The Question of Strategy, Answered By Planning

Associations can be a powerful force in their communities, and it starts with strategic planning.

In a world where the only constant seems to be change— and in an industry where that change is becoming increasingly disruptive—the need for REALTOR® associations to balance strategic vision with actionable results takes on a new level of importance.

A key tool for providing focus and direction in these challenging times is the strategic plan. Associations are leaning on strategic planning now more than ever, which is why REALTOR® AE reached out to an expert for a wide-ranging Q&A covering the benefits, pitfalls, and necessities of creating a strong strategic plan.

Jim DeLizia has spent his entire career working in the association space, first with the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C., and since 1997 with his own consulting practice, DeLizia Consulting Services. While not solely focused on REALTOR® issues, he has spent a great deal of time working with state and local REALTOR® associations and National Association of REALTORS® affiliates on strategic planning, leadership and organizational development, governance, and training design. He also works with the National Association of REALTORS® on its strategic plan.

REALTOR® AE: First of all, Jim, why is a well-developed strategic plan so important to a REALTOR® association?

Jim DeLizia: Right now, REALTOR® associations are dealing with a wide range of issues that are really complex and problematic. These include technology, competition, and how to keep the REALTOR® at the center of the transaction when there are so many third-party disrupters and consumers who can’t tell the difference. A strategic plan helps REALTOR® associations craft thoughtful, specific plans for overcoming such challenges.

RAE: What key elements should a strategic plan contain?

JD: An effective strategic plan should balance the need for clear direction and priority with providing flexibility for the leaders to respond to changes in the environment. That can be accomplished through three components:

  • A strategic framework with the long-term view: mission, vision, pillars, long-term goals, and operating values.
  • The strategic plan, which gives the midterm view: issues to address, milestones for progress, and results to be achieved within the planning cycle.
  • The short-term view, with annual deliverables: concrete steps that inform committee structure and charges, budgets, and staff operating goals.

RAE: Can you break down how the strategic planning process should run?

JD: The process starts by determining the strategic planning goals: Is this simply an annual plan update, an exploration of several particularly complex issues, or a total plan reboot?

After that comes research strategy. Strategic planning is a knowledge-based process. A planning group that relies only on its own observations or experiences will produce a plan with a limited view and may miss important challenges or opportunities for the association.

Then comes preparing for and leading dynamic planning sessions. This includes summarizing the research data into a readable background document and sending it out to the planning group well before the first session, so they can be prepared to hit the ground running.

During this first planning session, I’ll often conduct an exercise to set the tone. I’ll break them up into small groups and give them a scenario like this: Imagine that five years from now, you’re reading your favorite newsfeed. You come across a headline that reflects the impact this association has had. Without using the name of the association, write that headline.

This immediately gets them thinking about the organization’s impact, the vision they have for it, and the difference they want it to make. Then, I’ll ask them what it’s going to take to make those headlines become a reality. This can all be done in 15 or 20 minutes and gets them where they need to be for the rest of the project. It also helps me read the group, because as a facilitator, one of my jobs is to manage group dynamics.

Along with the development of review and approval drafts, the final step includes a serious discussion of the system the association will use to structure plan implementation, track and measure plan progress and success, report progress and accomplishments, and create a planning cycle that keeps the plan fresh and updated.

RAE: Is it important to get a diverse mix of staff and members involved in the process?

JD: Different perspectives are certainly important to understand. During the research phase, be sure your findings reflect the diverse spectrum that makes up your membership and staff team. When you get to the planning phase, involve the staff management team and members who have a clear understanding of how the association runs and its current activities.

I’ve done strategic planning with as few as eight and as many as 35, but ideally the group should include between 12 to 15 people. With 35, it’s going to be a different process.

Bottom line: Planning is a governance function. As a result, the association board must ultimately understand and own the resulting planning decisions. Ideally, the board, plus a few emerging leaders, would constitute the planning group. If that is not feasible, they should have significant representation on the planning group, with the opportunity to provide input as part of the research strategy.

The support of an outside facilitator can also help. The added cost of hiring a facilitator should be weighed against the benefits, including allowing the leaders and staff to be full participants. As an objective third party, a facilitator can also manage group dynamics, which is often politically difficult for a leader, member, or staff member to do.

