Tactical planning – 5 ways to make it successful

Most of us can make the argument for the importance of strategy. Most of us can also make the case that strategy has to be turned into feasible tactics to actually get anything accomplished. But tactical planning?

We may go a bit blank when we think about how to do that. What’s the process for turning strategies into tactics? Aside from the CEO or ED of the association just writing something up, what does a good process to develop a tactical plan look like?

If you have a strategy but need a plan, I’d suggest you want to answer four questions:

  1. What could you do?
  2. What might that look like?
  3. What’s the whole picture?
  4. How do you commit to the tactics?

As with many questions of organizational development and culture, it’s not so much what the answers are but how you arrive at them that matters.

Here are six key elements to set up a tactical planning process that will work for your association.

Keep up the strategic thinking

Putting together a tactical plan needs arguably even more strategic thinking as setting the strategies. Apply the same kind of logical rigour. How do your activities connect to the broader strategy and the outcomes you seek? What fits – and what doesn’t?

Don’t just say “we will maintain our awards program” – think about why you even have an awards program in the first place. What purpose does it serve? How does it support your strategies? How does it create value?

Give the process attention – and leadership

If the strategic planning process to date has been time-consuming, and especially if it has taken a lot of effort by the CEO or ED to get a good strategy approved by the board, it’s tempting to turn to more pressing concerns.

But tactical planning is the connection between those pressing concerns and the strategy. It offers a way to triage and prioritize those issues and helps everyone in the organization focus.

However prioritization and focus means decision-making. Just as the board has to make tough decisions at the strategic level, at the tactical and operational levels it’s the CEO or ED who has to lead the tough decisions. Which initiatives will happen – and which won’t? What will get budget – and what won’t?
It takes leadership and project management to put the organization through a process to make those decisions in a systematic way.

Don’t forget to attach leadership resources, with or without outside consulting support, to the process, both for plan creation and for pure project management. The strategic plan is nowhere near done yet, not without clarity on how it’s going to become a reality.

Devote some time (but not too much)

So, how long is the time between the strategy-setting and the comprehensive plan? It does take some time. It’s an iterative, sometimes messy process.

Most organizations take several months to generate ideas, pull them together into an overall plan, and then revise and refine. This is also a big project for staff and/or volunteers, and will need to be fitted into the rest of their work, so rushing typically creates significant stress, lower-quality output, and less commitment to the end result.

That said, usually there is some momentum from the strategy development, and there may be some eagerness to see the upshot. Don’t let the process drag on more than a few months – just enough time to get a solid plan in place.

Start as if starting afresh

This one is tough, especially for staff who are attached to specific programs. The idea is not to start with existing operations and attach everything to a given strategy.

Instead, start with the strategies and generate ideas about how that strategy could be achieved successfully – whether or not that’s what you’re already doing.

Get to the right answers for the strategies you’re pursuing. Only then should you look at your current operations and see how they fit. If certain programs or activities don’t fit, why is that? Is that a problem with the activity, or with the strategy?

Starting with what you currently do is a recipe for mediocrity.

Consider who to involve

Look to your current organizational structure. Who gets things done? Who actually executes your work? Those are the people whose perspective will be the most valuable as you work through what the strategies mean for your current and future operations.

Where most of the work is staff-driven, that’s where to begin. You may focus on senior staff and let them bring ideas back to their teams for discussion. You may start with an all-staff idea generation session which then gets refined by senior staff. You may start with senior staff and then have the larger staff group meet to discuss implications. The right answer will depend on your staff culture and model. This may be a great opportunity to get staff engaged with the strategies, and help them work across organizational siloes.

Volunteers may be involved if they are involved in execution. It’s important to make the distinction between volunteers being consulted in their role as executors (e.g. as members of a government relations committee) and volunteers being consulted in their governance role (e.g. as members of a strategic planning task force).

Keep the door open

Big ideas can emerge from tactical planning. The process involves a range of people, and, if done well, encourages them to think strategically and broadly. If ideas emerge that would impact the strategies, this is a good thing. The process should allow for those ideas to be taken back and discussed at the board level.

More to come…

Drawing from recent speaking engagements and workshops, we will be publishing more on tactical planning in future weeks. If you’d like to talk in the meantime about how we can help you develop strategies or tactics, please get in touch.

Photo by Kaitlyn Jameson, used by permission via Unsplash

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.