Planning for Complex Times I M P Li Fi E D
By Bruce Butterfield, CAE, APR, and Phil Duvic
We’re all familiar with them: generic vision statements and linear strategic plans. You know, the visions that say, “The XYZ association will be the premier organization for the ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ industry or profession.” Then there are the BHAGS (big, hairy, audacious goals) — which are anything but — and the strategic plans that start with Goal 1, then Objective 1A, then Strategy 1A1, then Tactic or Action Step 1A1a. No wonder strategic planning gets a bad rap. No wonder leaders shudder at the thought of another lost weekend of planning. No wonder employees say, “What does this have to do with my real work?”
After a governance restructuring in 2001, the Architectural
Woodwork Institute in Potomac Falls, Va., asked why planning
had to be so boring and unproductive. Prior to restructuring,
AWI bylaws mandated that there be a future planning committee
composed of eight people, some leaders and some not, that
would sequester itself in a hotel room and come up with a
plan that usually was rubber stamped by the board. AWI also
hired a consultant, spent lots of money, did SWOT analyses
and came up with a 20-page plan that was pretty, but which
sat on a shelf ignored.
As part of AWI’s governance reorganization, the association’s
35-member board was reduced to 11 and its future planning
committee eliminated. This left the association with no formal
means of determining its future. In response, AWI tried
embracing the Balanced Scorecard model of strategic planning,
which encourages organizations to focus not only on financial
outcomes, but also on operational, marketing and developmental
processes in order to create a more comprehensive and
“balanced” view of business performance. AWI discovered,
however, that because its requirements were so daunting,
the Balanced Scorecard model would demand an entirely
new staff and an entirely new volunteer leader mindset capable
of embracing an unfamiliar and complicated methodology of
attitudes, actions and behaviors.
While AWI was experimenting with its balanced scorecard, The
Forbes Group, a Virginia- and Chicago-based association
consulting firm, was experimenting with ways to resolve the
problems of boring and ponderous planning methodologies.
The result was a concept called “preferred future development.”
Instead of cliché or overstretched visions, a preferred future
includes a succinct set of bullet points that describe the
organization at a defined future point. An optimal preferred
future has at most four to six elements that force focus. These
descriptions — in the form of outcome statements — actually
are milestones that the organization hopes to achieve over the
course of a long timeline extending from the present to that
future point. In between each milestone, specific objectives
can be inserted. And most importantly: Everything from the
milestones to the objectives is measurable, timely and capable
of being assigned to specific teams or individuals.
The concept of preferred future development intrigued AWI,
which wanted to shift its board’s focus from tactical to strategic concerns and activities. A preferred future could help it
do exactly that, it decided, because its board would develop
and track progress toward the ends that its future describes.
In fact, board meeting agendas would be designed around the
organization’s preferred future ends in order to avoid wandering
and engaging in discussions of minutia.
Such “high value” activity was what the board and staff
desired, as it creates intelligence, which is crucial to the
businesses of individual board members, to the industry as a
whole and to the association. After all, when board members
get intelligence instead of information, board service becomes
extremely desirable and board activities extremely strategic;
the board avoids trivial conversations because they don’t
improve the enterprise.