July 24, 2012

Walls and Fences Can Lock In Associations Unnecessarily

In reading Robert Frisch's new book, Who's In the Room, about effective use of senior management teams, I was especially interested in the author's section on so-called walls versus fences within organizations.

"The idea is there is a set of things we understand that form boundaries of what our options are around what we can do to grow, for example," Frisch said in an interview with me for Associations Now. "They define the borderlines of what we do.... What happens is that when people get into positions of responsibility in associations, [they] get an understanding of the way 'things are done around here.' There's even more of a reluctance to challenge conventional wisdom, because [they may be ] serving an elected term for two years" or not be at the top of the staff totem pole.

Associations are not alone in mistakenly thinking that staff members, leaders, and others usually understand the difference between a fact (a wall such as an understanding that "you cannot do X because of X") and an assumption (a fence such as "you could not do X at that time but things changed, so now it's okay").
"If those walls and fences aren't placed accurately, then you're going to have people making bad decisions," Frisch told me. "It's really a question of, 'What are the very fundamentals of our business model?' It's a critical conversation that most organizations never have."

In fact, I don't recall have too many of those myself. Bits and pieces maybe, but not an overall look at solid versus picket fence stuff.

Frisch says these things are no secret. "People who are asked generally can tell you their organization's walls and fences," he said. "It's the job of the senior management team to go up to those walls and give them a good shake, asking, 'Is this a valid limit to who we are and what we can do, or is this a fence that can be moved? If we move it, can we open up new opportunities for growth and expansion?'"

He recommended questions like 'What business are we in? Who is our customer? What products can we offer? How do we go about conducting our business?'
And it's not just the staff who may build or break down these walls and fences. Most of us probably can think of a time when board members--or perhaps the minutes of their meeting--established a wall when a fence was the intention. Frisch warns that board directives and statements often are not re-evaluated enough, and that trickles to staff both new and seasoned who are heavily influenced by board comments.

"We have to be careful that they won't over-interpret what's being said, and that's why the walls and fences exercises are useful," he explains. "Let's make it very clear--this is what we do, this is what we don't do, this is who we serve, this is who we don't serve, these are the programs we fund, these are the programs we don't fund. How often do a board and senior management team actually walk the boundaries of the organization and explicitly talk about what we do and don't do? That's a very important but rare conversation."

Look for the full interview with Frisch in an upcoming Associations Now.

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May 31, 2012

Upgrading Diplomacy Skills the Albright Way

Want to refine your diplomacy skills?

Flash back to the enduring advice given by Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to association leaders in this "classic" (June 2002) article, "Education of a Diplomat," which I pulled from ASAE's Knowledge Center archives of Executive Update magazine pieces published by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives (pre-merger with ASAE).

I thought I'd bring the article up for a re-airing when I saw that Albright and 12 other leaders received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this week from President Barack Obama "for changing the world for the better."


May 11, 2012

How Much Influence Does a CEO Have?

Forbes writer Eric Jackson galvanized the business web's attention late last month with a troubling headline: "Here's Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next Five Years." (I figured an association online community manager somewhere audibly sighed after reading that, then began adding new images to a Pinterest board, "Images of Despair About an Unstable Universe.") But embedded in Jackson's provocative argument is an even more troubling claim: Leaders are more or less meaningless.

Jackson's specific point is that however much they try to innovate, web-based companies like Yahoo and Facebook remain products of the times in which they were founded, subject to all the prejudices and blinkered thinking of that moment. Yahoo, for instance, was the world leader in web-portal expertise a decade ago, but that isn't particularly meaningful in a mobile-ized world, and the company is struggling. More broadly, though, Jackson is making a case for "organizational ecology," which argues that:

organizational outcomes have much more to do with industry effects than who the CEO is and the choices he or she makes. [Organizational ecologists] study birth and death rates of populations of organizations, as well as the effects of age, competition and resources in the surrounding environment on an organization's birth and death rate.

Put another way: Leaders are lousy at predicting the future. They stick with what worked when they started, and don't effectively move their organizations forward. So ultimately the future moves the organization for them---or puts them out of business.

It's true that leaders tend to be bad at predicting the future. We all are: every so often I see somebody post a link showing a story from decades ago about what life will be like in the 21st century, and we all have a good laugh about it. But I think association leaders do have more influence than Jackson suggests, and aren't simply passive respondents to market forces.

The main reason I think that is because associations are, practically by definition, active respondents to market forces. An association's role is to listen to members in the aggregate, gathering information about where the growth opportunities and threats are. Not every association does a great job of gathering that information, or presenting it back to members so they can act on it, but the antennae for detecting what's coming next is built into association DNA. Corporations run under the mantra, "Evolve or die." Associations monitor the evolution patterns.

Well, in a perfect world, they do---and enough of them continue to do it well enough to keep the doors open. But reading Jackson's article make me think that the next big challenge for associations---just as much as membership, internationalization, nondues revenue, and mobile---is improving their monitoring skills. If it's true that "the next 5 - 8 years could be incredibly dynamic," as Jackson writes, members will have a growing need for help from their associations for tools to address those changes.

So what does the effective CEO do on that front? Give members more opportunities to meet in person? Double down on online communications tools? More data mining?

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April 20, 2012

Professional comfort

Is there something wrong with all of us?

Harvard Business Review's resident nonprofit provocateur, Dan Pallotta, asks this question about the profession in his latest blog post, "Nonprofit Pathology." I urge you to read the whole post, but here's an excerpt:

"Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they're more compassionate than others but because they're codependent. […] I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to 'the struggle' than passionate about solving any particular social ill. […] And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There's a sense of pathological contentment."

Ouch. That's a harsh diagnosis, but it rings true. When good intentions run aground time after time, frustration bleeds into martyrdom, and you can recognize it from a mile away. After hearing "we have to do more with less" enough, it begins to sound more like an excuse than a call to action. I don't think Pallotta means to indict an entire sector of professionals (well, maybe he does), but rather I think he means to point out that too many nonprofit professionals take the easy way out, lamenting the system rather than trying to fix it.

Philanthropic nonprofit work and association management have their similarities, of course, but the two attract a fundamentally different kind of worker that leads to a different strain of "pathology" in associations. Philanthropic organizations draw the bleeding hearts, workers who are stirred by the challenge of direct social or environmental change. Association work is more indirect; associations make the world a better place, too, but they do it by helping other people (doctors, builders, scientists, whoever) be better at what they do. And so association management is often less a profession that is sought out than one that people "fall into."

Meanwhile, associations have a steady pool of customers (members) to a degree that far exceeds any other type of business, for-profit or nonprofit. When you can rest easy in knowing that 80 percent of your customers will give you money every year, that's a comfortable, built-in audience.

What do you get when you put that together with a large pool of professionals who arrived in their jobs by chance? Instead of a workforce driven by a core purpose or an innate will to change the world, you get a workforce that discovers, likes, and comes to depend on the comfort of the status quo. And it goes without saying that comfort breeds complacency. That's the association pathology. We're codependent, too. We need members so we can feel needed.

I've read arguments that the struggle to change is magnified or somehow unique to associations, and generally I chalk that up more to overall human nature. We all hate change. But I can see how the nature of associations makes change an uphill battle. The chips are stacked against us by the inherent structure of the membership model, which is only reinforced by the workforce it engenders.

