Strategic Thinking Leads Strategic Planning


Jason E. Ebey, IOM

Strategic planning and strategic thinking are not the same things. Having the same meetings year after year and carrying over the same plans with minor tweaks is often ineffective for a chamber and frustrating for chamber staff.

It doesn’t take long in the chamber world to realize that strategic planning, board retreats, and annual programs of work are mainstays of chamber life.

For some, this is an organizational thrill ride equal to the best roller coaster, but with charts and highlighters. For others, the mere thought of this induces a queasy feeling in the pit of their stomachs.

Whether you are in the first or the second group, planning can be easier, better, and more productive. Does that type of planning require a different type of thinking? Certainly. Will it be worth it? Again, certainly.

Strategic thinking initiates the planning.

This kind of thinking requires that chamber staff look at their program of work from a different perspective, from a perspective that views all of the programs and initiatives working together, interlocking. So often, chamber work is divided into silos, and the work is never viewed as interweaving. But the more we see chamber programming as a tapestry in which all of the elements are woven together to make the whole greater, the stronger the organization will become.

Strategic thinking requires that staff members look for ways in which their individual areas:

  • Already work with other areas within the chamber
  • Could begin to work together on new projects
  • Could begin to work together in new ways on current projects

Learning to think strategically and to see the chamber program of work as a cohesive tapestry will allow staff to delve into all of the possibilities available to them. Seeing options that weren’t readily discernable previously will soon become second nature.

Leadership Programs · Young Professionals (YPs) · Non-profits

Most chambers have Leadership and Young Professional Programs, and all have non-profit members. Have you ever considered how these three threads in your tapestry could be woven together better?

For each group, do you have a clear understanding of the end result you hope to accomplish, both for those within the group and for the chamber? If not, start there.

Your Leadership Program probably has a goal similar to ‘producing quality leaders in the community,’ while your Young Professionals Program likely has a goal of ‘strengthening the professional foundations of aspiring leaders.’ With regard to your non-profits, if truth be told, many chambers are at a loss as to how to best support them.

Consider this…

  • Non-profits, in general, are looking for quality individuals to serve on their boards.
  • Individuals involved in your Young Professionals groups are looking for ways to increase their business development, to better understand the community at large, and to find leadership information.
  • Individuals in your Leadership Program are ready for more responsibility in your chamber and community.

How can you take this knowledge and use it for the betterment of your chamber? By seeing it as how they work together and not as single pieces of information.

  • Give your non-profits an opportunity to host a session for your YPs to provide information about what they do and what leadership opportunities are available. Or host a non-profit expo and allow those members to set up booths and have reps available to provide that same information.
  • Do you have YPs who never miss a professional development session? They are telling you with their actions that they are ready for something more. Groom them for your Leadership Program.
  • Have a session in your Leadership Program dedicated to the role and responsibility of serving on a board of directors. Then close the circle by helping this group connect with non-profits who need board members.

Initiative-driven Programs

When considering initiative-driven programs, some chambers become paralyzed by not being able to visualize how a program would sustain itself through the years. The truth is, not all of them do.

Chambers that have public policy programs are in a position to already be a little better at envisioning programs that may only last one year because they are accustomed to looking at the legislative session as encapsulated opportunities for programming. Take a cue from them. Accept that it’s more than fine – it’s great! – to do one-off programs.

Some of these programs are driven by current community or world events, for example. Chambers who were already comfortable with this concept had an easier time conceiving and executing COVID-19 programming for their members and communities. Those initial sessions giving advice and guidance on how to handle the pandemic won’t be needed again (we are feeling positive today!), and those sessions won’t be added to the annual program of work. But they were vital at that moment.

Your strategic plan will never come together as the working document you need if you don’t spend time thinking strategically first. You and your chamber have countless resources at your disposal. Spend some time thinking about how your program of work weaves together to form the tapestry you want to reveal to your community.

Get ready. Get set. Go strategically think.

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