Over the past year I have addressed several phenomena inherent in today’s fast-paced environment and which affect not only how we function as associations but also how we think about our fundamental roles in relation to members, prospects, and customers, as well as stakeholders who have been thought of traditionally as outside our normal sphere of influence and action.

In the Summer 2013 issue of SOLUTiONS, I addressed the challenges of assessing change in an environment in which the pace of change is clearly faster than ever and seems to be increasing all the time.

In the Spring 2014 issue, I talked about the importance of agile marketing and management and how organizations must be ready to adapt to constant change in new ways. In the most recent issue (third quarter) I discussed how the concept of a “business model” has changed from what we thought of as “non-dues revenue” to the broader concept of revenue diversification, and how the organization defines its constituencies and works to create value that is integrated across the whole breadth of the association’s activities.

As we consider the implications of how these new approaches and ways of thinking affect the worldview of what our organizations are and do, how do we put it all together in the context of a comprehensiveplan for the organization? Is planning as we know it still relevant?

Planning as a concept and a process has evolved over the years. In the 1950s, planning was almost synonymous with budgeting; management would develop a budget for Board approval and the financial discussion would encompass activities the budget would support. In the 1960s and 1970s, budgeting and planning became separate but related processes.

Management by Objectives and similar approaches were developed and promoted as ways to emphasize what the organization would do rather than just how the money would flow. In the 1980s and beyond, the concept of strategy came to the forefront and strategic planning became the focus. Concepts of mission, values, and core strategies were added to the earlier concepts of goals and objectives. In many cases, these efforts were very worthwhile and successful. However, in many (some would argue more) cases, they became ends in themselves and did little to affect, much less drive, the direction of the organization and how it was managed. The concept of the “shelf plan” became all too real as elaborate processes generated elaborate written plans that were put on the shelf and forgotten until someone decided they needed to be updated. Thus, the term “strategic planning” fell into some disrepute.

However, a critical need exists for organizations to look at what they are, where they are going, and how to get there. It can be argued that in today’s rapidly changing environment, it is even more important than ever to have a solid grasp of the answers to these questions. If the core concept of planning remains relevant, how do we do it effectively in light of ongoing change and rapidly evolving approaches to managing and communicating?

Planning For The Total Organization

Planning, at its core, is about answering five questions:

1. WHO do we serve and with what priority?
2. WHAT do we want to DO? (with the emphasis on “do”)
3. HOW do we want to do those things?
4. WHEN do we want to accomplish this?
5. WHY do we want to do those things and with those approaches?

 Let’s look at each of those questions within the context of today’s environment.

Today, WHO we serve is a more complicated question than it used to be. There was a time, not so long ago, when the answer was straightforward and almost implicit: we serve our members and the customers for our non-dues revenue products and services. These audiences were the ones with whom we had the most contact and whose expectations we needed to consider. Now, as a result of the communications revolution, we have a broader “public” to address. Websites, social media, and a societal expectation for transparency combine to make us much more visible. We have a presence beyond our members and direct customers whether we want it or not. Thus, as we begin a planning process we need to think carefully about the full range of stakeholders we want to reach and who may want to engage with us. Once such audiences are identified, we need to prioritize, assess and determine the general nature of the ideal interaction. Clearly, delivering member value through high quality engagement and outcomes always will be important, but delivering value to other important stakeholders will be integral to our plans, too.

WHAT does the organization want to do? In traditional planning parlance, this question encompasses mission, goals, and objectives. One can spend significant time and effort defining and distinguishing between these elements (and wordsmithing them ad nauseam), but in the end they all address the question of why the organization is in business and what its goals are. What is new in how this is done in today’s world is that instead of addressing these questions for each of the programs, products, or departments in the organization and then aggregating them into something labeled a plan, they must be addressed as part of an integrated business model. It is no longer just about how to market membership, enhance educational programs, intensify advocacy impact, and grow sales to increase revenue. Rather, it is about how all those components work together to create and deliver value to the range of stakeholders the organization wants to (or must) reach. For each of the stakeholders identified in response to the “who” question, what is the relative importance of each to the organization, what are their needs and expectations of the organization, and what activities will be responsive to those needs and expectations?

Using “Big Data”

There are new tools available for organizations to help answer the “what” question. The information revolution has increased exponentially the volume, velocity, variety, and complexity of information available to assess the economy in general, specific markets, member expectations, etc. in search of answers to the critical “what” questions. This information explosion, now called “big data” greatly enhances the potential for bringing empirical support to the identification and analysis of potential options as organizations ask about their focus. However, wading through all that information requires new skills. Big data can be as confusing as it is potentially helpful, but in today’s world, being data-driven is no longer optional. If you don’t take advantage of the rich information sources available, you will find yourself at a competitive disadvantage. Therefore, new skills are needed to convert this valuable resource into usable forms for the organization. Such expertise may be found internally or may require outside assistance.

