A Beginner’s Guide to Crafting Your Association’s Strategy

A Beginner’s Guide to Crafting Your Association’s Strategy

At Rhythm, we talk to association execs every day, and they share some of their biggest concerns with us. Sometimes it’s a discussion of technology. Sometimes it’s a discussion about their overarching goals. Sometimes it’s about budgets and revenue. When we boil these conversations down to their essence, however, designing effective strategy is the outstanding concern for most association execs.

It’s fair to say that everyone wants to be a strategic thinker. Some of us are by nature, but some of us aren’t. The good news is strategic leaders aren’t necessarily born that way – strategic thinking can be learned. Each of us can develop skills to increase our strategic abilities, but we need environments that foster our ability to think strategically, rather than tactically. Here are 3 suggestions to help yourself get ready to work on strategy:

  • Create time and space to work ON your association, not IN your association. If you spend most of your time working as a staff member on day-to-day problems, you won’t have time to think strategically about your association. Cutting back from daily chores is often hard for small-staff leaders, but freeing up creative space will benefit your association in the long run.
  • Become a connected leader – connected to your members, your staff, your industry, your competition, and the world. The information you gather from reaching out to these audiences will help you identify emerging threats and inform your strategic thinking and planning.
  • Establish your association’s goals. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” To find the best route, however, you need to identify your destination. The association’s goals will often suggest which tactics are best and which are not necessary.

Once you’ve created the bandwidth to work on developing your skills and the association’s strategies, you’ll want to focus on four areas where you can develop your strategic abilities – anticipating the future, questioning the status quo, using analytics effectively, and learning how to make key decisions.


Anticipating the Future

It’s difficult to predict the future if you work in isolation. Talking to people in your network will help you tease out potential threats and opportunities. Consider conducting market research to determine your association’s potential.

If you have a fast-growing competitor, figure out what is fueling their growth. Try to determine what sets them apart. Ask the question, “Do they see something you don’t?”

Ask members who have not renewed their memberships to find out why. Is there something your association could do better? Is there a need you aren’t meeting? Is there a shift in the industry that makes your offerings less attractive?


Question the Status Quo

Make challenging your assumptions (and the assumptions of your members and staff) a regular part of your planning. Is the accepted wisdom correct? If you believe your members stay or leave for a particular reason, find out if that reason is valid.

Listen to those who hold different opinions. The nay-sayers in your association might have a point. You can assign someone to act as a nay-sayer and present opposing views.

Use a problem-solving technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, called the “5 Whys.” When something goes wrong, ask “Why?” five times. For example, if registrations are down for your annual meeting, ask why. The answer may be because the registration packets went out later than usual. Ask why. Because staff members didn’t have the information they needed to complete the packet on time. Ask why. Because speakers didn’t provide bio information early enough. Ask why. Because they didn’t receive acceptances early enough. Ask why. Because staff members were focused on other work and didn’t select speakers on time.

This technique allows you to dig down to the root cause of a problem, especially if it isn’t immediately apparent. In this example, staff members can take action early to resolve the distractions causing delays rather than assigning blame for reduced registrations. The team can work to increase registrations before the event, knowing that the problem was in delivery, not in the programming.


Don’t Become Trapped in Self-Fulfilling Analysis

It’s easy to design tests that prove your point. But rather than just being right, you need to know if your proposal will create the desired results. Look at the data from a variety of perspectives – from the details up to the highest level.

Look for data that disproves your theory or that offers a different explanation for something. Companies may not sign up for training sessions because they have very lean staff and can’t afford for employees to be absent for an entire day. That’s a different problem than a lack of participation because the training topics aren’t valid.

Identify holes in your data. Do you need more information about some parts of your research? Combine your approaches to use both observation and quantitative analysis. Comparing the two can help you understand the whole.


Make Good Decisions

It’s easy to reduce decisions into a binary choice – either this or that. Try to consider all the options you might have to solve a problem. In doing so, you might see how two problems are linked, even though they initially seem unrelated. One new solution might solve both problems.

And before you decide, consider unintended consequences. For example, airlines began charging for checked baggage and then seemed surprised when the quantity of free carry-on luggage surged. Be sure you’re incentivizing the behavior you want.

Include others in your decision-making process and keep them informed about the progress you’re making. Clarify who will make the final decision – you, your board, your staff, or your members. You can modify the process to accommodate both short- and long-term projects.

Strategic thinking doesn’t require a crystal ball, and the skills can be learned. However, making strategic decisions requires thoughtful consideration. If you would like to develop your strategic skills, you can find a variety of materials and courses dedicated to the topic, and demonstrating strategic skills can help supercharge your career. Planning for the future and effectively positioning your association can be your most exciting work.

Related Posts

Your members are ready for what's next. Are you?