At the Great Ideas Conference last month, I listened to Shelly Alcorn's summary of her lengthy study of association executives' visions of the future. Her handout listed a series of "provocative proposals," phrased as "what if" questions, that emerged consistently in her study. More than one of them focused on transforming association management into a profession that is sought after rather than fallen into. If we're ever going to break our dependency on membership as we know it, that's going to be a key step.

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February 8, 2012

Cracking the Role of Luck in Business Success

It's not often that you run into a business topic that hasn't already been micro-examined, so when leadership guru Jim Collins and his Great by Choice coauthor Morten Hansen decided to tackle the blurry subject of whether luck—both good and bad—is key to long-term organizational success, I paid extra attention.

Their dilemma was how to study it, Collins told me during an interview, much of which appears in three articles in this month's Associations Now and on the ASAE website:

Great by Choice is the final lap in a 10-year marathon study of what makes companies great. In this fourth and last book in the "Great" series, the focus is on achieving excellence amidst a chaotic global environment. Would luck play a greater role during such turbulence, and could it be leveraged effectively?

In response, Collins and Morten pioneered a methodology that defines "luck events" to evaluate whether the "great" companies in its matched-pair study had better, worse, or the same luck as its counterparts. They explored a luck event by asking whether luck was rare or common, whether any evidence existed that the most successful organizations were luckier, and whether they did anything differently about luck.

The duo discovered that good and bad luck abounds, and that of the 230 identified luck events in their studied companies, the great companies were not luckier comparably and that the timing or size of the luck event did not quantitatively affect their success levels much of the time.

What the duo decided was that a "return on luck"—the ability of an organization to leverage good luck opportunities or ride out bad luck events—was a differentiator in the long run. "What the 10xers [great organizations] do is ask, 'Is this a piece of luck that should cause us to disrupt our plans, and, if so, what should we do to get a high return on that luck?'" Collins said. "It doesn't matter if it's good luck or bad luck. The same question applies. We found that our 10xers were really good at recognizing a luck event, and when it came, they executed supremely well to get a high return on that luck event."

They also found that "Good luck cannot cause a great organization. … However, … if you get bad enough luck, it can end the quest," said Collins, noting that a small organization could go under if it, say, runs out of cash or loses its primary leader because of some bad luck.

I'm betting that we all can think of times when we muttered about having bad luck (grant denied) or celebrated a sprig of good luck (an unexpected check) but did not necessarily look at this luck as an opportunity of much long-term value. Maybe Collins' research will turn our thinking in a different direction if we become more proficient at identifying substantive luck events and pausing to ponder these twists more strategically.

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January 4, 2012

Resolved: Embrace Your Messes

It's four days into the new year, and with any luck you're still sticking to your resolutions to be healthier, kinder, more creative, more organized, and so on. All good things. But I hope you'll forgive me for handing you this double-fudge sundae of a resolution-wrecker: Maybe this is the year you stop trying so hard to apply order to things and instead spend more time acknowledging life's inherent messiness.

I say this after spending some time over the holidays reading the transcript of a talk that economist Tyler Cowen gave at the TedxMidAtlantic conference. (The talk—in the video above—was in 2009, but the transcript appeared late last month.) Cowen's talk is about stories—more specifically, our human instinct to organize our lives as stories. Cowen understands that storytelling is baked into our nature, but he's concerned that our need to describe our lives in terms of conflicts and beginnings, middles, and ends oversimplifies things. "Every time you're telling a good-versus-evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more," Cowen says. Good-versus-evil stories deflect nuance and complication, and it's often the subtle things you need to be the most concerned about.

The line that really hit home for me—and that got me thinking about associations—is Cowen's suggestion about what you should do when a story feels a little too enchanting to you:

Pull back and say, "What are the messages, and what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?" and start telling yourself those, and see if any of your decisions change.

Associations, of course, tell stories about themselves all the time: In the annual report, in the board minutes, in the marketing programs, in their internal messages. Those messages can be as simple as "We've supported our industry for decades." But what if the industry isn't the same as it was all those decades back? The decades make for a nice story, but they're not what matters—and, as Cowen implies, leaning on that story isn't going to drive you to make changes in what you do.

So here's the question for the new year (and please do weigh in with your answers in the comments if you're willing): What are the stories you've seen associations unwilling to tell themselves? And a bonus question: Where does that lack of incentive come from?

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November 9, 2011

Dispatch, Day 2: Healthcare Associations Conference: Preparing for the Storm

The following is a guest post from Frank Fortin, CAE, chief digital strategist and communications director at the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Are you going to be in the kitchen or on the menu?

Time and again, that was the issue at the core of many conversations during the second day of ASAE's 2011 Healthcare Associations Conference in Baltimore, which ended Tuesday.

Whether our healthcare association represents doctors, nurses, hospitals, or something else, we are at an inflection point. The federal healthcare-reform law precipitated much of this, but if it was only about a law (which is only partially implemented), we wouldn't be feeling this way.

The first session I attended Tuesday was a terrific presentation by Shawn Scott from the North Carolina Medical Society, who walked us through how her staff and members are remaking their organization, even though her society is staunchly opposed to the federal reform law.

I next attended an offbeat session by economist Richard O'Sullivan on the five trends that are affecting healthcare associations. One might have judged his presentation too esoteric for the daily concerns of a healthcare association, but his five trends made it clear to me that we're dealing with environmental forces that will persist even if the Supreme Court or Congress eviscerates the Affordable Care Act.

Finally, Dr. Susan Nedza, an emergency physician who has worked at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the American Medical Association, and other organizations, asked provocative questions about how we're going to lead our associations through these changes. She simply summarized the stark challenge: Provide better care, to more people, at a markedly lower cost.

Her most interesting concept was to embrace disruptive collaboration: working with non-traditional outsiders to address intractable problems. Conflict will inevitably result from such work, but innovation may also ensue, particularly when known approaches are getting us nowhere.

This was all brave talk about change, but I also heard lots of fear, loathing, and anxiety at the conference. Are we really that powerless to help our members face the future?

I got an insight from a book I picked up on my way home today. Jim Collins, the guy who wrote Good to Great, has just published Great by Choice, about companies that thrive in chaotic times. He starts by comparing the journeys of Roald Amundsen and Richard Fulton Scott, who famously and tragically raced to the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen got there first and returned safely to a hero's welcome. Scott got there 34 days later but froze to death trying to get back home.

What was the difference? According to Collins, Amundsen prepared for worst. He didn't wait for an unexpected storm to discover he needed more strength and endurance. His preparations were unorthodox, detailed in the extreme, but he was able to handle anything that came his way. Scott's preparations assumed one scenario, and he got another. He paid for the gamble with his life.

Our storm is here, and there's no predicting where it will take us. Just as the folks at the North Carolina Medical Society refused to let their personal views blind them to the adaption and change they needed, we have to prepare our members for the rough weather ahead, position our associations to serve them differently, and work with them to create a new future. To do anything else would be negligent.


October 21, 2011

Can't or won't?

