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Clustering Conversations: The Key to Timeless and Transferable Strategic Goals

A successful strategic plan relies on having clear, actionable goals. Goals that can be easily understood not only on the day they are written but also three years down the road when a new board of directors is leading the organization forward.

Understanding Context Behind Each Goal

As discussed in “Techniques to Overcome Constraints in Strategic Planning: Questions, Clustering, and Prioritization”, to set a clear goal, first, you must understand the context behind each idea. This context can be captured through a clustering conversations exercise where participants record their ideas on sticky notes. The facilitator then clusters the sticky notes (one idea per Post-it) into themes, asking for clarification if the note isn’t clear.

For example, if the category is funding (the big cluster), multiple clusters (grants, social enterprise, community awareness, etc.) may be within that theme. Understanding the context within a theme and cluster is essential to creating clear strategic goals that withstand time and board turnover.

Let’s look at this in greater detail on a different goal.

A common goal for many Boards is to increase board effectiveness through Board education and implementing best practices. A Board will often land on this type of statement when establishing a goal. It’s very generic, with no context or specificity in it. When one reads this goal, it is difficult to define what needs to be done or how success will be measured – both essential ingredients in good goal setting (remember SMART goals? They are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely).

When we parse out the initial goal, we need to consider what we mean when we say board effectiveness, and the question arises: What is behind this phrase?

Is it about:

  • Board Executive understand its roles/job descriptions?

  • Internal communication?

  • Board member engagement?

  • Quality of board recruits and member understanding of what it means to be a board member?

Refining the Goal Based on Context

Once we understand this, we can refine the goal and add clarity.

This is where the clustering exercise showcases its value. If you’ve gone through the clustering exercise, you understand the context and can capture key elements that inform the goal.

Let’s assume that we know from our cluster exercise that the Board is most concerned about all Board Members understanding the roles of the Executive members (Board Chair, Vice Chair, Treasurer, Secretary, etc.). This context ensures we craft a focused, clear, and concise goal that reflects the essential aspects of increasing board effectiveness.

In this case, the goal could be further refined to Increase board effectiveness by reviewing and updating Board Executive Job Descriptions and providing mandatory training for all Board Members on Executive roles and responsibilities. In this case, there would be multiple objectives.

By understanding the context of the goal and what the Board was truly concerned about it becomes a simple process to then break the goal out into objectives and set up KPIs. This table demonstrates how this can occur:

Three years later, when a new board takes over and oversees executing the final 2 years of a strategic plan, it is easy to understand the strategic goals of the prior Board and how they wanted them to be evaluated.

By creating clear, concise SMART goals, the historical agenda of one Board can be passed on effortlessly to a new Board or Executive. Furthermore, when similar SMART goals are set around operations (aka the Action Plan), if the Executive Director or Management Team evolves, there is a clear understanding of what is deliverable and how these goals can be accomplished.

How does your organization operationalize their strategic goals? What has worked and what hasn't in the past? Share your thoughts below in the comments. We'd love to start a conversation on this topic.

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