Strategic planning associationToo many professional associations function without a strategic plan.   And whether they know it or not, they suffer major consequences. Without strategic planning, an organization lurches from priority to priority, depending on who has the loudest voice at the Board table; volunteers are frustrated, and critical goals go unmet.

If you ask these groups why they don’t have a formal plan, the answer is almost always the same, “it’s too hard to create one.” It doesn’t have to be.  There are some very simple strategic planning methodologies that professional associations can follow.   One that I like a lot is outlined in a book,  Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Growing Firm.   Verne Harnish maps a one-page, strategic planning process that any organization can adopt.   (It’s a bit like the 6-minute abs workout video in Something About Mary—you’re not going to find one any shorter.)

Whether yours is a one-page document or a 40-page tome, effective strategic plans have a few things in common:

  • They identify key goals on a broader horizon (typically a three-year timeframe).
  • They outline key iterative steps toward those goals.
  • They define key metrics.

Think about the simplicity of these items. Put another way, your strategic plan is asking, “where are we going? How do we get there? And how do we know when we’ve arrived?”

I can’t imagine going on a trip without the answers to those three questions.  And you shouldn’t let your professional association take a journey without them either.

Association Board Advice 2Some would say I’m a glutton for punishment.  Others would say I must have some kind of a PowerPoint fetish. A small handful think I’m trying to do something good.   But whatever the motivation, the reality is the same: in addition to attending dozens of monthly association Board meetings for Virtual’s clients, when the day is done I sit on several Boards myself.

I’ll admit, finding time to do it all is tricky. How do you balance the responsibilities of your day job with your obligation as a Board member? There’s no magic answer, but here are a few rules that have worked for me:

Know your limits.

For better or worse, I recently dropped off one Board I had served on for five years.   I still support the mission, but another Board with which I was involved had asked me to take on a larger role.  And I knew there was no way I could do it all.  When you’re not able to fully commit, stepping away is the only fair answer—for you, for the organization, and for those who may be waiting in the wings for a Board seat to open up.


Do the right thing.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the role of the Board.  A surefire way to find yourself overloaded is to get involved with tactics and hands-on execution.   Let the association’s staff, association management company, or other volunteers do their jobs.  Keep your attention at the strategic level. Strategic thinking is the most critical role a Board can play.

Engage your employer.

Be sure your employer is aware of the organizations you’re involved with—and sees the benefit of your involvement.  Sometimes that benefit is direct, as with a professional society that relates to your occupation.  Sometimes, though, you’ll need to help your employer understand that association Board involvement is part of your broader professional development.  Whatever the case, it’s critical that you have your company’s support. You shouldn’t feel like you’re “sneaking around” if you need to attend a Board call or answer an email between 9 and 5.

vote-hereElection Day was this week in the United States.  As we elect our leaders, it’s a great time to reflect on some of the folks we’ve had in various offices in the US.  And we’ve had some great ones here in Boston.

One of my favorites was Tip O’Neill.  Tip was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives for ten years.  But more critically, Tip was like a walking fortune cookie of good political aphorisms.

A few of his best known quotes bear special relevance for associations.

He’s best known for saying “All politics is local.”  Boy, we’ve seen that with some of the groups we work with.  Local matters.   More and more, people want to engage in groups on the local level—through local working groups and programs.  Tools like Meetup make it easier than ever to connect people where they live.  If it’s not part of your strategy, it should be.

On Election Day mornings, Tip used to always ask his wife, Millie for her vote.  He believed you had to “ask for every vote.”  I love that—many associations just send renewal notices.   But do they ever “ask for the vote” and explicitly ask their members to renew?  Many don’t.

Finally, and my favorite, was his advice “take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”   Life is too short to live any other way.   It’s a good thing to remember, on Election Day, or any day.

Technology Councils InnovationIn the 1960s, researcher Everett Rogers published a work called
Diffusion of Innovations that aimed to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. Nearly half a century later, his research is still the guiding rule across various industries—including the technology space—for predicting and driving technology adoption strategy. Since standard-setting organizations and technology-focused consortia are largely in the business of developing and promoting the adoption of new technologies, Rogers’ work has some very strong relevance.

At the core of Rogers’ theory is a bell curve, which illustrates the different stages of innovation adoption. The ideology behind that curve is two-fold:

First, it highlights the very real influence that different types of audiences or customers have on one another. For instance, early adopters want to get their hands on new inventions quite soon after they are introduced. They do not, however, want to be first, and thus rely on the so-called “innovators” to take the proverbial test drive and work out some initial kinks. This progression of influencer-to-influenced behavior flows through the curve.

Second, the curve demonstrates that a successful innovation should progress through the entire curve and not get stuck at any particular stage. In other words, a technology that does not diffuse through all of the stages is most likely one that will die.

There is much scholarship that points to a particular place in the curve where innovations tend to hit the greatest point of resistance—the intersection between “early adopters” and the “early majority.” That is, if the “early adopters” haven’t convinced the “early majority” that the technology is worth adopting, it simply won’t diffuse further through the curve. This inflection point is often known as the “innovation cliff” or the “tipping point.”

This cliff, then, is exactly what technical consortia and standards- setting organizations should focus on in their strategic planning. How is the organization going to make sure that its specifications/ technology diffuses through the entire target ecosystem? Here are some points to consider in answering that question:

  • Know the players.  Which players inside or outside the organization are the “innovators” or “early adopters? Don’t just identify them; figure out a way to get them deeply embedded into your organization and its work.
  • Set the cadence.  How long do you have to get over the cliff or the tipping point? You may have the right parties involved to get past the cliff, but you may have the wrong level of urgency behind your work and deliverables.
  • Consider backward design.   What might help the “late adopters” or the “laggards” consider your work sooner? By doing advanced planning for the later stages of diffusion you can avoid having to create solutions in real-time when you get at or near the tipping point.
  • Get feedback early and often. Learning what the “innovators” and “early adopters” like and don’t like can help ensure you make critical adjustments before the “early majority” gets turned away. Also ensure your organization stays nimble enough to implement change against such feedback.
  • Be data-driven. Data and metrics can (and should) tell you where you are within the diffusion model. These metrics should be something the organization studies often. The alternative, of course, is to have no such metrics only to realize too late that your organization is already hanging on the edge of the proverbial cliff.