I was going to put this in this week's quick clicks post but decided I had more than a sentence to say about it. Yesterday, the always-insightful Seth Godin defined the difference between stupid and lazy:

When I was in college, I took a ton of advanced math courses, three or four of them, until one day I hit the wall. Too many dimensions, transformations and toroids for me to keep in my head. I was too stupid to do really hard math so I stopped.

Was it that I was too stupid, or did I merely decide that with my priorities, it wasn't worth the work?

The post is short, so you should go read the whole thing right now. It's great advice for anyone who's ever faced a challenge.

I think you could replace "stupid" and "lazy" with "can't" and "won't" and apply the same message to associations. In the face of change, opportunities for innovation in associations are often met with "we just can't do that." We don't have the time, the money, or the resources; we can't change our member benefits; the board (or CEO) will never take that kind of risk; and so on and so on. But the truth is that, in any situation, there's always a choice. We can find the time and the money, we can change a membership model, we can manage risk, but only if we're willing to reallocate or reinvent or kill some sacred cows.

Godin goes on to say "Isn't it amazing that we'd rather call ourselves stupid than lazy?" Likewise, isn't it amazing that many associations would rather say "we can't do it" than admit that they're just not willing to put in the work required to change?


October 5, 2011

Which comes first: policy or culture?

We all know the old "chicken or the egg" question. I'd like to adapt it to the case of managing change in an organization, in which policy is the chicken, and culture is the egg. Or maybe it's the other way around. You see where this is going.

The August and September/October issues of Associations Now have each shared a story about the Society of Critical Care Medicine:

(Two-pronged side note: I've mentioned this case here before, and while two articles and now two blog posts on the same story approaches "milking it for all it's worth" territory, I think the story and lessons to be drawn are worth a lot. So there. Also, I learned of SCCM's story when I sat down next to David at breakfast at the 2011 Digital Now conference. Dumb luck, but that kind of serendipity is what face-to-face meetings are all about, right?)

As David explains this month, getting his staff on board with housing all member data in one database and making all specialized IT systems integrate with that database was no easy task. He had to build buy in. The staff needed new tools to keep the rule from becoming burdensome. Some staff who couldn't get on board were let go. And throughout, the change was based on a formal policy that was endorsed and enforced at the top of the organization.

Now SCCM is seeing the benefits of the rule, so in this case an organizational policy led to a culture that believed in its value. But I'm not sure it always works that way. There's a famous management motto that says "culture eats strategy for breakfast." I'd guess it eats policy for lunch. Without a driving force for change, policy often falls flat when it collides with an organization's culture. And while an organization might have a number of written policies, they're likely outnumbered by unwritten policies, the "we've always done it that way" rules instilled by company culture.

SCCM could have pursued better data management without a policy, rather by building support for it among staff from the ground up. But would it have worked as well? I don't know (though I'd guess David would say no). But not every desired change or practice can be summed up nicely in a short policy to add to the handbook, either.

I'm curious for your thoughts, particularly those of you who have put some kind of new idea or practice into action across your organization. Which came first? Did you enact a policy and then get people on board, or did you work on shifting the culture until you could establish an organizational policy that you knew could work?

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September 23, 2011

Someone to tell you you're crazy

We all live in bubbles, little worlds unto ourselves that we create so we can manage our lives with some sense of sanity. But if we stay in those bubbles for too long or if we don't let others in, they become echo chambers, where all we hear is whatever we tell ourselves. This goes for people and for organizations.

This came to mind after I read Jamie Notter's blog post on Monday about competing narratives, as well as Joe Gerstandt's post (that Jamie linked to) about the intersections of those competing narratives.

Since the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo last month, I've been wanting to revisit a bold statement from closing general session speaker Peter Sheahan. I'm paraphrasing because I didn't take down his exact quote, but here it is:

The association governance model means associations are forced into meeting the needs of legacy members and not the needs that arise in the future. The system is built not to change.

That's a competing narrative for associations if there ever was one. And Sheahan knew this; he prefaced this idea half-jokingly with "You might not want to bring me back after I say this."

What attendees seemed to love about Sheahan's presentation was that he had clearly spent some time studying associations. And after a little studying, he gave his outsider's viewpoints, one of which (the above) equated to "what you're doing here seems a little crazy."

We all need that viewpoint once in a while. We need someone to tell us we're doing something that doesn't make sense. Otherwise, we'll remain blind to it. As Joe G. so eloquently put it, "At the point where two or more competing narratives interface, collide, merge, mesh or dance lives tremendous potential."

Association executives can seek out these intersections for their members, boards, and staff. Bring in a conference speaker from the outside who's willing to study your industry and question its practices. Invite visitors to your board meetings or to spend a day with your staff. As long as they're willing to be honest and ask questions, it doesn't matter who it is. A good consultant should give you an honest perspective. Or it could be John Doe off the street. Or it could be your mother, the one who still doesn't quite understand what you do, even though you've explained it a thousand times.

Sheahan said "someone has to agitate." He did it for us. He gave us a competing narrative. Now go find someone to do it for your association.

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August 31, 2011

Loveable losers (and how we talk about them)

A couple years ago, C. David Gammel, CAE, coined the term sacred zombie cow:

These are programs, products and services that are a net negative to the company and yet are incredibly hard to kill. They no longer have a strong sponsor on the scene but still they shamble along, eating up resources.

Like a lot of great innovation, David's term was an important improvement on an already pretty good term, sacred cow, which refers to something considered exempt from questioning.

I'd like to add a third term to this set (with apologies to Chicago Cubs fans):

loveable loser: a program, product, or service that has been evaluated and deemed worth supporting despite losing money

I've been thinking about this since Wes Trochlil's Learning Lab, "Is There Money Hidden in Your Data?" at the Annual Meeting & Expo. He suggested that good data can better inform discussions about when money-losing programs should be cut and when they should be subsidized by other revenue streams.

This was just a brief point that Wes made in the session, but it added an important extra dynamic to this topic that I hadn't thought about before. The underlying point that David Gammel makes it that sacred cows become sacred zombie cows when conversations about cutting or keeping them don't happen. They become loveable losers when those conversations do happen and they're deemed worth keeping.

Those conversations aren't easy ones, though, and while it's hard enough just to initiate them, there's a good chance of getting the conversation going and not knowing how to come to a decision. Even with as much data on hand as possible, how do you weigh the value of a program if it costs real dollars but returns more intangible or indirect results? And how do you identify and separate a program's real, present-day value from long-held perceptions about its value?

A long while back, there was a great conversation here on Acronym about social media ROI. I pushed for talking about social media in terms of dollars; others argued that strategic returns (i.e., non-financial returns) should be weight just as heavily. Social media might be one of those loveable losers at your association. Others like advocacy and public relations come to mind. Maybe some publications, or maybe even some face-to-face events. Anything could conceivably be a money loser but worth keeping around for its strategic value, but it's only a loveable loser if a conscious decision has been made to keep it. Otherwise, you have no way to know if it's just a sacred zombie cow.

Making the distinction between the two may be more art than science. Data helps a lot, but (as Scott pointed out earlier this week), it might not get you all the way to a decision. I'm curious how you've navigated conversations about supporting money-losing programs, if you'd had them.

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August 9, 2011

When a takeover isn't really a takeover

How to be successful in acquisition or partnering?

I'm going to come back to this question soon, but I want to start with this statement: For dozens of years associations have been entrepreneurial engines.

