Success Planning

Create Your Best Strategic Plan

By Jerry Matthews

Every day, associations face new opportunities and challenges. The trick is learning to anticipate and respond to whatever comes your way. Associations that engage in strategic discussions are able to stay ahead of the curve. By talking about the future, establishing their vision, and looking at the larger picture, they are able to seize opportunities and overcome problems.

Whether you are a 70,000-member national association or a 180-member local association, there is no difference in the quality of thinking you can achieve or the strategies you are able to develop. The only difference is in the assets available for deployment.

Types of Strategic Planning

Strategic planning has become somewhat of a catchall term. In short, it encompasses anything with regard to creating and executing a plan for what your association wants to achieve in the future.

Classic Planning

Classic planning takes a broad approach to strategic planning. It has five components--vision, objectives, actions, implementation, and measurement--and is concerned not only with identifying the desired outcome but also with mapping out the steps for achieving that goal. This includes organizing a timeline, assigning responsibilities, and assessing resources and assets such as staff and budget.

Visioning and Thinking

Both the vision and thinking strategic planning methods are concerned primarily with the future. They are strategies for forecasting various possible scenarios and theorizing about how the association might respond. For instance, how would the association react to a sudden slowdown in the real estate market? How would the success of a new busi­ness model affect programming? This type of planning in­volves exercises for current budgeting and programming, but it can also form the basis for subsequent formal planning.


Pair the first three parts of classic strategic planning (vision, objectives, and actions) with a strong initial visioning session and you’ve got positioning planning--a powerful synthesis of the classic and vision methods. The positioning method of strategic planning focuses on getting an association to contemplate what it will become in the future, both within the industry and among its members and community.

Although each of these approaches has its own merits, adding data from statistical surveys and focus groups to any of these four approaches deepens the information available for discussion and offers a more comprehensive overview.

Getting Started

Hold a one-time strategic retreat for selected, representative positive thinkers.
Although an integral part of any association, your board of directors and leadership team are not the ideal group to create your association’s strategic plan. All too often these groups are too politically motivated to focus on planning for a time when they may not be in leadership positions.

The most effective approach is to form a special group of about 25 to 30 people that meets only once to create the plan. The participants should be diverse and representative of the entire membership, including large firm brokers and members, small firm brokers and members, franchise representatives, independent brokers, members who are experienced, and rookie members. The goal is to get broad representation, not just the "leaders." Experience in association activities and structure is not necessary. In fact, including members who are not typically involved will improve the quality of the discussions. A positive attitude is important. It is also vital that key staff and management are active participants in the entire session.

So how do you wrestle this important task away from your leadership without leaving them feeling excluded? Invite your key leadership to the strategic retreat as active participants, but be sure to keep them from dominating the conversation. Maintain the focus of the retreat on future visioning not current association issues.

Remember, ultimately the purpose of a strategic planning retreat is to gather input and form a vision of the association’s future. This vision is then shared with the leadership or another body that will work to implement it.

While an existing, structured strategic committee that meets regularly is usually too political to be creative, it can be a great coordinator. Enlist the committee’s help to coordinate implementation of the developed plan.

Use an Outside, Experienced Facilitator

By bringing your team to a retreat venue and having an experienced outside facilitator lead them, you are most likely to get better results. Lectures, expert speakers, or top-down dictates will fail, but group exercises will bring out creativity, encourage team building, and foster open and balanced discussions. Arrange for your group to spend two to three days on the retreat. Do it right. The future is too im-portant to cut corners.

Stay Focused on the Future

Members at a strategic planning retreat will naturally jump to how they think ­current programs and activities could be improved. For example, a group might debate, at length, about how many education programs to hold in what months on what topics. What they really ought tobe doing is discussing whether or not, phil­osophically, education has a legitimate future role within the association. Keep­ing members focused on the global view and strategic issues is difficult and requires expertise. One consequence of allow­ing them to debate program details is that they will get trapped in minutia and never return to thinking strategically.

Another trap is isolating the strategic plan from the annual budget and programs. Although the group that develops the strategic plan is separate from the group that is charged with implementing the ideas, someone needs to translate the concepts into actions. This task is usually handled by the leadership committee and staff and perhaps the finance and budget committee. The association’s leadership uses the strategic vision as a guide to plan the year ahead.

How Far Ahead Should You Plan?

While you might be wondering how far into the future you should plan, the more important thing to keep focused on is the frequency of strategic planning retreat sessions. The frequency of discussions about the association’s future is more important than the length of time covered by any one document. In my experience, associations should do the full strategic retreat every two years, with an update session on the off year. Many do it annually.

Jerry Matthews is an association consul­tant specializing in facilitation of strategic planning sessions and presentations on future trends. You can reach him at

Four Visions of Real Estate’s Future

These examinations of the hot issues in real estate are an invaluable resource for every association executive wanting to plan effectively. Access all four of these planning reports online at

* The Nation’s Residential Realty Business in 2010 is a future scenario for the residential real estate industry that was commissioned by NAR’s 2004 Strategic Planning Committee under Chair Monty Newman and Scott Bradley.

* NAR’s 2004 Environ­mental Scan presents research on factors and issues facing the in­dustry, including social trends, technology, ­economics, politics, and competition. The NAR Strategic Planning Committee’s six strategic objectives for 2005 were developed using the resources above. David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist, presented these objectives at the 2004 Leadership Summit. The committee plans to develop implementation strategies from these six objectives at its next meeting in October.

* Change is Relentless: An examination of the key trends shaping the real estate industry is a report by NAR’s 2003 Association Executive Strategic Issues Work Group, chaired by former Florida Association of Realtors® CEO Jerry Matthews.

8 Key Tips for Strategic Planning

1. Narrow your agenda. Before meeting, develop an agenda that you think you can achieve. Then cut 30 percent to leave time for new ideas to be developed and explored. A full agenda leaves participants frustrated.

2. Focus on the future you want, not the problems you have. Once the most desirable future is envisioned, consider how it will differ from the trajectory of the present if nothing were done.

3. Take a wide-angle look beyond real estate. Expand your discussion to include the greater demographic, technological, and social trends that are not directly related to your business, because all of these will ultimately affect real estate.

4. Consider multiple futures. Develop several future scenarios (housing market goes up, housing market goes down, commissions fall, etc.) to ensure that your strategic planning addresses several possibilities.

5. Invite a diverse group of planners. Assemble a strategic planning group that is representative of your membership, not your leadership.

6. Come prepared with all relevant data. Before the off-site session, determine information that will be key for your planners to understand and make decisions. Arrange for creative briefings using audio tapes, discussion forums, or presentations on the intranet.

7. Conduct a strategic plan reality check. Do any of your strategic goals conflict with one another? Are any of your strategic goals seriously constrained by the environment?

8. Once you have a strategic plan, spread the word. The first step is to make sure all staff, volunteers, and leaders have a copy of the plan with a brief on how the plan translates to day-to-day work.

Adapted from "Ten Cardinal Sins of Strategic Planning" by Tom Devane. Executive Excellence. vol. 17, iss. 10.

Stay tuned for the rest of the Fall 2004 issue to be posted Nov. 11.

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