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Strategic Illiteracy May Be Your Biggest Challenge

Strategic Illiteracy May Be Your Biggest Challenge

Future spinning. Dangerous with strategic illiteracy

After sharing my analysis and predicting more than half of associations will be dead or dying by 2030, I’m exploring more concepts impacting the future of associations.

The first is how strategic illiteracy may be a big challenge for your association.

Strategic illiteracy is rampant in our country and the world.

We come into this world filled with wonder, awe and a powerful imagination.

From very early on, we traded our freedom of thought, imagination and fertile grounds for strategic thinking in exchange for survival.

It was the price of being cared for. Of fitting in. Survival.

Our parents, schools, religious institutions, community and collective in general worked hard to train us properly and in effect stomping out our creativity.

We internalized the rules and correct answers so we could be assets in life, productive citizens – and hopefully success stories!

(At least that’s the reason for assimilation we are taught to believe.)

As a result of these early teachings, we now run a big part of our life on autopilot.

Things like how we act as a member of the family, school, community, world of work and more. How we live in general. (Duke University says more than 40% of our day is pure habit.)

As adults, we rarely think about why we do what we do.

It’s breaking the rules to challenge the rules.

We often don’t realize we have the right as adults to see if the rules still fit – and which ones we want to change.

One rule most of us learned was to respect authority – parent, teacher, policeman, boss, etc.

Their word was law – even if it didn’t necessarily make sense. That was irrelevant.

Thinking “strategically” was an easy path to being in trouble.

Aren’t schools supposed to teach us to be strategic?

Let’s look at history… Public schools were originally formed to help create productive citizens.

They got traction in cities in the late 1800s – right around the time of factories.

Business wanted schools to create good factory workers.

What skills were required for factory workers?

  • To be on time.
  • To do the repetitive work assigned in a specific way.
  • To follow the safety instructions.

They didn’t need or want people to challenge or ask why things were the way they were.

They simply required good workers who would show up on time, do the work they were asked to do and follow the safety rules – after all, chopped off arms and legs slowed down production!

Teachers built the learning experience to create rule-following, timely workers. Book learning was not enough. Demerits were given for being tardy – often impacting your grade. Citizenship or conduct scores reflected how obedient you were.

Around the 1960s, with more people working in offices, businesses were frustrated with employees who weren’t thinking.

They went to educators and asked them to teach students to think more.

Gen X was part of the first group to be taught in a more creative way.

  • They did projects in groups.
  • They were taught to challenge everything.
  • Always ask, “Why?”

When they hit the workplace, Gen Xers, as a stereotype, were not popular at work.

One of the biggest complaints? Gen Xers regularly asked why things were the way they were – rather than just do what they were told.

Starting in the early 2000s, the No Child Left Behind effort brought standardized testing back into the spotlight.

Class time had to be dedicated to teaching students what was going to be on the test. Performance mattered for students’ futures – as well as the schools.

Once again, our K-12 schools focus the bulk of their time teaching to the tests.

Information is either right or wrong. If the teacher tells students the sky is green on Wednesdays, that is what they learn – even if they can see a blue sky outside the classroom.

Students are taught to desire good grades – which reflect how well they memorized information.

Rarely are students taught or encouraged to challenge the beliefs creating what they are learning, to notice what is missing or explore different perspectives. Such activities supposedly confuse students and hinder them in getting the right answers on exams.

(Those who go on to college may still not get the skill development needed to be strategic. For example, a 2016 study by PayScale cited 60% of managers find recent grads lacking in critical thinking skills.)

Schools, focused on getting good test scores, don’t have time to teach strategic thinking.

Add to that many arts programs, which help develop creative skills, are first on the chopping block when budgets get tight. Being strategically literate includes being creative.

What about the world of work?

If we move into the world of work, how many companies train their staff to be more strategic?

How many jobs are more rote application than truly creative? How often do employees get involved in the strategic discussions for the company?

For most companies, strategic thinking and future crafting are not taught – especially if you are not in management.

Hard work, dedication is rewarded. Not challenging what’s going on and why.

In many associations, the big-picture, forward-thinking strategist is supposed to be the CEO and the rest follow the leader doing the implementation.

So what does all of this mean?

Many associations are being lead by well-meaning people who do not have their strategic muscles fully developed.

Most didn’t learn how to be strategic in school. They probably don’t do it at work – unless they are an entrepreneur or CEO; however even that’s not a guarantee.

Add to this the type of strategic skills needed moving forward are different than those that served us in the past.

When the world was more consistent, data-driven analysis could help fuel strategy. Data, which is always based on past behaviors, could create trends to respond to.

In a disruptive world, building a future based totally on the past is not going to work.

Strategic thinking needs to also be creative and innovative.

Even at work, strategic literacy is often not a focus for improvement.

WARNING: Lack of strategic skills in your association of both staff and leadership (and members too), makes your association vulnerable.

If no one is looking to the future and planning how to greet it, your association may be left behind – possibly without realizing it until it’s too late.

With awareness and predominant strategic illiteracy, your association can easily fall into the trap of looking for the knight on a white horse to save you.

Knowing the future is coming and knowing how strategically illiterate your leadership team is, you may decide to hire expertise to just tell you what to do.

After all, it’s so much easier when you have a recipe and your board doesn’t have to do the big strategic, future imaging conversations. You can just pick from A or B.

An expert or guru will be more than happy to charge you a hefty investment to tell your future.

They can define membership offers and how to configure your association for the future; however, their accuracy will be in question.

The upcoming disruptions and issues are so big you need more than one perspective to find the collection of solutions that will work best for your association.

It’s not going to be just a single answer.

It’s not cookie-cutter solution time.

The expert may be brilliant – and they put your association at risk if your leadership team doesn’t come to the table to help define the future and identify potential new ways to serve your members.

Beware Lone Ranger!

If you are “The Strategic Person” in your association, it can be tempting to go this alone and be the hero with the answers.

Given what’s coming, being the sole future predictor and source of next steps is a huge burden for a single person.

Odds are several of your ideas won’t work given the moving targets created by so much change.

You may be blind-sided without additional perspectives.

(In a future post we’ll explore getting comfortable with missing your mark because it’s going to happen.)

Can you sleep through the night with future of your association on your back – and the potential to be blamed if/when some things don’t go well?

Winning in the future is a team sport.

It’s going to take a variety of views, experiences and insights to figure out what’s ahead – and how you can best serve your members.

Staff and volunteer leadership need to learn how to be more strategic – as well as comfortable with being innovative.

Boards need to dedicate regular time to exploring the future and its possible impact on members.

(Fiduciary duties require board members to focus on securing the future of your association.)

The sooner you get your leaders trained and regularly working with the future (including the unknown) the faster they will build their skills and be ready to respond as the disruptive momentum kicks up.

(It’s definitely on the way!)

Strategic Illiteracy is a serious challenge for associations – and their members.

What will you do to help boost your association’s strategic literacy rate?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue drill down into a variety of concepts to help you in your quest. Stay tuned!

If you need help training your board to be more strategic, my Future Bending Adventures may be perfect for your association.

Yours in Finding the Future That Rocks!

– Cynthia

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  • February 25, 2017

    Lots of good thoughts here Cynthia! For organizations and the people that make them up, “repacking their bags” requires a shift in focus. That’s surely a strategic step. Thanks for the great post.

  • February 26, 2017

    Thanks Mark! I’m glad you found this post helpful!

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