People who have read my Acronym writings may be surprised to see that from me. But I absolutely believe it. We haven't really had a choice. ASAE research has shown that for the last three-quarters of a century or so the percent of revenue from dues has declined. We've been doing other things to make money. Tradeshows. Sponsorships. Certifications. Certification materials. Education and training. Associations were trailblazers in these entrepreneurial endeavors. Are we good seeing and seizing opportunities? I would argue that despite such a strong track record of success, there's been a lot of dysfunction in how we've gotten there and we could do much better - but that's a different post.

6022703639_a677e2cc34.jpgThis post is about Build-a-Bear (a St. Louis-based company) and such a wonderful important message that Maxine Clark, Build-a-Bear CEO gave in her game changer session. The low-hanging fruit of entrepreneurial venture is acquisition and partnering. Someone is doing something similar to you or that fits your business model, but they're not doing it particularly well. You swoop in and either acquire their product or partner with them to improve the offering. You swoop in with the idea that you know what you're doing, you have a track record of success, and all you need to do is put your imprint on it.

That's what Clark was going to do when Build-a-Bear was expanding to the United Kingdom. A company there had essentially copied the Build-a-Bear idea and launched in the market. But they did it poorly. When Build-a-Bear was ready to expand to that market, they were able to acquire the copycat company with the idea that they have he retail and manufacturing infrastructure that Build-a-Bear could start from and then mold the company into the Build-a-Bear culture.

"What we discovered was something different than what we expected," she said. "The people working from the company we were buying had so much knowledge and so much passion, but the company was able to take advantage of it. So we changed course. We realized that our best path of success was to listen and learn to the people that were there." Build-a-Bear thought it would be a one-way transfer of culture and information, but it was much more of a two-way exchange.


July 12, 2011

Looking beyond the board for leadership

Time for more insights from a content leader at the upcoming 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. Today, we've reached out to Jeff Beachum, CAE, executive director at the Interior Design Educators Council, Inc., who will lead an Annual Meeting Learning Lab titled "Love our Mission: Moving from Board-Centric to Extended Reach!" Jeff shares an interesting story about managing significant change at IDEC.

How did you get your board to buy in to a new structure and culture that focused on discovering leaders outside the traditional pipeline?

Beachum: About five years ago, the Interior Design Educators Council, Inc., began to see significant growth. In just five years, we have experienced an 80-plus percent growth of members, with more than 50 percent of our membership having been a part of the organization for five years or less and another 35 percent expected to retire within the next 10 years. The combination of healthy growth and the clamoring needs of an expectant membership was creating tension on several pressure points within the organization.

IDEC has survived for more than 40 years with a board-centric organizational flow, resembling a "good old boys" network. Everyone in the organization felt compelled to connect with the president and the board. Real pain kicked in when the membership surpassed 400. It was common for board members to feel significant relief when their term ended.

So, recognizing the trail of bloodied board members left in the wake of their service, the leadership began serious work: an already-strong mission statement was restated and simplified, and a new organizational structure was subsequently birthed that included almost all of the activities previously established but within new "organizational homes."

By the time we arrived at this point in the reorganization discussion, an inordinate amount of receptivity to the vision was being celebrated. Leaders were now willing to engage in a bit more risk, and the process was becoming a challenging adventure. Success was begetting success. Challenge to change was greeted with anticipation, and courage came easier.

The board quickly recognized that the traditional pipeline of leadership was woefully inadequate. There were not enough "good old boys" to fill the new roles. In fact, the reorganization required leadership to think and lead differently, and some of the membership would not be able to make the mental transition as leaders. The board began to embrace new initiatives and policies that would allow for the discovery of new, innovative, and emerging leaders. These initiatives and policies included:

  • A formal policy requiring a call for leadership to be posted for all vacant or changing leadership positions, allowing all members to volunteer or be nominated.
  • Accepting successful experience outside of the organization to hold more weight than it once did when selecting candidates for leadership.
  • Enabling leaders at the grassroots level to be more confident that their ideas will be listened to and heard.
  • Purposely creating smaller leadership roles for the next generation of leaders in hopes that they will emerge with experience under the tutelage of proven veterans.

Significant change requires significant leadership with vision, courage, and resolve. Once the grip of leadership had been relinquished, it produced a positive and powerful result, moving IDEC from being board-centric to having extended reach.


April 26, 2011

Encourage questioning

Daniel SimonsMarketers and communicators know the difficulty in getting others to think differently. Often, the target audience is external: potential members, customers, the press, legislators, and so on. However, in the opening general session and a morning learning lab at ASAE's Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference today, attendees learned some lessons on helping those closer in—colleagues and volunteer leaders—to think differently.

Daniel Simons (pictured at right), coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, illustrated the many ways in which we assume—wrongly—that what we see is what we get and that the way we think is the way others around us think. He shared the somewhat famous selective attention test video that gave his book its name, and he urged association professionals to "break the systems" that they're used to in order to discover new ideas. Normal human beings often fail to notice the unexpected and are only aware of their own minds' fallibility when they are confronted with hard evidence of it, he said. In other words, you don't know what you don't know.

Simons gave audience members the ability and awareness to question their assumptions, but returning to the office and encouraging colleagues to test their assumptions may be a difficult task. I followed up with Simon for advice, and he recommended sharing an exercise like the video above with colleagues to at least open their minds to the need to question assumptions. He said the toughest challenge comes with questioning causes that we all assign to events. "People infer causal relationships," he said. When X happens, "it's natural to want to find a cause."

This context proved to be handy knowledge entering a learning lab titled "Have You Killed Your Sacred Zombie Cow Today?" immediately after the general session. C. David Gammel, CAE, executive director of the Entomological Society of America, shared some strategies for stopping old programs or processes that are no longer valuable. A common example is a management process for which the condition that caused it no longer exists, yet the process continues. In this case, Gammel recommended challenging that cause and bringing to light that it has changed or stopped. Again, data or hard evidence can help make the case.

Simons also discussed "the curse of knowledge," by which we assume that others know what we know. The key to breaking that curse, he said, is to put yourself in the same frame of reference as your colleagues or members (or whomever you're trying to persuade). Only then will you be able to understand what perspectives they have and what causes they're inferring and thus be able to challenge them.

For more insights from MMCC, check out or follow on Twitter via the #MMCCon hashtag.

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April 22, 2011

Earth Day: A Chance at Relevancy

Earth Day can be a fraud, a feast, or a fizzle.

It can be a great rallying date around which to publicly re-enunciate your organization's commitment to sustainability and showcase actions you've taken that back it up, or it either can be dissed as a greenwashing exercise or simply ignore it.

But are the latter two options very smart business choices with all of the studies showing the growing influence of eco-conscious consumers, the heightened watchfulness of media and citizen journalists, and the myriad hard data that have emerged about the positive ROI of a well-planned social responsibility strategy that syncs with organizational mission and core competencies?

If that kind of strategy sounds time-intensive to chart, it can be. However, it takes effort to plan any strategy, so I don't think that concern should be seen as much more than an excuse, especially when this approach jives so well with most our community's common goals of operating efficiently, attracting and retaining talent, holding tight to our budgets, bolstering innovation, engaging members, and building brand value.

