Thinking strategically in tactical planning

Associations are filled with smart people who are used to making tough tradeoffs about how to accomplish their goals. Yet, when it comes to tactical planning, which is where staff weigh in on how a strategy will come to life, it is a challenge to get that brainpower applied strategically. People are often vague or generic when describing the tactics they are using.

What is “great,” anyhow?

Let’s consider a retail example. A dollar store vs. a high end boutique that gives you an espresso when you walk in. They both arguably give you a great experience. The dollar store is great if your main aim is to get the lowest price. The upscale boutique is great if you want to spend money on certain brands or levels of quality.

Their business models are different; one makes its money on volume, the other on markup. But it doesn’t mean they can’t both be “great” in their own ways

For associations, “maintain a great educational program” (or something similar) is often identified as a tactic. But that doesn’t tell us anything about what kind of program is offered.

Is it an in-person annual conference? Or is it a broad portfolio of on-demand and virtual programs accessible on an anywhere/anytime basis? Is it premier or basic information? How cutting-edge is your content? Is it focused on all members (or specific segments), members-only (or anyone willing to pay), a mix?

Tactics aren’t flat activities or programs. They aren’t a task list. As you articulate the tactics, apply strategic logic to them; this means they should crystallize the choices you will make to be successful.

Helping staff be strategic about tactical planning

But what makes this so hard for talented association staff, and what help do they need?

Everyone knows what “great” means

People sometimes aren’t specific enough about their tactics because they think their culture is more transparent than it is. They think what they mean by “great” or “world-class” or “high-quality” is broadly understood across the organization. It seems self-explanatory.

But if we poke a little bit, that’s not true even within a department, let alone outside the association. If that whole team won the lottery and a new group took over, they wouldn’t necessarily share that notion of what “great” meant. Does it mean high volume, or very few high-satisfied customers? Does it mean traditional, or future-oriented? Old guard or new frontier?

This often comes up when people have been in a role for a long time, and the choices they are making have become second-nature and implicit for them.

How to help: Ask them to explain their terms. What does “great” specifically mean to them? What’s the best or most important thing about the tactic? What would they be most concerned about if it were going wrong? Help them articulate those in the tactic, so their intent is more clear.

Protecting their turf

Sometimes it is about preserving power, by being the expert on a particular topic. There can be a sense – conscious or unconscious – that being explicit might cause them to lose a little influence.

This isn’t the most comfortable topic in associations, which tend to be conflict-averse, and where most staff really are terrifically dedicated. But it’s human nature. You don’t have to be playing Machiavellian power politics to be just a wee bit protective of what you’re good at in your job, and sometimes that results in language that obscures or uses general jargon instead of clear specifics.

How to help: Focus on the benefits to them of greater specificity. How does it make it easier for them if their strategic logic is more broadly understood? How can others support them if they have a better sense of their tactics?

Obscuring real choices

Being more specific means making choices. Are you the dollar store, or a high-end boutique? Both of those choices come with a specific set of opportunities and trade-offs. Sometimes people are reluctant to close off their options up front; they feel hemmed in or trapped.

However, choices are in fact being made every day when budgets are made and agendas set. Keeping the intent hidden so deep in the details makes it hard to coordinate and connect the dots throughout the organization.

How to help: Keep the plan flexible so that when things need to change, they can change. Don’t trap people with earlier thinking that has evolved for good reason. Evaluate performance based on their ability to move the goalposts when needed.

Strategic thinking – for tactics too

All the benefits of a strong strategy – accountability, coordination, focus – extend through the organization. So it’s important to extend strategic thinking, and the choices that go with setting strategy, throughout the organization’s activities.

If you are bland or trying to be all things to all people, that’s not strategic, and it’s a good way to fail at most of what you are attempting. The strategic mindset of making choices to be successful should pervade the whole tactical planning exercise, and the ongoing management of the association.

Want to talk about how to make your whole organization work more strategically? Please get in touch. And for our latest white paper, Turning Strategy Into Action: Tactical Planning for Associations, please click here.

Photo by Freddy Marriage, via Unsplash. Used with permission. 

Contact us at 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.