Once answers to the “what” questions are identified and summarized, the fundamental identity questions posed in the Summer 2014 issue of SOLUTiONS become relevant and are worth revisiting:

• Is this the business we thought we were in?
• Is this the business we want to be in?
• Is this the business that will sustain the organization into the future?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then some fundamental rethinking is needed. Adjustments may be required either in the stakeholder assessment, the assessment of what value you want to deliver, or both. Until you can answer yes to all three questions, you don’t have the basis for an integrated business model that will take you forward to help your organization achieve its goals.

HOW should the organization go about delivering answers to the “who” and “what” questions? This is where the concepts of agile management and marketing come into play. In the last issue of SOLUTiONS, I distinguished between flexibility (i.e., a mindset to accept the possibility of change) and agility (i.e. the ability to implement change). Clearly, pace is a key element in today’s world. Not only is change taking place more rapidly than ever, but the actual pace of implementing programs is faster because stakeholders expect results sooner than ever before. The technology revolution is the driving force; stakeholders get more information faster and it affects their expectations and how they interact with their organizations. The value an organization delivers must account for three different dimensions: timing, format, and content. All three are affected by the volume and speed of communications.

Agility is Key                                    

As an organization considers how to deliver value, it must have a flexible mindset to assess the rapidly changing potential ways to deliver on stakeholder expectations and achieve targeted outcomes, and it must maintain the agility to adjust its pace, format, and content accordingly. This, in turn, requires plans to be commensurately flexible and agile if they are to be effective management tools. A plan should be useful on a day-to-day basis as a template against which key decisions are made. In the SOLUTiONS issue focused on addressing assessment of change, we emphasized the need to distinguish between fads and illusion on the one hand and real environmental shifts on the other. Tapping into “big data” in an expert way is one important tool in making such distinctions. A well-developed plan can be helpful to management and the Board as the day-to-day environment presents potential shifts in direction. Should the “what” or “how” previously decided upon for delivering stakeholder value be changed or should we stay the course? These are the situations that help the organization adjust in an informed way in real time and at the same time, maintain a rational, overall direction instead of jumping from one illusory fad to another.

WHEN a particular goal or objective is accomplished should be a context-specific decision, not an arbitrary choice for the overall plan. Too often, organizations set an arbitrary time horizon (a “three year” or a “five year” plan) at the beginning of a planning process. While that time horizon can be considered a general starting point, as the plan develops and specific answers to the “what” and “how” questions are identified, a time dimension should be set for each intended accomplishment. For example, it might take three years to see results from a fundamental change in approach to an educational program or a membership campaign, while a reasonable expectation from a specific advocacy goal might be six months or the end of an election cycle. In addition, there is a need to be flexible with the “when” dimension. In an earlier SOLUTiONS (Winter 2014), one of the aspects of “agile” management discussed was having good metrics (the old adage “what gets measured gets done” remains valid), an exit strategy, and a flexible mindset. Just because the plan targets a particular timeframe for achievement does not foreclose the need to monitor progress and shift direction if the trajectory of accomplishment indicates a need for change. In some cases, achieving a goal may require more time, and in others it may become apparent much earlier in the lifecycle of a program that a fundamental shift in direction or a “pull the plug” decision is required.

The planning question most often overlooked is the “WHY” dimension. As the organization answers the questions of what and how it can best deliver stakeholder value, it should, in each instance, ask the question “why.” Why does it make sense to target that particular stakeholder group or pursue that particular activity with that approach? How does stakeholder data inform the process? The answer to this “why” question can be a very powerful reality-testing device. If the answer to the “why” question doesn’t make sense, then some rethinking of the “what” and “how” must occur. In addition, a good understanding of the “why” dimension in each case can be very helpful in assessing the need for change as the environment shifts, because embedded in the answer to “why” is the rationale that is the link to the environmental circumstances that prompted the initial direction.

Planning is Relevant

So, is the world changing so fast and in so many ways that planning is no longer relevant or possible? Not at all. But it certainly changes the way we think about and plan as it has changed the way we do everything else. The need persists for rational thinking about how to deliver stakeholder value and pursue an outcomes-based set of activities.

Organizations have progressed in their thinking from basic non-dues revenue maximization to the broader concept of revenue diversification, and then onto the concept of an integrated business model that delivers ongoing stakeholder engagement and value. The organization must then also progress in how it plans.

Instead of pursuing strategic planning in the traditional way, think about the thought process as one of positioning the organization consistent with the nature and pace of change in the broader environment.

Using big data to assess the environment and building a plan designed as an integrated business model for the organization is a new (and effective) approach to the process.

But in the end, we still answer the basic questions of what, how, when, why and for whom. Strategy is still important; it is the logic that helps us translate key decisions into actionable programs. We just have to plan in a way that is consistent with the ever-changing, agile world, using the new tools that are now available.