It's heartening to see the many press releases from nonprofits and associations today as they urge members and consumers to switch to paper-free bill paying, plant a tree, volunteer, recycle, insulate, and more.

Less heartening is that so many associations are silent today. I promise you that no matter what industry or profession your group represents, your members--maybe not all of them, but certainly a growing percentage--are indeed moving toward greater sustainability. This is a chance for your association to be relevant. This is a chance to show value in a new way. There are serious opportunities here for any organization of any size in any location (you'll find some examples at to help members strengthen their businesses and professions.

So celebrate Earth Day today. Acknowledge it with authenticity. Tell staff, members, and others what you already are doing to help lighten your environmental footprint (that kind of self-audit is the first step anyway), and ask them what else you could be doing.

You may find the sustainability journey to be an enlightening road to greater relevancy.


March 28, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro's Diversity Message Still Rings True

I was sorry to read about the death of former vice presidential candidate and longtime political activist Geraldine Ferraro this weekend. I recalled when she co-authored an article for GWSAE's Executive Update magazine back in July 2000, and oddly enough, I had just had it posted as a resource onto the ASAE Diversity & Inclusion Conference attendee site because its content remains relevant to today's discussions of the subject.

Titled "Reaping the Bottom Line Benefits of Diversity", the article is a warning by Ferraro (Democrat) and President George Bush's Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin (Republican), who jointly write that associations that ignore diversity risk extinction in the coming years. They urge ways that organizations can use training and leadership to leverage the business benefits of diversity and inclusiveness.

The article remains especially timely in light of last week's release of the 2010 U.S. Census results. Among its important findings are data showing that the numbers of Hispanics have grown by more than 43% since the year 2000, or 16% of the U.S. population. That increase means Hispanics have overtaking African-Americans or blacks (at 13% of the U.S. population) as the largest minority group in America. Will organizations or the business community be able to adapt to this level of change in their membership/consumer/worker bases?

Ferraro defined diversity broadly, although she often wrote about women leadership simply because that seemed to be what folks asked her about most. She had many friends within our sector, especially among women's organizations and political groups, and I often saw her on the speakers' lists of a range of nonprofit and association events, despite her battle against blood cancer.

Hopefully, the message she shared in Executive Update 11 years ago and throughout her 75 years of public service, along with new data confirming some of the trends she foresaw, will inspire association leaders to revisit her words and take action accordingly.


January 14, 2011

Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?

Let's face it: none of us have really been here before. Yes, we've all navigated tough times, but not like this. The foundations of our economy have fundamentally changed, and things may never be exactly as they were.

A while back, Paul Pomerantz, worldwide executive director of the Drug Information Association, shared with me a Business Week article titled "Is your CEO recession capable?" It suggested that many for-profit executives weren't equipped to lead in these times and that a rethink of competencies and behaviors is essential. While the U.S. economy is now growing, it's clear that things are very different—and difficult.

It struck me—and a number of my CEO colleagues—that we need to start a new conversation about what's really different and how we may need to grow and develop to ensure that we're able to help our organizations fulfill missions and goals and realize personal fulfillment.

After initiating the conversation with the ASAE Fellows group, Paul, Henry Chamberlain (president and CEO of BOMA International), Pamela Kaul (president and founder of Association Strategies) and I joined about 50 CEOs at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Los Angeles for a conversation on what it takes to lead in these crazy times. It was a beginning. First, a couple of assumptions that framed our conversation:

  • This isn't like any other downturn we've ever seen, and reprising past practices won't be enough.
  • Nobody is perfectly equipped to lead now based purely on experience in tough times.
  • A new mix of competencies and behaviors will be necessary to lead effectively.
  • It's time for CEOs to grow.

Rather than list all the takeaway points from our conversation, I'd like to share three key themes that emerged. Your thoughts are welcomed.

  • We need to rethink our teams and how we function. We must become effective at getting more minds with diverse skill sets into the game and encourage them (and ourselves) to "challenge authority" in a constructive and effective way. The consensus was that we need to encourage and support our teams by promoting development and sharing authority and visibility.
  • We need to rethink how we develop ourselves and spend our time. According the Business Week article I referenced above, the optimal "recession CEO" time allocation may be 20 percent CEO, 40 percent COO, and 40 percent CFO. Given that many of our groups have enjoyed the fruits of long, continuous growth, I wonder if many of us have grown to become strategic thinkers and visionaries who are less connected to operational realities. Is it time to get back to basics and all the development or choices that come with it?
  • We need to exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive. Now that boards are expecting more than ever before—while sometimes, paradoxically, being more risk averse—successful CEOs will need to deliver more creative and practical approaches to vexing problems than ever before. Many of us have done as much as possible on the expense side, and the expectation is that we will need to grow our way out. One participant suggested that, in order to succeed, we need to demonstrate "vulnerability to our boards and staff while at the same time exuding confidence." Like I said, we need to grow.

In a future post, I'd like to share some thoughts that emerged about the concept of "fail fast, fail small, learn, and adapt."

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November 22, 2010

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

It's bulb planting time. You buy these brown objects that look like misshapen shallots, put them in the ground, wait until the spring, and ...Voila! Bunches of amazing colored blooms all over. There's an obvious analogy here about sowing seeds for the future and planning a colorful garden. What are we doing now that will yield something better in six months? I'm convinced the bigger challenge is how messy are we willing to get to make it happen? Unlike those bulbs, our challenges don't lie dormant for months and suddenly burst into colorful landscapes.

I recall in one association we prided ourselves on creating a "well-oiled machine." You know: no real glitches, smooth services, everything meets expectations. Technology upgrades anticipate the next market curves and drop onto our system running exactly how the vendor showed us in the demo. Members read each and every email we send, and they eagerly await our every communication. (OK, so I exaggerate a tad.) We made great strides toward that "Jiffy Lube" goal but it didn't happen without disruption. The dilemma was to negotiate how much mess was tolerable to achieve the changes?... how much of the well-oiled machine is allowed to squeak while staff and volunteers are busily re-tooling, re-organizing, replacing, downsizing, and upgrading? Fundamentally, our model was that we essentially controlled the structure and the pace of change.

Earlier this week I was listening to a presentation by Clay Shirky on leveraging social media for charitable cause organizations. The audience wrestled with the notion that struggling organizations with too few staff could unleash a donor base to spread the word about the organization, reach donors and attract media far faster now than with conventional communications. It can seem overwhelming - especially when we already wear so many hats and now think about adding hats for tweets, friending and blogging. How riskier is it to sow a few seeds and pretty much get out of the way?

We're in the flat world now. Not the one with the map that kept explorers in check, but the one that has lifted the veil and the firewall. What hasn't been zapped has been "apped. "With new tools are new opportunities. What keeps me up at night is not whether we intellectually understand's whether we can mobilize our organizations to embrace and lead rather than succumb to fear that the current environment is too scary for bold action or be afraid of what would happen if members really exercised their power.

If there's a silver lining in the economic roller coaster, it may be that we realize things aren't going back to the way they neither can we. If we team up with enough 20- somethings with no pre-Internet/pre-smart phone memory, we may get there. Entrenched behavior is completely changing because it can. Our fee- for- service -with- the- opportunity -to- comment model isn't participation. Our members are posting stuff everywhere and generating content at a pace we can't keep up with. But are they doing it in our organizations? (It should be more liberating, but I suspect there's enough Type A in most of us that we're avoiding this as long as we can.)

