Strategy is Dead. Long Live Strategy.


The pace of change has outstripped many associations' ability to adapt, causing a disconnect with member priorities and missed opportunities. An adaptive model of strategy is needed to remain relevant and viable in an uncertain future.

Let's reminisce for a moment about your last strategic planning project. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say it went something like this:

  • An expensive consultant was hired

  • At a retreat, your board created three/five year strategic goals for your organization

  • The goals were supplemented by your staff with year-by-year objectives

  • The final plan was compiled into a document roughly the size of Montana

  • Your organization revisited the plan quarterly or yearly, at best

  • You found yourself missing opportunities or delivering late, instead of adapting to new member priorities on the fly

  • Lather, rinse, and repeat

A strategic plan designed based on an environment nearly a half century past is out of touch with the here and now. We need a new approach that accommodates uncertainty, while allowing associations to drive toward a common vision with their members.

When Going Old School Isn't Good Enough

The traditional strategic planning frameworks that remain employed by many organizations were first conceptualized during the 1970s, and largely developed by companies like General Electric. Just think about how much the world has changed in over 40 years. Why would we let planning models that were developed before the Sony Walkman guide our future?

Well-known limitations of traditional strategic planning include:

  • A vision of a very narrow range of future outcomes and circumstances, usually captured through inadequate risk management plans

  • Rigid strategic aims that are largely inflexible to rapid environmental change

  • Highly prescribed goals and objectives that are planned years in advance, and can lead to costly investments that are obsolete before, or shortly after, they begin

  • Budgets that are as rigid as the plan, without the ability to "flex" as the environment shifts

  • Ineffective dissemination of strategic thinking through the organization, leading staff members to operate largely in lock-step with a plan that becomes out-of-date by design

  • Devastation to our rainforests due to the need for excessive reams of paper to print a plan that is most effective as a doorstop

A strategic plan designed based on an environment nearly a half century past is out of touch with the here and now. We need a new approach that accommodates uncertainty, while allowing associations to drive toward a common vision with their members.

Uncertainty is the New Certainty

The world has always changed and will continue to do so. What is different now is the pace of change, and an expanded set of potential future states. While this is certainly fueled by rapid technical innovation, it is also driven by a reexamination of regulatory policies that are long overdue for redesign, and a culture of now that shapes our members' patience for adaptation to their needs.

We can visualize this using the Cone of Uncertainty:

Cone of Uncertainty.001.png.001.png

Strategists such as Michael Mankins (see "5 Ways the Best Companies Close the Strategy-Execution Gap") use this model to describe how a range of potential future states can guide a strategic vision. The model also demonstrates how you can put your association at risk through traditional strategic planning.

Let's break it down:

  • We know a lot about things right now, but our uncertainty about the future increases over time

  • Traditional strategic plans focus on a narrow range of future outcomes (blue cone), reinforced by the processes for generating these plans

  • Organizations can similarly get distracted with too broad of a range of outcomes (gray cone), leading to an unfocused strategy

  • An Adaptive Strategy accommodates a range of probable outcomes (orange cone), and relies on planning, operations, and team culture that accommodate and capitalize on change

Principles of Adaptive Strategy

To create a highly responsive association that is comfortable, and indeed operates best in an uncertain world, I recommend a new definition of strategy for your association:

Strategy is an adaptive mindset that is led by a guiding vision, incorporates a range of uncertain futures, and relies on organizational culture and competencies that rapidly convert change into opportunity.

In this model, your association isn't engaging in a point-in-time planning exercise; rather, you are reengineering your organization to be an agent of strategic adaptation. Building off this definition, the core principles of Adaptive Strategy are:

  1. We do not know the future, but we know a range of probable futures.

  2. Our vision of our organization in the uncertain future guides our path, but does not constrain the ways that we achieve that vision.

  3. Achieving our vision relies on a culture that is energized by change, and an organization that is flexible enough to capture new opportunities.

  4. We constantly examine our range of probable futures, and adjust our mindset to anticipate a new range of outcomes.

Adaptive Strategy is about how you think and respond, as well as plan. By incorporating a range of outcomes and the agility to respond to them into your association, you will mitigate risk, rather than being held hostage to it. A successful Adaptive Strategy requires that you think expansively about possibilities, make organizational and cultural changes that incorporate futurist thinking, and develop deep connections to membership needs that address the culture of now.

Strategic planning may be dead, but strategy lives on. A redefinition of strategy will invigorate your organization and membership, and lead you confidently toward a shared vision of the future.

Doesn't that sound better than just another strategic retreat?