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The Strategically Skilled Association

The Strategically Skilled Association

Is strategy a thing you have, or a thing you do?

By Meredith Low

Strategy is more important than ever. Associations – and, more importantly, their members – face a changing environment, including significant threats to traditional association business models. 

Yet, associations are often disenchanted and disappointed with formal strategic planning processes, in which they undergo a process and end up with a product – the document. 

What if we thought of strategy not as a document, but as a skill or a habit? 

Strategy as skill

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

Habits are hot right now. It’s gone way beyond Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Successful People. There are millions of articles on strategies to create new habits (exercise), or get rid of them (smoking).

At the organizational level, there’s a much greater recognition that culture eats strategy for breakfast, as management gurus are fond of saying. What organizations are in the habit of doing, of valuing, of rewarding - those are the things that will get done. 

What if we applied the same thinking to strategy within an association? If we think of strategy not as the strategic plan document, but as the act of making choices to enable success, that lends itself better to the notion of strategy as requiring skills. 

Let’s break apart the notion of strategy as something confined to a process that happens every three to five years. Let’s look instead at the capabilities that strategically skilled associations need to be living and breathing, day in and day out. 

The strategic skills

What are a few capabilities that the strategically skilled association will need to foster?



  • Horizon-scanning - Investment in the right level of systematic and diverse data-gathering for a clear-eyed, usable, potentially discomfiting set of information about the environment. Associations often underinvest in these capabilities, or invest only sporadically. 
  • Robust decision-making - No ostriching. No turtling. No elephants in the room. Instead, having the right conversations at the right time, both ongoing and event-driven – from the board to committees to staff workgroups. The strategically skilled association will welcome, explore, and address dissent. And then make a decision, and get on with it. 
  • Hypothesis-driven strategy - This means understanding that strategic commitments are based on existing information at the time of the decision – both about the external environment and about what the association itself is capable of. And what we know about hypotheses is that they need to be tested, and that they need to be discarded or altered based on what is known. This strategic skill is about making decisions, then testing them, and adjusting based on what we find. 
  • Outcome-based implementation - Think about success not just in terms of what you did (outputs), but what happened (outcome). Did the committee just meet, or did it produce something useful? Did you publish a document, or do you have some evidence that members are using it to support their professional practice?
    Is evaluation something only applied to certain people and practices? Or is it routinely done? Is it all about rewarding effort, or is it possible to appreciate effort while assessing achievement more critically? 
  • Value-oriented positioning - Associations (and other organizations) operate within an ecosystem of other interconnected and overlapping groups – collaborators, partners, competitors, regulators, audiences, funders, donors, members, etc. 

Every organization is allowed to exist because it creates and captures value, somehow, in the context of its ecosystem. 

The strategically skilled association will have a dynamic understanding of its value creation and capture – knowing where and why and how it does that, and what impact that has on the organizations around it. 



Maybe you have a strategy. But is your association any good at strategy? 

There’s a set of shared preoccupations in every era – right now we talk about trends like mobile, millennials, globalization, the sharing economy, disintermediation. But as topics, they don’t tell you anything about what specifically you should do about them. 

And the reality is, new preoccupations will continue to emerge. Even if you believe we are in a special moment (and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that), there’s always something going on that we need to get a grip on. 

Understanding what a strategically skilled association looks like will help association leaders focus on the key capabilities they want to foster. How can those capabilities be developed and sustained on an ongoing basis, and just integrated into the new normal? 



Can associations afford to be strategically unskilled?

I’m looking forward my session on the Strategically Skilled Association at the CSAE National Conference in Toronto on October, where we will explore these skills and how you can cultivate them in your own association. 




Meredith Low is a strategist, working with associations to create effective and evidence-driven strategies. Her career spans engagements with associations and other not-for-profits, small to large companies (including the Fortune 500), and government. Her firm has worked with associations in health care, financial services, natural resources, construction, education, risk management, urban planning, and others. Meredith has presented at CSAE and PCMA conferences and has been published in Association magazine and elsewhere. She can be found at meredithlow.com and on twitter @LowMeredith.




CSAE National Conference, Leadership, Associations, Strategic Planning


Op-Ed, Guest Contributor



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