Give me the hand trowel, the hose, and the garden gloves. And throw in a sample of people with passion for planting. Make sure there are enough tools for everyone. Are we really that afraid that some squash might show up among the hyacinths? Half the fun is in choosing the colors, designing the beds. The other half is in the mud pies.

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November 10, 2010

Why wait for moving day (or a crisis)?

Two interesting links Monday about taking a serious look at what your organization is doing right and what it's doing wrong:

  • "How efficient is your association?" by Shannon Otto at the Splash! blog. Shannon writes about moving to a new apartment (more than once in the past year): "In my effort to make my move easier, I got rid of unnecessary and excess items, and it did indeed help my move go (relatively) smoothly."
  • "How Microsoft Hit CTRL+ALT+DEL on Windows Phone," by Brian X. Chen on the Gadget Lab blog. The lead: "Microsoft staff refer to December 2008 as 'The Reset' -- the month that the company killed all progress on its Windows phone project and started over."

These two scenarios feature some trying circumstances: a relocation and a severe product-sales decline. However, they both talk about the healthy process of reflection and action that the situations demanded.

I posed a similar idea last year when I asked if an association could ever blow it up and start over. But that might have been the wrong question. It might be more important to ask, "If we wait until our circumstances force us to take stock and make significant changes, might it be too late?"

Inspired by the two posts above, I'd suggest a healthy practice for associations would be a yearly (at least, or more frequent) "spring cleaning" day. It wouldn't be about physical cleaning, of course, but about cleaning budgets, processes, and products. It would be a day to ask every staff member and volunteer two questions: "What one thing should we stop doing?" and "What one thing needs to be reinvented?"

Call it "spring cleaning day" or "moving day" or "reset day"--whatever resonates with your staff and volunteers. Just make sure you're doing it regularly rather than waiting until you're packing up to relocate or staring up at your competition from the bottom of your market.

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September 8, 2010

Under Construction

We all love to complain about road construction, especially when it all seems to happen at once. During this week's encounter with road construction here in New Jersey, I realized the DOT gets a lot right in serving its consumers in the midst of change.

1. For big projects they give plenty of notice: "On or about October 15, construction will begin." And it's only August.

2. The work is done when traffic is light: "Lane closures 9pm-5am."

3. They tell you what to expect: "Uneven Pavement," "Men in Roadway," "Expect Delays."

4. They alert you about emergencies: "Water Main Break," "Lower Level GWB Closed."

5. They offer alternative options: "Detour," "Plan Alternate Route."

6. They hit you on an emotional level--in just 6 scribbly words: "Slow Down. My Mommy (or Daddy) Works Here."

Hey, I'm no fan of traffic. And NJ tolls? Don't get me started. But, the DOT knows how to get my attention, seems to be concerned about me getting to where I'm going on time and that I'm prepared for unusual driving experiences. That puts me at ease, makes me think they're doing this for me, and reassures me that in the end it will all be okay and probably better than before.

What I wish they did better was share the big picture. Six months in to the year-long construction project, you're still wondering "What is it they are doing?" or "How can this possibly make it any better?" And how about a celebration for motorists upon completion? Maybe just one more sign that says,

We're Done. Welcome to Your New Road. Please Drive Carefully.

I'd love to hear how your organization is getting it right, especially during times of change.

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July 13, 2010

Lessons from LeBron

If you paid attention to the news at all last week, you know that NBA superstar LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat, and you know that he announced his decision in an hour-long special on ESPN Thursday night. Needless to say, it was not a popular decision in Cleveland, and reaction elsewhere to the style of his announcement was not much better (at least outside Miami).

To some, LeBron James is just a basketball player, but as an aspiring billionaire, he is very much the CEO of his own empire. As such, business and association leaders can learn a few lessons from the whole debacle:

Don't make vendors or job applicants jump through hoops if they're not being seriously considered. After the free-agency period began, LeBron listened to presentations from at least six teams whose representatives flew to Akron, Ohio, to woo him. We'll never know for sure, but his final decision to join buddies Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami seems like it was the plan all along. As an organization making a decision regarding whom to hire or sign a contract with, keep your group of finalists small. Interviewing people not in contention is a waste of their time and yours, and it may leave them with a bad impression.

Understand that humans react emotionally—even irrationally—before anything else. LeBron delivered the classic "It's just business" line, which is always a mistake. His version was, "I can't get involved in that. You know, one thing that I didn't want to do was make an emotional decision." Problem is, trying to be logical with people in a time of change just doesn't work. Yes, of course business decisions are business decisions, and moving to the Heat was arguably his best option. But "It's just business" will fall on deaf ears 100 percent of the time. Any leader ushering in a major change should plan for winning hearts—or at least minimizing backlash—first and worry about the logistics later. Which leads me to…

Show respect—even praise—for people who will be let down by a business decision. LeBron made little effort to thank Cavaliers fans for seven years of loyalty, and the act of announcing his departure in an hour-long TV circus just made it worse. Contrast this with MLB pitcher Roy Halladay, who bought a full-page ad in the Toronto Sun to thank Blue Jays fans when he was traded to Philadelphia in December. In any major change at an organization—ending a long-running program, laying off employees, etc.—there's no avoiding negative reaction. But acknowledging the past contributions of deeply vested stakeholders softens the pain they feel in some small way. To ignore them is to pour salt in the wound.

Of course, LeBron's not the only one who took the low road. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned an emotional open letter after LeBron's announcement. If you're a Cavs fan, the letter is a catharsis, but if you're a manager or leader, it is a bad example to follow—Steve Tobak at The Corner Office blog explains why. (And if you're a graphic designer with an interest in font choices, the letter was, well, peculiar.)

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June 29, 2010

Why Staying Mum on CEO Succession Is Dumb

I was sadly reminded recently of a governance issue that most CEOs hate to discuss--succession planning--when I heard about a small nonprofit leader who was suddenly retiring in response to a cancer diagnosis.

Then I saw a new Stanford University/Heidrick & Struggles study that finds "serious gaps in CEO succession planning" in many North American public and private companies. The numbers were startling because I believed that large corporations in particular were far ahead of associations when it comes to CEO succession planning. Maybe they are, in which case, I am far more concerned now that I've read that the average board of directors is spending less than two hours per year on the topic, yet almost 40% of for-profit leaders had "zero" viable candidates to later fill their shoes.

Stanford Professor David Larcker calls the problem a "governance lapse," blaming a "lack of focus" of boards of directors who "just aren't spending the time that is required to adequately prepare for a succession scenario."

What about your board? When was the last time succession was even on your board agenda, especially when you or your CEO weren't thinking of moving on?

I asked a member who has worked in our sector for more than 20 years if she had ever heard a board talk about succession issues. "No, our CEO has been there forever and doesn't plan to leave," she replied. How about die or get sick? CEOs often don't "plan" to leave. That certainly doesn't render the issue moot. Is it that CEOs fear bringing up the topic, not wanting to "give the board any ideas?" That seems lame.

Bill George, speaking at our upcoming Annual Meeting, talks about building leadership and life legacies, as well as developing new leaders, in his classic book, True North.

