.
- The importance of environmental scanning as a starting point for the strategic plan. Looking outward at the external environment including current conditions and trends and extrapolating about the future before looking inward becomes an essential step in the planning process. Organizations do not have to spend thousands of dollars on research to conduct an environmental scan. A literature search and qualitative telephone interviews with a small set of customers and/or staff members can provide the information needed for creating future industry assumptions.
- The importance of creating multiple planning horizons and becoming a strategic thinking organization. Traditionally, strategic plans have been created in either three- or five-year time frames. We have found that strategic planning requires multiple opportunities for measuring success not just at a three or five-year mark. We call the process ‘strategic thinking’ and a plan is the outcome of the thinking process. Milestones are created at different time horizons ranging from one year to sometimes 10+ years. This requires ongoing assessment of success rather than waiting for the proverbial five-year mark.
- The importance of investing in an implementation strategy tied to performance metrics and employee evaluations. A good rule of thumb is to invest as much time and money in creating an implementation strategy as you spent in creating the strategic plan itself. We observe that most organizations exhaust resources creating the strategic plan and spend less on the implementation strategy. A comprehensive implementation strategy includes elements such as a communications plan, performance metrics/dashboards, opportunities for working across silos, a schedule to connect strategies to operations, and a link to employee evaluation.
While putting out daily fires is critical to success, as change leaders, we cannot forget the importance of constantly reminding ourselves and our employees about the longer-term vision that ultimately drives our success. Strategic planning, and the thinking behind it, provides you with the necessary tools to not only manage, but to lead change by responding strategically to future challenges and taking advantage of future opportunities.