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Growth and Positioning Strategies for Associations

Having just completed your latest strategic thinking exercise, and having considered the most promising high-impact priorities --- what’s your next step?  


Association executives often dive directly into preparing/modifying a one-year operating plan and budget. It’s understandable. They have a budget to manage, want to create momentum, and hope that intuition will enable them to avoid missteps along the way.  Yet, rarely would any of us attach a trailer to our car and plan to be gone for more than a year without having: a) confirmed that the car is capable hauling the additional load; b) a general game plan; c) assessed the financial implications; and d) access to a GPS app. 

I remember one D.C. area association that used the metaphor of “We’re heading Northeast” --- and go on to say (paraphrase) We’ve defined the goal line (strategic objectives) but we’ll need staff and board members working together to determine the best routes and milestones.  

The Missing Link --- Many Association executives have difficulty clearly articulating the alignment between their strategic plan and their annual operating plan.  The primary reason is that strategic planning is about envisioning what might be with the implication of taking multiple years to achieve, while operating plans typically focus on a fiscal year and are budget process driven. 

Missing is the linkage between the two efforts.  We call this yourStrategy Roadmap.  It provides a starting set of assumptions that can be frequently validated or modified, typically maintaining a 3 year scope.  In doing so, everyone is clear about where any one year’s operating plan fits within the overall strategy roadmap.  They understand that some high impact initiatives have been scheduled to begin a year or two out from the current year.

Avoid the pitfalls of jumping too quickly into a one-year operating plan. Problems arise when those who must execute a big new initiative lack clarity about its objectives, timing and the starting assumptions.  Creating your Strategy Roadmap need not be an onerous task, and it can save you from a lot of confusion, wasted time and consternation along the way. 


Common pitfalls of not clearly communicating starting assumptions and expectations:

  • Board or staff members discover months later that the actual steps and projected cost are different than they perceived at the 10,000 foot level discussion
  • Staff feel overwhelmed, thinking they have to get all the initiatives completed within one fiscal year
  • Board members perceive that staff is not moving quickly enough
  • Everyone feeling a disconnect between the budget and the strategic initiatives; not reaching agreement on the best ways to invest in the highest priorities
  • Some staff viewing multiple initiatives equally (versus directly resources to the initiatives with the highest potential ROI for members)
  • Executives trying to justify a year or more later how some ongoing activities addressed a few of the strategic initiatives
  • Executive Committee Members perceiving a disconnect between how the CEO’s performance is evaluated and progress on the strategic priorities


Moving from “Sniff Test” to “Feasibility Assessment” --- Effective strategic dialogue begins with actionable insights and serves as the “sniff test” of high-impact opportunities.  It answers: “Do these strategies feel right given our members’ most pressing challenges?”  By their very nature, strategic discussions are often vague; lacking clarity about the assumptions behind each potential new initiative.  When unspoken and undocumented, this can lead to misunderstandings and disappointment during execution.

In translating that vision into action, your Roadmap serves as an early “Feasibility Assessment” of each potential big new initiative.  It provides clarity about early assumptions and expectations.  It’s the rubber meets the road step that may actually change the relative assessment of various impact opportunities; for example:

  • Major activities required to support each strategic initiative?
  • Which of these major activities have the highest priority to tackle over a 3 year period?
  • Audience segments that will most benefit?
  • What will it take to execute these (information, resources, remove barriers, etc.)?
  • Sequencing implications over 3 years?
  • Potential impact on the association’s business model? Early assumptions about incremental expense and revenue?  Source of seed funding to get started?
  • Which new initiatives provide opportunities to engage members more effectively?
  • How best to test the underlying assumptions?


Clarity about starting assumptions:

Then, when a big new initiative/activity kicks-off (say in the second or third year of your strategic plan) and throughout implementation, those responsible for fleshing-out and executing the project can assess what has changed since the strategic dialogue that surfaced the opportunity, surface new information, and alert leadership if the assumptions need to be modified. 

Identifying the incremental impact: The Strategy Roadmap is primarily about fleshing-out your big new initiatives (not the continuous improvement of your ongoing activities). Once the Strategy Roadmap is completed and approved, you will have clarity about the incremental impact of taking on these big new initiatives. 

Getting Started: Often senior staff will draft the Strategy Roadmap; seeking input from a Board Task Force before going back to the full board with the game plan  The actual format of Strategy Roadmaps differ widely from one association to another.   Whether captured in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, collaboration software, etc. --- the important formatting consideration is that the end result is something that will be used throughout the year as a living document, not sit in a file.

Assessing Current activities:  Before launching any big new initiatives, we recommend reviewing your existing, ongoing activities to determine if there are any that no longer provide sufficient relative member impact.  This provides an opportunity to reallocate/transition resources, or perhaps even “sunset” some of the current offerings/services. 

In the absence of this assessment, there is a tendency to keep adding to what we call the “all you can eat buffet of offerings”, rather than nimbly reallocating resources and member investments to the big new initiatives and your most important on-going activities.

Annual Program of Work:  Together, the upcoming year in the Roadmap, plus the most valued & impactful ongoing activities, minus those to be eliminated, represent your Annual Program of Work.

Defying Gravity

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