More direct, though, is another annual meeting speaker, Marshall Goldsmith, whose book Succession: Are You Ready? (2009) guides you through the process of planning and executing a succession transition. He calls it "the greatest challenge for any leader," and that's saying something for this coach who has seen and heard just about everything related to success and failure in business. You can read more about Goldsmith's suggested tactics and advice in an ASAE interview with him in March 2009 called "Smart Succession Planning in Uncertain Times."

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May 20, 2010

The over-naming, over-thinking, over-strategizing rant

The great thing about learning from other people's mistakes is that it's less painful. The hard thing about learning from other people's mistakes is that because it's not you and your pain, you laugh smugly to yourself, oblivious to the fact that there's a lesson for you in there.

A nice post on Brand Autopsy talks about the major branding blunder unfolding at Starbucks--a company so good at branding that millions of people now pay four or five bucks for a product that previously had a comfortable profit margin when the price was fifty cents. So you might read the post and smugly think about how you would never make the mistake Starbucks is should you ever be in the position of rebranding a company that your company has just acquired. Congratulations, you're right, you can stop reading now. But if you want to see how the dots connect in my opinion...

Associations are guilty of over-thinking and adding complexity to the development of and communications about their products, programs, and services. They have to distinguish their products not just from their competitors, but also from the other products they produce. Every association I have worked for is guilty of this, and many, many others that I've talked to as well. We do it for so many reasons: internal staff politics or turf battles, messy board or volunteer politics, because we have a crappy product we're putting lipstick on, or because we just feel like we need to. The result is that we make everything much more complicated than it needs to be, than it should be--and there are real and negative consequences as a result. Here's the cold fact (apologies to Lindy, while I have to say it, you at least made me think about it): Content is king. Your member/customer/information consumer doesn't give a flip about what you call it, how you organize it, what it means to you (or a group of volunteers, etc) personally. They only care first that they can find it, and then, if you're lucky, they'll care that they found it from you. The point here is to ruthlessly simplify. Cut through all the reasons why you think you have to do something, and put yourself in the shoes of your members or customers and ask yourself what really matters then.

An example: A couple weeks ago, Steve Anderson, CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, said at a Financial and Business Operations Symposium breakout that in dealing with the recession, his organization made a list of everything it does, prioritized it by member value, and then took the top 10 and cutting everything else away. It's a good strategy for a recession. I think it would be a great strategy for boom years.

If you can forgive the inside baseball, here at ASAE we've got a list of at least 43 different ways we try to get content in the hands of our information consumers (and just an aside -- all the section and other volunteer group newsletters combined counted as just 1 of those 43). That's a lot of differentiation we have to do just between and among our own products. What would happen if we took that list and pared it down to 10? Or even in half?

Turns out simplifying is a long, long way from being simple.

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May 7, 2010

A narrow focus for change

As Scott explained yesterday, we're focusing some posts this month on the wisdom of Bill George and Marshall Goldsmith, who are speaking at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo in August, as well as other leadership thinkers.

First up are Marshall Goldsmith and a blog post he wrote for Harvard Business Review in January, "An Exercise in Changing Yourself." You should go read the whole post, but here's the main message:

I teach my clients now to pick the one behavior pattern for personal change that will make the biggest difference, and to focus on that. If we pick the right area to change and actually do so, it will almost always influence other aspects of our relationships with people. For example, more effective listening will lead to being more successful in building teamwork, increasing customer satisfaction, and treating people with respect.

Goldsmith's message is good for individuals and organizations. It also reminds me of yet another HBR blog post I linked to a few months ago, "To Change Effectively, Change Just One Thing," by Peter Bregman. He points out that people who focus on reducing one single dietary habit are the most successful in losing weight, no matter what habit they change, and that this applies to change in any setting.

Goldsmith recommends an exercise in naming the benefits of making that one change, which I'm going to do right here. I'll focus on networking, specifically introducing myself to people more often. I'm a classic lurker, always hesitating to approach others, even people I have perfectly valid reasons to speak with. So here goes:

  • When I stop being a wallflower, I meet more new people.
  • When I stop being a wallflower, I learn more about the people around me and who they are, what they do, and so on.
  • When I stop being a wallflower, I get more ideas from the people I meet: for our publications, for  sharing with colleagues about our work, for my own professional skills, for my personal interests—anything, really.
  • When I stop being a wallflower, people get to know who I am.
  • When I stop being a wallflower, people may find that I can help them somehow.
  • When I stop being a wallflower, people will be more likely remember me if and when our paths cross again in the future.

I could keep going here for a while, but you get the idea. Focusing on the multiple benefits of a single change makes that change a lot more compelling. And take note that I focused just on introductions rather than "networking more." That could mean going to more events, spending more time on social media, or just remembering to carry business cards with me everywhere I go—but then my efforts would lose focus.

I think Goldsmith's message about putting your effort into making one specific change is based on faith. You have to believe that by improving one thing the rest will take care of itself. The exercise in listing benefits is a way to be more confident in that belief.

Goldsmith invited readers to try the exercise in the comments of his post; I'll do the same. If you're up for it, post a comment with the change you'd make and the benefits you'd see.


April 12, 2010

Quick Clicks: Monday morning metaphors

Good morning, and welcome to a Monday edition of Quick Clicks!

- Acronym's Big Ideas Month helped to inspire an unconference aimed at creating an innovative future for the association community, taking place April 22 in Washington, DC. Jeff De Cagna posted more information on the Hacking Associations Unconference here.

- Jamie Notter posted his thoughts about the recent Acronym post that was removed from the blog.

- Jamie also posted an interesting series on leadership skills needed in today's organizations, including truth, courage, and curiosity.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has a great post on some of the forces that she thinks are shaping associations today.

- Shelly Alcorn recently posted the last post in her five-part series on how Jim Collins' book How the Mighty Fall can apply to associations. (If you haven't read the first four posts, she links to all of them in the first paragraph.)

- A very interesting post on meeting conference attendees' expectations by Amber Naslund (thanks for the link are due to Shannon Otto at the Splash blog). Representative quote: "We have a fundamental disconnect between what people say they want from a conference session, and what can realistically be delivered under existing models."

- Jeffrey Cufaude is thinking about organizational change efforts, using automotive metaphors; he's posted on detours and dead ends, and what it's like in the passenger seat during such change efforts.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders when good leaders make the decision to pull the plug on projects.

- At the LeaderConnect blog, Rebecca Rolfes considers the board-staff dynamic at associations and how it might impact the way associations approach the future.

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog discusses the collapse of complex societies, Clay Shirky, and how both of those things apply to realtor associations.

- Maddie Grant is also thinking about Clay Shirky and his principle that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

- Association blogger David Gammel has launched a new blog, Orgpreneur, which will focus on "entrepreneurship in pursuit of goals that matter."

- Andy Sernovitz discusses the importance of leaving a good last impression on your departing customers, with some advice associations could certainly use to help improve relations with departing members.

- Blue Avocado recently published an article by Ellis Robinson on eight strategic mistakes nonprofits can make with memberships.

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April 9, 2010

Forget cause and effect

In various presentations, questions, and discussions at Digital Now, I've been seeing an interesting theme emerging: cause and effect are getting to be very, very difficult to pin down, and that's just something association leaders have to learn how to live with.

