One of my favorite business books of the past few years is Blue Ocean Strategy, by Kim and Mauborgne. The book documents businesses who went in bold new strategic directions in order to create "blue ocean" spaces (as in, no one else is around, so there is no competition really). Southwest airlines is a favorite example. They really didn't TRY to compete against United and Delta in the established ways. They tried to compete with your car, making it cheaper, quicker and easier to fly, rather than to drive. That strategic clarity spurred a lot of the operational changes they made to the airline that helped it succeed.
But there is one concept from that book that I love, but gets little attention, and that is the concept of the "strategic move." They argue that the "quality of strategic moves" is, in fact, the biggest distinguishing factor among great companies. They define a strategic move as a "set of managerial actions and decisions involved in making a major, market-creating business offering."
I am afraid that "market-creating business offering" is going to scare away the association community, but there must be a way to translate that. A "business offering" is probably something like a "vehicle for delivering member value." Businesses create offerings for the market, but we are good at creating specific ways to deliver member value. Ultimately, we're talking about the same thing there.
Fine, but it's the "market-creating" part that is harder to translate. Creating a market is different than entering a market. You enter a market because you think your version is better than what the competition is already offering. Creating a market means offering something new, and then eventually the competition will enter YOUR market (the margins, by the way, are MUCH better when you create the market!).
For many associations, that happened back when the association was founded. The act of creating an association was typically a major strategic move. It created a market (for community, learning, professional development) that did not exist. And we didn't have to pay taxes, to boot! Maybe along the way we engaged in some market-creating strategic moves. Starting a trade show. Launching a peer-reviewed journal. Creating a certification program. These programs delivered member value that NO ONE was delivering before, and created net revenue on their own (right?).
Here's the rub. In Kim and Mauborgne's (business) world, as soon as we create a new market, the competition will see the potential and jump in try to get some of that action. That's why the ongoing quality of your strategic moves is so important. Creating blue ocean markets only lasts for a limited time, so you have to move onto new ones. For associations, in a lot of cases, that has not happened. We've sailed fairly comfortably for years or decades even without needing a new strategic move. Well, at least we didn't DIE by not making strategic moves. And so our capacity for recognizing and making market-creating strategic moves has atrophied. I can almost hear the rusty gears grinding back into motion as the social internet poses a threat to our bread and butter.
Perhaps that is why our strategy processes tend to focus so much on detailed action plans. The idea of a strategic move, or of creating new markets, is simply not considered. Within our existing goal areas, let's just make sure that the right things get done by the end of the year. That's why we end up with strategic goals like "increase membership," or my personal favorite, "remain financially secure."
I suppose you could argue that if our oceans remain relatively blue, we don't have to leave them. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, maybe we need to shift the metaphor, but just because the sharks don't rush in to turn our blue ocean into one of "bloody red competition," doesn't mean our ocean stays blue. Maybe the more we just sit in that blue ocean, the more we pollute it, little by little, making that ocean not the same over time. We become our own competition, making it harder and harder to maintain a surplus, even without external competition.
Second, we're leaving money on the table. Why not take the surplus from our existing blue ocean and create new blue oceans, before our existing oceans get stale and polluted? We should have the capacity to make market-creating vehicles for delivering member value (strategic moves). So take a look at your strategy process. Are strategic moves even an option? If not, then you need to change the process and shift the conversation.