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ARRL: Does the ARRL need a Strategic Plan?

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Management is about generating yesterday’s results.  Leadership puts the leader on the line.  No manual, no rulebook, no uberleader to point the finger at when things go wrong. Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling, and they are taking us to a new place, not to the place of cheap, fast, compliant safety.

Strategy in the Corporate World

A few days ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview to the UK Daily Mail.  In that interview, Zuckerberg talked about Facebook’s greatest challenge and missed opportunities.  “Facebook’s biggest challenge – and its greatest opportunity lies in mobile devices which is an area that the company did not pay much attention to until just last year.”

About a week ago I watched a Bloomberg video interview of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.  In that interview she talked about the future of Yahoo and the concept of the “interest graph” to compete in search against Google and Facebook

A few months ago Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman appeared at the quarterly earnings call to talk about the HP turnaround.  An extensive amount of material was presented detailing the turnaround and how all levels of the company will become aligned to the new strategy.

Everyone has one…

Needless to say, every public company has a strategy.  Strategy is driven by the recognition (diagnosis) of challenges and opportunities.  The nature of the challenges and opportunities sets the stage to formulate an  approach to best address the situation.  The approach translates into the development and execution of a coordinated set of actions across the enterprise along with metrics and measure to assess progress.  You can see this clearly played out in HP’s multi-year turnaround strategy made public at the recent quarterly earnings call.

In general, you can look in just about any quarterly report or annual report of a public company and find the strategy.  They differ in degree consistent with the diagnosis of the extent of the perceived challenge and opportunity in the external and competitive environment in which they operate.

Strategy in government agencies and charities

So why is it that NASA and the ARRL have such difficulty when it comes to formulating a strategy?

NASA

In late 2011, the Congress directed the NASA Office of Inspector General to commission a “comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.”

In part, this is what it said:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is at a transitional point in its history and is facing a set of circumstances that it has not faced in combination before…

Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas…

Although gaps in U.S. human spaceflight capability have existed in the past, several other factors, in combination, make this a unique period for NASA. These include a lack of consensus on the next steps in the development of human spaceflight, increasing financial pressures, an aging infrastructure, and the emergence of additional space-capable nations—some friendly, some potentially unfriendly…

These problems are not primarily of NASA’s doing, but the agency could craft a better response to the uncertainty, for example, by developing a strategic plan that includes clear priorities and a transparent budget allocation process. A better response would improve NASA’s ability to navigate future obstacles and uncertainties. An effective agency response is vital, because at a time when the strategic importance of space is rising and the capabilities of other spacefaring nations are increasing, U.S. leadership is faltering…

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League)

The ARRL as an organization is nearly 100 years old.  Below is their self-diagnosed position on a strategic plan

Posted on the ARRL web site regarding CEO David Summers K1ZZ findings (emphasis mine)

Mr. Sumner reported on his research into “state of the art” strategic planning by large membership associations. Perhaps because of the negative impact of the financial upheavals of 2008 and the revolution in electronic publishing, at this time there appears to be no consensus among associations as to the value of strategic planning or the best way for associations to go about it. The ARRL Board last updated the organization’s strategic plan in 2009 and normally would conduct an in-depth review three to five years later. The committee discussed the perceived shortcomings of past strategic planning efforts along with possible improvements. Without taking a formal decision the committee concluded that while strategic planning remains important to the ARRL, planning for a successful Centennial celebration in 2014 is the current priority. A fresh approach to strategic planning should be taken immediately afterward.

Challenge and Opportunity

What NASA and the ARRL have in common when it comes to the difficulty in strategic planning revolves around the assessment of challenge and opportunity.  This has many dimensions.  Partial considerations are suggested below.

In a sense, for NASA, it’s a case of “mission accomplished”.  It’s fair to say that NASA’s biggest challenge and accomplishment was putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to earth.  This was the challenge that President Kennedy set for NASA on May 25, 1961.  NASA accomplished this goal in July 1969 with Apollo 11.  NASA repeated this accomplishment five more times with Apollo 12,14,15, and 17.

NASA Mission accomplished – six times over.  Now what?

For the ARRL, in a sense, just as in the case of NASA, for the ARRL it’s also “mission accomplished”.  I will have to rely on Richard Bartlett’s assessment in his book The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: a social history.

In the epilogue of the book, published in 2007, Bartlett provides an answer for those who would ask him the obvious question: If you published the book in 2007 then why end the history of amateur radio and the history of the ARRL in 1950?  What happened in Amateur Radio and the ARRL over the past 57 years which is not accounted for in the book?