Some form of this question has come up several times in just a day and a half: "How do I monetize this?"

And the consistent answer has been, "Well, you don't really. You make your money elsewhere."

It came up in the session about free yesterday. It came up in a session about building online engagement today. Repeatedly, the answer to drawing financial gain from social media, publications, engagement, and many education efforts is now an indirect one. For example, you create a presence in several social media outlets, you engage with people, they build community around you, and then some of them might buy something from you. Or some of them might join your association. Or the ones who are already members become more likely to renew. Or you sell advertising to people who want to reach that market. You get the idea.

One panelist says we operate in "an ecosystem" where it's increasingly difficult to draw straight lines.

Another says he doesn't like the term ROI (return on investment) in social media; he prefers ROA: return on attention.

We touched on the indirect nature of returns on social media efforts back in November when I argued that social media evangelists have to talk to their CEOs about social media in dollar values. That was a healthy discussion, because translating social media into dollar value isn't easy, and that lack of direct cause-and-effect relationship is hard to sell to leaders or to boards.

It's why warning signs on electric fences work a lot better than warning labels on cigarette packs. The link between cause and effect in the former is a lot clearer (touch the fence, instant death) than the latter (smoke a lot, die of lung cancer 30 years from now).

Of course, you could see this all as a counterpoint to the message from Ian Ayres earlier today about the need for more statistical analysis to inform our decisions. Randomized testing is designed exactly to discern cause and effect. His point, though, is that it takes a lot of discipline and effort to track data, build samples, and test accurately, but it can indeed be done. Cause and effect, or at least strong correlations, can be discovered through data analysis.

And so maybe this isn't a counterpoint so much as it is a complement to the earlier post. As we acknowledge the increasingly complex ways in which business models for associations will work, we must grow more comfortable with a lack of direct cause-and-effect relationships. Or, if we must have those answers, our methods for connecting Point A and Point B must become more sophisticated as well.


March 17, 2010

From missions to mantras, big deal

I'm still chest-deep in all the Great Ideas Conference stuff. I read each of the 1,682 Tweets that used the #Ideas10 hashtag during the three days of the conference; I've read a couple dozen blog posts on the conference; and I've reflected on the sessions I went to.

A lot of the buzz was about this idea of missions being better crafted. Guy Kawasaki calls for a mantra of four words or less. Dan Pink wants a sentence. And a couple of the breakout sessions talked about crafting missions with more or better meaning. Kawasaki and Pink in particular set the Twittersphere ablaze with their comments. My take on the idea:


I don't mean to downplay the need for mission statements, and the less they sound like blah, blah, blah the better. (I'm in favor of staying away from the one-sentence mission that says this organization is going to help this trade, profession, or interest in these three areas doing these three things.) But the rally that even an expertly crafted Kawasaki mantra will generate only goes so far.

I kind of like what I consider the closest thing I think ASAE & The Center has to a mantra, which is the first half of our Value Proposition: We connect great ideas and great people. There's a certain amount of rallying I can do around that. But that mantra doesn't help me justify decision making. I don't look at that--or any other mantra you or anybody else could come up with for an association of association executives--and see something that will help me justify killing a program or choosing one idea over another.

Missions, mantras, sentences-- or value propositions, causes, positioning statements, visions, or any other synonym or pseudosynonym you can think of--are only really good for one thing: a spark of understanding. Start with any mission statement and there are tons of different directions you can take it, and these are what really matter, not the mission statement itself. Don't expect to take your 75-word mission statement, boil it down to a three-word mantra and suddenly have the veils lifted from the eyes of your staff, volunteers, members, and the public. The dirty business of change is still going to be a tough slog. Perhaps a mantra or sentence or whatever can help, but it's useless without a lot of will, guile, and probably luck.

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October 16, 2009

Comfort with chaos

On her blog earlier this week, Lindy Dreyer shares a piece of advice about control: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Meanwhile, Wes Trochlil makes a similar point about data collection. He says, "It's not reasonable or useful to try to collect all types of data from all of your members and customers."

And Peter Bregman at Harvard Business argues that the best way to create change is to focus on changing one thing, not an entire system. His advice: "...[T]ake the time up front to figure out the one and only thing that will have the highest impact and then focus 100% of [your] effort on that one thing."

I really liked these thoughts (you should go read all three posts), because they allude to something we often forget: Planet Earth is a chaotic place. It's made up of unpredictable environments filled with unpredictable humans who create unpredictable systems. Life is so much easier when you get comfortable with that chaos. Pick the sliver you can effectively influence, and then let the rest go.

And so I would suggest a slightly different but equally important way to phrase Lindy's advice above: "Don't get so caught up in trying to control everything that you miss your chance to control something."

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October 1, 2009

Blow it up and start over

I am beginning to think that the best solution to American healthcare reform would be a time machine. We could all go back to a time before so many competing interest groups had so much power, and we could start from scratch. We'd set the whole thing up right (whatever that might be).

It'd be a whole lot easier than trying to fix what we have now, right?

I'm not really thinking about healthcare reform, though. It's just that the healthcare mess has me thinking about situations in which creating effective change seems so daunting that we're led to daydream about starting over completely.

A few scenarios come to mind:

  • Mass transportation in most of the United States;
  • My addiction to Mountain Dew;
  • The Washington Redskins.

I see similar daunting scenarios in associations, too:

  • Overhauling governance and volunteer structures;
  • Rethinking membership models;
  • Changing pricing plans for products and events;
  • Redesigning a website.

In all of these cases, blowing up the current structure and starting over seems like it would be the easier option, if it were possible. I'm sure you can think of others. Naturally, these wishes tend to arise around deep, structural change efforts that cut to the core of both what people believe in and what they are accustomed to. That's where things get bogged down. Rethinking something on paper is easy; when you get a bunch of people involved, you get politics, you get technical roadblocks, you get hurt feelings.

Without wandering too far into the wilderness of change management theory, I'd like to focus on two questions:

  • Is it beneficial to even entertain the question "What if we could start over?" People often use this as a starting point for brainstorming exercises, but if you know that you can't start over, isn't this little more than aimless daydreaming? Wouldn't it be better to focus your mental energy on how to specifically navigate change within the environment that faces you?
  • Is it ever possible to start over? Let's take an association's governance model, for example. What would it take to convince everyone involved to completely abandon the current model and build a new one from scratch? Could it be done? Wouldn't the incoming board president be a little miffed? What about volunteers on committees that would be disbanded? Would you be mired in too many competing interests to ever be able to start over?

To the first question, I say yes. To the second, I'm very much undecided. I'd like to hear your thoughts, especially from those of you who have found yourselves leading such change efforts. At my level, most of my "start over" moments are indeed just daydreams about what I might do if I were in charge. If only I had a time machine...

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July 9, 2009

Steve Anderson on effectively managing change

Steve Anderson, a long-time association veteran currently leading the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, says the current economic environment is as tough as any he has seen. Associations across the spectrum are having to lead change in a crush of financial hardship and uncertainty.

As we launch into the first of several posts this month on change management, watch this short video and listen for his simple (but incredibly hard -- especially for associations) solution: at any time -- and especially tough economic times -- associations need to simplify and focus.