by Steven Hacker | October 01, 2015

As anyone who has participated in an association strategic-planning project can probably attest, spending time in a dentist’s chair would be preferable to repeating the experience. At least the dentist offers Novacain.

Why is this such a painful experience? In my experience, a few things stand out: The process tends to be dreary and takes forever. Strategic-planning outcomes rarely bear any connection to the way associations work, and many plans often become obsolete as soon as they are adopted. And, too often, those classified as “strategic-planning consultants” aren’t qualified professionals who can ably offer sound advice on strategic issues.

But—and this may come as a surprise—strategic planning doesn’t have to be like this. There are some simple ways to get the right job done without the need for anesthesia.

Righting Poor Planning Methods. Bruce Butterfield, president of the Fairfax, Virginia–based Forbes Group, an organization that helps clients think and act strategically, says that not much about strategic planning has changed since he began working with nonprofit associations 24 years ago. “Looking back convinces me that most nonprofit associations don’t really engage in strategic planning, if they engage in any planning at all,” he said.

My own experience validates this judgment: Too many associations simply fail to plan. In Butterfield’s opinion, association executives tend to engage in tactical planning instead of strategic planning. “For most, the process continues to be a needlessly ponderous, lengthy, painful and futile exercise that really doesn’t accomplish much. This is why so many who experience the process despise it and turn away whenever someone suggests it’s time for strategic planning again,” he said.

Hiring a consultant who knows how to carry out proper strategic planning for associations in particular is key to changing attitudes and improving the situation. How can you tell if your new consultant knows what he’s talking about? Just listen to his or her spiel. If talk about mission statements and vision statements arises, you know right away that this person has adapted planning that was designed not for nonprofits but for corporations.

“Because associations are so fundamentally different than corporations, whose mission is to make profit, the corporate model of planning just doesn’t fit—it never has,” Butterfield said. “The result is that associations waste a lot of time wordsmithing some ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ mission and vision statements and expect that the end product will somehow fit the needs of the nonprofit association.”

The Core Discipline Worth Adopting. Butterfield shared an anecdote involving the late Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant who influenced leaders of major organizations such as the Salvation Army, IBM and the United Farm Workers: “Once asked how he became so proficient at predicting the future, Drucker replied that he wasn’t proficient” but simply looked out the window to identify “what is visible but not yet seen,” Butterfield explained. Drucker was talking about environmental scanning, which Butterfield believes associations should engage in to plan effectively.

“Some organizations are already doing environmental scanning, but many do it incorrectly because their focus is largely internal,” Butterfield said. “Done properly, environmental scanning looks outward and is focused not on the association or its members but on the customers of its members. Why? Once their customers begin to adapt to a changing environment, your members must also adapt if they hope to keep those customers.

“Knowing what factors will impact the customers of your members, even before your members know it, gives you enormous leverage to plan effectively for a different future,” he continued. “If you are a society of physicians, for instance, when you look at the future of healthcare, don’t look at what is happening to your physician-members; instead, look at how patients will be affected by changing circumstances. The same is true for all other businesses.”

Environmental scanning consists of analyzing five key factors within your industry:

• Socio-demographic

• Technological

• Political

• Environmental

• Economic

Long ago, the Forbes Group developed a methodology it calls the Customers’ Customer Analysis that looks at forces affecting members’ customers.

“What we found is that many association members were afraid of the process,” said Butterfield. “For example, we did a job for the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association—now the Healthcare Distribution Management Association (HDMA), a group of large pharma and medical-device companies—and the association’s staff leadership was concerned about business consolidations and how that might impact the organization. They brought us in to help them understand what healthcare might look like in the future.”

The Forbes Group came up with several different products including an environmental scan called Prescription for Change, completed in 1998, and eventually written up by The Economist. “Its major premise: Healthcare will be delivered in a changing environment, and not necessarily through traditional institutions. It would also not be just for medical treatment but also for prevention and well care,” he said. “We created a matrix defining this new and different future and recommended to the association that they deliver the work to Congress via a media conference and then go on the road to the state legislatures to do the same.

“Their response was, ‘Gee, this is not what we do. We are distributors.’ We said, ‘But you have the chance to change the conversation about the future delivery of healthcare.’ Ultimately they pushed back, they backed away from taking a very critical strategic position.” Butterfield believed that had they gone forward with the Forbes Group’s suggestion, they could have altered the course of U.S. healthcare reform. “We saw them as the convener of conversations, not the solver of problems. And they saw themselves as a bunch of distributors,” he said.

While the association didn’t act on the results of the scan, interestingly, several of its larger member companies did embrace the scan’s conclusions and ran with it, Butterfield said. “Forbes’ environmental scan foresaw the need for on-the-fly medical care for an increasingly busy and diverse population,” he said, noting how companies like Walgreens, CVS and Wal-Mart are all either providing in-store medical care using nurse practitioners or are in the process of launching new in-store clinics. “It’s also the reason why you can get your annual flu shot at these retailers and in many of the nation’s airports.”

In Butterfield’s opinion, most strategic plans “don’t start out by looking at the forces that are having an effect on one’s marketplace or one’s customers’ markets.” However, associations can emulate the process by studying macro/big-picture issues that could affect their industry, businesses and member demographics. In fact, many organizations and planners have already adopted the practice of environmental scanning, which has taken a quantum leap forward in recent years.

Rethinking the Future. The breathtaking recent advances of technologies, the powerful forces of disruptive change and the unintended consequences of many changes occurring around us have taken predictability largely out of play. As a result, savvy planners are working with new tools and have recalibrated their thinking to include environmental scanning and scenario planning, in which multiple potential future circumstances are identified and at least partially addressed as to how they might play out.

For a minute, consider all the ways in which disruptive forces are now changing business and society: Taxicabs are on their heels around the world as a result of the introduction of the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft; hotel and lodging corporations have been stunned by the popularity of Airbnb; and rental car companies are taking note of Silvercar, a startup known for its fleet of Audi luxury sedans equipped with Wi-Fi and GPS (at no extra charge) that can be quickly booked and accessed with an app. All are new ideas that have significantly altered consumer thinking and habits and, as a result, the world we live in. They were developed by pushing the envelope of what changes the future might bring.

Innovation does not need to be limited to corporations. Associations are just as capable of creative thinking that can change their profession or industry. And, done right, strategic planning need not be painful. With capable guidance, your staff and volunteers might view the process as a challenge worthy of their time.