Strategic Acceleration for Associations – Part I: It’s All About Clarity

16th February 2023

According to published author and special Boardroom contributor Paul Rulkens, three focus areas are essential to accelerate your association: clarity, focus, and execution. In this first article of a three-part series, Rulkens explores how to attain clarity regarding your association's vision and strategic objectives. The second article will delve into how to stay focused in a noisy environment. The series will conclude with an explanation on how you can help your association relentlessly drive execution to achieve its strategic aspirations.

Ernest Hemingway lost his entire fortune several times during his life because of his alcohol addiction. One day a friend dropped by and asked how Hemingway went bankrupt this time. His answer? First gradually, then suddenly….

What is true for Hemingway, is true for every association. If you don’t grow, you will decline. There is no such thing as the status quo. The past years have seen unprecedented challenges for associations. It’s clear that what has got your association here, won’t get your association there. 

How can you lead your association to take back control and thrive in turbulent times? This, of course, is a strategic question. It requires us to stop for a moment and think deeply about how to build a high-performance association. 

High-Performance Foundations

Let’s start with defining a high-performance organization: It’s the ability to consistently achieve big goals with less effort. If your association lacks consistency, its performance is random and can’t be repeated. If it doesn’t dream big, it will muddle through and become irrelevant. And finally, when goals can only be achieved by more and more effort, sooner or later your association will hit a wall.

Which of these three elements is your association’s weakest link? This is an important question: since you can’t compensate weakness in one area by applying more strength in another, your performance will be determined by your current weakest link. The good news is that this insight alone opens the door to immediately make a difference, either by improving consistency, daring to dream big, or doing more with less.

The second foundation to drive strategic acceleration is a concept called the razor’s edge. Some decades ago, while studying racehorse performance, a group of data scientists stumbled upon a fascinating discovery: In the long run, the number one racehorse earned up to ten times more in prize money than the number two racehorse. However, the number one racehorse was less than three percent faster than number two. They called this strange phenomenon the razor’s edge, mathematically known as a power law: a small, yet consistent advantage can result in a massive, exponential positive effect on performance and success. The famous 80/20 rule is an example of a power law. If we want to double the success of our association, we don’t have to become twice as good, we only need to become a bit better at the few elements which really matter.

The third foundation is the Michelangelo Principle. When the fifteenth century Italian renaissance artist Michelangelo created the David – the magnificent statue which can be admired in Firenze – people asked how he had sculptured this masterpiece. Michelangelo answered that, while studying a raw block of marble, he envisioned David hidden inside, and simply took out everything which was not David. The Michelangelo Principle tells us that the fastest way to improve, is often to take out everything which masks your strength. This is the essence of strategic quitting, the big secret of high-performance organizations. For example, associations can often improve dramatically and become much more effective by trimming down their wide selection of services and activities, and focus on the few offerings which are most popular and play to their strengths. Your ability to strategically quit equals your ability to massively succeed.

How do you use these three high-performance foundations to take back control in turbulent times? 

Clear strategic goals

When Columbus set sail to explore the New World he did not know where he was going. Once he arrived in the Americas, he did not know where he was and when he returned to Spain, he did not know where he had been. The story of Columbus is a fitting metaphor for the way many associations drift through life. They have vague ideas of where they want to go. They are confused about where they are. And they are confused about what happened to them in the past.

The process to get clarity starts with two questions.

The first question is: What would I dare to do with my association if I knew I could not fail? 

The answer to this question is your major definite purpose: the overriding objective of all your activities.

One of the biggest mistakes that associations make is to assume that their mission and their vision are enough to build a magnificent future. The step which is missing, however, is to translate the vision into tangible strategic goals. 

To help you define your strategic goals and close the gap between vision and reality you need to ask another question: What does wild success of my association for this year look like?

The answers to the last question determine your strategic goals. These goals act as the glue to drive high-performance.

Goal setting mistakes

After identifying the strategic goals of your association, the best way to success is to apply the Michelangelo Principle and take away everything which causes you to fail. These are the most common mistakes which lead to failure that I have come across in setting strategic goals.

  • The goals are unclear about where you are (=from) and where you want to be (=to). A good test is that anyexternal, objective observer must be able to determine if you have achieved your strategic goals. Thus, growing membership is a bad goal. Growing membership with 10% is a good goal. 
  • You confuse goals with options. A goal implies that you are not successful if you haven’t achieved it. An option is an alternative to achieve a goal. For example, if your goal is membership growth, alternatives to get there are social media campaigns, events, etc. Be rigid about your goals, and be flexible and extensive about the portfolio of options to achieve your goals. Never fall in love with an arbitrary alternative to achieve a strategic goal.
  • You confuse goals with boundaries. A boundary is a condition which must be met at all times, otherwise you cannot be successful. Yet, there is no need to take additional action to meet this boundary. For example, maintaining a positive cash flow is a boundary condition, unless strategic action is required to return to good financial health. If this is the case, a boundary condition becomes a strategic goal.  
  • The goals are uninspiring. If you imagine having achieved your goal, do you feel excitement and a positive sensation in your solar plexus? If not, think bigger.
  • The timeline of your strategic goals is too short, or too long. Strategic goals should be realized within 6-12 months.
  • You have too many strategic goals. Having 3-5 strategic goals typically provides a great balance between reality and ambition.
  • You lack development goals. Which one new skill or behavior will really help your association to take the next step and achieve its strategic goals? Make sure to include a strategic goal to build these skills or behaviors.        

Paul Rulkens is a professional speaker, published author and trusted boardroom advisor. As a high-performance expert, his magnificent obsession is to help organizations to consistently achieve big goals with less effort. His global clients include companies like McKinsey, Siemens, Nestlé, UBER and J&J. More about Paul can be found at

Taking back control

There are only two problems in life:

  • What do you want?
  • How do you get it?

We have discussed how associations can take back control in turbulent times by thinking strategically about their future. The first question – what do you want? – provides clarity about your vision, and your strategic goals to make this vision a reality. 

In the next part of this series, we will discuss how to apply your strengths to answer the second question: How to consistently achieve your big strategic goals with less effort.

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