Like many associations, 2020 was a time to pivot and polish your organizational skills to best respond to the changing business environment. And now, a year later, breaking away from operational activities requires a major mind shift. We are creatures of habit, and we adapt better than we think we do. The new systems and ways to do business during the Pandemic took center stage while thinking about or moving forward on big, time consuming adaptive issues ended up on the shelf, for good reason. As a result, you might have a feeling of being stuck, or experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, or hesitant to look up. If this sounds like you, you are not alone.
Whether you are a middle manager, the head of a department, or the CEO, it’s time to put on your strategy hat and start looking forward. You don’t have to be the chief staff officer to be strategic. Strategy also happens at the functional and the operational level, even though today this post focuses on “corporate strategy”.
Is it time (yet) to be strategic, when some organizations are still unsure about when membership and leaders will come back together for live activities? Do you want to move forward, but are still unsure about how far you can look ahead? Could thinking or scheduling ahead be tricky?
If you have a feeling you needed strategy 12 months ago but felt like it wasn’t the time for looking ahead, it’s time. “The best way to prepare for the future is to plan for it”, said Abraham Lincoln. As you plan, be careful about simply reverting to the way you did business before. A lot is different. In fact, there are some ways of doing business, processes and activities that may never go back to ‘normal’. What follows are conversation techniques that help your strategy group recognize how a good look back impacts your go forward strategy.
Three ways to turn your focus to the future and look up:
1. Briefly debrief the year that was. Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only do that looking back.” Your purpose was tested. Your brand was challenged. Your reputation was on the line. Did the year that just ended give you a chance to carve out a unique wedge of expertise? Did members have a reason to pay attention to you? Was there anything you know now that would change what you think about your future? Did the year ‘away’ reveal something about your organization that must change? Here’s how to conduct a solid debrief at your next formal strategy session:
- Name one thing about 2020 that you didn’t expect, or that was a surprise to your business, or that’s different today and may never be the same? Look inside and outside your organization. Think bigger than “we migrated to online classes”. Did you make effective (and timely) decisions? Did you realize there is something missing in how you deliver value to your members? How did you convey your value? Did members need something that you only now realize would be enormously valuable to them?
- Ask yourself what that surprise told you. Looking back, how would you have done it differently? What must you consider going forward that impacts your association or membership as a whole? What will never go back to ‘normal’? (There may be some disagreement on this one.)
- Discuss what the business requires as a result of your findings? As you take an imaginary “walk around” your geography, your industry and your membership, make some observations and (possibly identify) new trends. What is most critical to start, to stop, or continue doing?
2. Don’t mistake operational strategy for corporate strategy. There’s good reason some associations don’t think ‘big’. That’s because of a misunderstanding that all types of strategy are the same. Let’s differentiate:
- Functional Strategy: This is strategy for a specific department. If you decide you’re going to take your education strategy online, that’s big, but it only touches one function, so let the Education “Director” run with it and direct the strategy, with your support as they need it. Same for initiatives like political action, or communications, or how to serve your members differently now that the Pandemic is over. That’s what member services is all about – empower your Member Services “Director” to develop that strategy. This is strategy that happens by each individual function.
- Operational or Business Strategy: Since every department has their own strategy, your business strategy looks at how individual functions deliver value to targeted customer segments. This strategy lays out how to serve a particular member group better, or how to use all that you offer to engage your customers. You might have a killer education portfolio, political action strategy, proprietary tools and other services, but they have to fit together to make sense to the member or prospect. This is where you might find that the communications department does a lot of “pushing out” information, but without an intentional strategy around a single emotional cause. Give your communications team the challenge to review and assess their work to make sure you are not simply a combination of diverse services and a source of news and information.
- Corporate Strategy addresses what’s happening in the industry, or changes in the needs of your members as a community. This is where you evaluate the way you deliver value to your membership and ask yourself ‘is it still relevant’? When you look at your ‘competition’ today, how can you differentiate yourself, or is there room for collaboration? This is where vision is critical. With a bold, aspirational vision, it’s easier to think about your big, organizational (corporate) strategy. No matter how big or small your association, the Board and Association Executive are responsible for corporate strategy.
Corporate strategy includes taking a virtual walk around the fence line. In other words take an honest, courageous look at borders, neighbors, and the health ‘on all sides of the fence’. To aide in looking at all the outside forces facing your organization, refer to a PEST or other analysis of your choice. Courageous conversations about how to compete in order to reach your vision might even stimulate your thinking about partnerships, collaborations, and even mergers.
3. Focus your conversation on the big issues. Easier said than done, so plan to assign this ‘official’ role. When the group begins to migrate to issues that are tactical, operational, or “in the weeds” don’t let it go on. Once you get used to keeping your focus on the bigger corporate issues, the group may learn to self-facilitate, but probably not! In either case, getting to the priority issues facing your organization is the only way to make the change you need to discover ways to create organizational value and to stay competitive.
If the best example of corporate strategy is the analogy of war, then David Petraeus (US Army General and former Director of the CIA) offers relevant inspiration in a few words. He believes success or failure lives in the big ideas: “Success isn’t possible without getting the big ideas right.”
If you are embarking on a new or updated strategy, these are three important nuances of strategic thinking. They will help your team position itself for the future, to respond to the biggest potential issues, to reaffirm a bold vision, and to put plans in place to reach goals that fit with a new business environment. It’s time to finally Look UP.
To talk to Melynn about how to make your next strategy session the best one yet for all your stakeholders, click here.