In addition, an outside facilitator can bring valuable perspective. Although industry trends are certainly important, so, too, is the need to consider macro trends, particularly for REALTOR® associations, since they can be significantly impacted by technology, cultural shifts, or the regulatory and political environments.

RAE: What are common mistakes or oversights?

JD: The biggest mistakes I see made are at the start and the end: 1) not taking the time to seek input and information to support the planning group’s deliberations; and 2) not considering a solid execution strategy, structure, and process. For example, if the deliverables or action items are pulled out of the plan and not linked to the outcomes and milestones they are designed to accomplish—or if the overall plan doesn’t represent a solid consensus among stakeholders—the effort will fall short.

Also, many planning groups are more comfortable simply tweaking current approaches. They often have a hard time imagining the difficult approach they need to take. One area where you see this is professional development, due to trends and expectations challenging the relevance of association education. With so many competing sources for professional development these days, associations are finding they have to rethink their educational delivery methods but may have difficulty adapting.

Another common consideration tough for planning groups to understand is the impact their decisions have on the structure, operation, and capacity of the association. This is why staff are an essential partner in the planning process. If, say, the group sets a goal to boost member engagement and broaden ways members can be involved in the association, members alone might not understand everything involved in managing all that increased volunteer involvement.

RAE: If it derails, how can the process be put back on track?

JD: Sometimes, what’s needed is to go back to a point in the process where there was general agreement and work in smaller steps to build consensus.

In other instances, it may be better to have the group frame a thorny, complex issue that is stalling the process—agreeing on the facts of the situation, the main challenges or opportunity to be addressed, and the desired outcome—and then move on, making it a priority for another, targeted group to work through.

Or it could be that strong personalities or points of view are impeding the process and limiting participation. In those cases, clear agreement of discussion rules and effective facilitation of group dynamics will be required to put things back on track.

But sometimes, it is not recoverable, and the process has lost too much credibility. In this instance, it’s best to stop, regroup, and even start over after some time has passed.

RAE: How has strategic planning changed in the last five years?

JD: Rapid change has caused the planning process to become much more nimble and responsive. Time frames have shortened, and a shift to real-time evaluation has become a necessity.

The process of planning had to change dramatically to adapt to the virtual environment, and we learned a lot in the process. For instance, by “chunking” the process into small-bite discussions with space in between, members have more time for concentrated discussions and to reflect before coming back together for the next step.

These days, many of my clients are considering a mixed-method planning process—a virtual two-hour session to examine the data collected, assess implications, and draw conclusions, then an in-person session to discuss direction, goals, and milestones, then another short virtual session to define priorities, tie up loose ends, and talk through the implementation strategy.

While it may have been assumed within the association community that the exponential pace of change would make traditional strategic planning a thing of the past—and few are being hit as hard by the fast pace of technological change and competition as REALTORS®—there continues to be a need for leaders to come together to assess, agree, and act.

RAE: Finally, if you could write your own headline suggesting the impact of associations because they successfully underwent a strategic planning process, what would it be?

JD: Without a doubt, the headline would read: “REALTOR® associations emerge as powerful, undeniable force in communities for access to safe, affordable housing and homeownership for all.”


Strategic and Sustainable

While sustainability isn’t necessarily a bucket item within a strategic plan, Jim DeLizia says he is seeing many associations examining their positions and attitudes around it and reconciling the complexity, definition, and divergent views they find within their membership.

“I am seeing REALTOR® associations talking more and more about it, as is NAR, which has had a sustainability task force that’s been operational for years,” he says.

For many associations, DeLizia says, sustainability is much like diversity, equity, and inclusion: “It could show up for some as a part of a mission or vision of who we are and who we are seeking to become, it could show up as an operating value, and, of course, it could be an issue with defined milestones and strategies with measures for expected progress,” he says.

DeLizia points out that the planning process itself has become more sustainable because of changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, where the strategic planning world, like so much else, went virtual. Now, his process is typically a smart mix of a daylong in-person session sandwiched between two shorter virtual sessions.

“That creates a significant reduction of resource expenditures—not as much flying, not as many paper handouts, not as much meeting space collateral like bottled water,” says DeLizia. “As I see myself crafting more and more hybrid processes like this, I wonder why we weren’t doing this 10 years ago. Why does it take a pandemic for us to really understand what we should be doing?”


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