Why end this book as of the year 1950?  It is because the story of ham radio’s development essentially takes place in the first fifty years of the twentieth century.  Having been created, accepted, regulated, and achieved permanent status by 1950, the story after that becomes one primarily of repetition.  The one great exception is in the area of technology, and save for minimal descriptions necessary to the story, that has not been our concern.

ARRL Mission accomplished – back in 1950.  Now what?

NASA and the ARRL – Sources of identity

NASA and the ARRL have something else in common of a deeper nature.

The identities and goals of both organizations was set externally.

The Congress and the President of the United States created the national Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958.  Amateur Radio was first governed by the U.S. Department of Commerce (the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor until March 1913), then by the Federal Radio Commission, and finally (in 1934) by the FCC.

The broad missions of each organization was set by other agencies

For NASA, the preamble to the act of congress was, “An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”   For Amateur Radio, the definition of the Amateur Radio Service was set in Part 97 Amateur Radio Service Subpart A–General Provisions §97.1 Basis and purpose.

If an organization gets its identity and goals outside of itself, then how much latitude does the organization have (or, think it has) when it senses that its basic purpose or goals need to evolve to stay relevant as the external environment changes?

Engineering and operations, not Strategy

The third aspect that the ARRL and NASA have in common is based on the combination of the two commonalities mentioned above.

Insofar as the identity of each organization was set externally outside the organization.  And, insofar as the goals of the organization were set externally outside the organization both organizations developed a culture of, what could be called, engineering and operations.  There was no need for either organization to develop the capability to re/define identify and or re/establish strategic goals.  The operating model of such an organization has a focus of delivering preestablished goals and sustaining ongoing operations.

In the corporate world this is never the case.  Corporations are constantly challenged to re/define their identity and re/position in the context of the ever-changing environment of challenges, opportunity, and competition.  The job of assessing and diagnosing the environment, framing an approach, and then aligning execution and resources is the job of the Chief Executive with oversight from the Board of Directors.  So, it’s no wonder that analysts, on a quarterly basis, will badger Zuckerberg, Mayer, Whitman, and every other CEO of a public company  into articulating their latest strategy.

The Take

What are the legitimate reasons for any organization to not have a strategic plan?

Well, probably the most obvious reason based on what is written above is that  an organization without a strategic plan does not recognize any challenge or opportunity in the context in which it operates.

If there is no new challenge and no new opportunity and you are satisfied with the organizations current performance then there is no need of any strategic plan.  One simply operates in a state of sustainability by repetition – for as long as you can maintain it within a budget, or for as long as you continue to not recognize a challenge or opportunity in the external environment,  or for as long as you can get away with it until stakeholders commission a “comprehensive assessment” (as in the case of Congress and NASA above) to find out why you don’t have a compelling vision of the future that can engage a national interest.

The last page on the last chapter of Richard Bartlett’s book ends with this:

Time passes on, and the old guard gives way to the newcomers.  In November 1948 death came to Kenneth Bryant Warner, who for nearly thirty years was secretary and general manager of the ARRL.  “It was Maxim who conceived our League, it as Warner  who breathed into it life and energy and vitality, whose balanced judgement and clear vision ensured its growth and success,” reads his obituary. “With his passing we suffer the loss of a great leader, an untiring servant in the cause of amateur radio.  p. 230 The World of Ham Radio 1901-1950

The way Bartlett ends his book begs the question as to why he thinks Amateur Radio and the ARRL entered a state of 57 years of unremarkable repetition.  Was it because every ounce of value was developed from Amateur Radio’s pre-defined identity and purpose?  Or, was it because in 1948 Amateur Radio and the ARRL ran out of great leaders like Bryant who “breathed into it life and energy and vitality… [ that] ensured its growth and success.” .

Bartlett does not give an answer – one way or the other.

Related Reading

NASA: What to do after Mission Accomplished
ARRL: Reaping the Whirlwind

The Boy Scouts recently celebrated its centennial
Read the intro to the Strategic Plan from Chief Executive Robert J. Mazzuca

As our first century of Scouting comes to a close, I am delighted to share with you our 2011–2015 National Council Strategic Plan. This document represents the confluence of our vital mission with a clear corporate direction and will be the cornerstone for our second century of Scouting. I am particularly proud of the grassroots support and feedback given by Scouters throughout the country that provided guidance as we developed objectives and goals that are in direct support of local councils. This investment made in setting our course may well be one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of our movement.

The National Council is committed to following this strategic direction with a very formal process; allocating manpower and financial resources appropriately, and setting course corrections as the environment dictates.

The stakes are simply too high to put forth anything but our best effort

And then read the 2011-2015 Strategic Plan

It’s amazing how many opportunities CEO’s get to differentiate themselves.

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