Alice Achterhof Paint HandsAssociation strategy is not management, but it is so often muddled.

Here’s the difference: strategy is the set of choices you make (and live by) to be successful. It’s doing this, not that. Going down this path, but not that one. Designing for these activities, not those.

Management is about running the association. Which of course is important and takes a great deal of skill. And what it means to run an association well, I’d argue, has to include running it to enact the strategy. Management is needed to make the strategic choices become real; but it’s not the same thing as making those choices.

Management getting confused for strategy

But instead of clarity between these (related) ideas, what we often see are strategies that sound like management, and vague management at that.

Do you have a strategy that says you’ll run the organization efficiently? Well, what do you mean by that? Will you be the cheapest per member? Will deliver the most value per membership? Those are not the same thing at all, but both arguably are measures of efficiency.

Does your strategy say you will optimize operations? OK, but optimize for what? The choice of what you are optimizing for (or trying to, as optimizing is something that’s never complete) is enormously strategic. Are you optimizing for greater impact? More members? Happier volunteers? Lower costs? Better information security? To be a virtual organization or to be able to hire more in-house staff? Like efficiency, it’s a term that means nothing without some signifiers.

Why we should care

These technical management terms are often easy to throw around. People in management roles, as board members often are, probably use them in their regular jobs. Around the board table there may well be agreement as to what is meant by them. (But there may not.)

The problem is, if you implement without being strategically explicit about what this kind of language really means, the board has given staff the right to decide that for themselves. It’s handing off strategic decisions to the staff level, with all the confusion, stress, and misdirection of resources that that can entail.

Well, sometimes it IS really about management

The reality is, many associations have basic sock-pulling-up work to do to be managed well. Small associations may be lurching along, barely keeping the lights on and hoping nobody gets the flu. Large associations may have cumbersome organizational structures that impede decision-making and chew up resources. Any size of organization can have messy governance and reporting systems.

So sometimes it is about the management. That’s where you have to devote your strategic energy before you can do much else. But even if all you’re doing is getting to the basic competencies of management – you’re going to pass your audit, your information systems aren’t leaking data all over the internet, your staff turnover average is more than, say, six months – the way you do that still needs to be aligned to strategy.

It tends to be very quickly after a major crisis moment – and sometimes during – that you will be making decisions that direct your choices and affect your success in the future.

Even if you are in some kind of operational morass, don’t pretend strategy doesn’t underlie how you will get out of it.

Connecting strategy to management

Sure, once you have initially set high-level strategies, tactical planning is essentially a way to translate them into your management practices. That’s a critical element of the planning process; otherwise the plan risks becoming irrelevant.

But if you start with the technocratic management language – and thinking – that we so often see in strategies, you’ll avoid addressing the critical issues that your strategy needs to tackle.

Associations need to grapple with the real strategic issues they face – this step can’t be skipped to jump right to the management concerns people may be more comfortable with. It’s easier to talk about tweaks and enhancements than to talk about existential issues like whether your members are on the verge of abandoning you because they don’t see value, or whether your educational offerings are being swamped by private sector competitors with far greater scale and scope.

Of course strategy and management connect. And of course management language will be part of how we talk about strategy.

But we can’t just be focused on management. In strategy we have to do better than that. It’s not about technical mastery; it’s about making choices. While I’d argue any day for a data-informed approach to strategy, in the end it’s a combination of art and politics.

So that’s a challenge we can make to this technocratic language we see in strategy; that it’s inadequate to describe strategy. Because strategy really requires that and more.

If you’d like to talk about how we can help you develop strategies that face your real issues head-on, please get in touch.

Photo by Alice Achterhof via Unsplash, used with permission.