May 3, 2012

Innovating in compartments

sheahan springtime 1.jpg

Association professionals who missed Peter Sheahan's general session presentation at last year's ASAE Annual Meeting had a chance to catch him today at ASAE's Springtime Expo. After speaking broadly about innovation last August, Sheahan narrowed in on innovation within association meetings Thursday, appropriate for the crowd of meeting planners and meetings industry professionals.

Sheahan, author of several books on innovation, including Making It Happen: Turning Good Ideas Into Great Results, acknowledged that innovation within meetings can be difficult, particularly when, for many associations, conferences and events are cash cows. While industry data shows meetings are recovering following the recession, the time to innovate is when life is good, he said. "Will it be easier to innovate now, or in five years?" he asked.

So, how to innovate within meetings without harming something that already works? Sheahan recommended "compartmentalization" of innovation. That's a big word, but it's about innovation on a small scale: Don't change every element of your meeting; instead, just pick one small part to try something new. By keeping change to one "compartment," you also keep risk confined to that one area. If it bombs, the rest of the meeting is still safe.

This concept sounds a bit like "incremental change," but it differs in an important way. While incremental change involves small changes across the board, compartmentalization focuses change in a specific aspect of a meeting. Within that aspect, though, the change can be as small or big as you want, and it allows you to put enough energy into that change to make it great. When you try to change everything at once instead, you end up with everything being "kind of good, but nothing great," Sheahan said.

Lest you think innovation isn't already happening in association meetings, Sheahan cited three examples from articles Associations Now:

As he concluded and sent meeting professionals off to the Expo, Sheahan reiterated his message on compartmentalization with a simple thought: "If you were to pick one element of your annual meeting to innovate, what would that element be?"


April 12, 2012

Forward thinking from a century-old shipwreck

ballard3.pngThis Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Like a lot of people, I've always been fascinated by the stories of both the sinking of the ship and the discovery of the wreck in 1985, so I jumped at the chance to attend a presentation by Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found it, at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, Tuesday night.

Ballard is a gifted storyteller and an ardent preservationist, and he argues that instead of removing artifacts from the Titanic wreckage to bring to museums for people to see, people should be taken to the Titanic to see it—but not how you might think. He showed a slide depicting his vision for building a permanent support structure for remote-operated camera equipment around the wreck, enabling visitors at museums on land to view and explore the wreck in real time from thousands of miles away, and he says this "telepresence" technology isn't that far off.

As he talked about the idea, it became clear that we're all fortunate the Titanic was found such a forward thinker. He mentioned the explorers who found the tomb of King Tut in Egypt and said that, if they'd had the foresight to know that the masses might one day be able to easily visit the sites in ancient Egypt—this was before widespread use of airplanes and automobiles—they might not have packed up all the artifacts and sent them to a museum in London. In the same way, thinking about how the world could be brought to the Titanic through technology could help preserve it.

It struck me that that kind of thinking is just what an association needs from its CEO and board of directors: the ability to imagine and plan for not just what is possible now but also what could be possible in the future. When it comes time for long-term planning and developing strategy, an association CEO should guide the board to embrace the anything-is-possible perspective, and it's also a good reason for a nominating committee to seek potential board members who demonstrate that mindset.

The evening spurred a couple other association-related thoughts, as well:

  • National Geographic's package for the Titanic anniversary is an example for associations to follow for creating a multifaceted experience around a story or education. The package has included two magazine features, an interactive iPad app, a museum exhibit, a live expert presentation, and two television specials. The question of money and resources is always a challenge, but most associations engage in all of these types of platforms (or similar ones). Few, however, are so skilled at coordinating a package of resources and events across all of them at once.
  • If Ballard's vision of a telepresence Titanic museum experience ever comes to life, that will remove just about any excuse associations would have for not creating virtual and hybrid event experiences. If live, interactive video of a shipwreck 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean could be brought to your computer screen, then surely a presentation in a convention hall could be, as well.

The event was filmed, so keep an eye on the National Geographic Events video library if you're interested. I'll come back and embed or post a link to video once it's up.


April 4, 2012

Every Innovative Team Needs a Conformist

I'm trying to recall how many times in my professional life I've sat in a meeting and heard an exchange like this one:

Person 1: "[Explanation of a brilliant, innovative idea.]"

Person 2: "That's a great idea! I'll make sure it gets implemented!"

Well, I know how many times I've heard that: Never. Usually the response is a little more like this:

Person 2: "That's a great idea! [Person 3, not sitting in the room] would be a perfect person to do it!"

I'm not immune; I'm much more likely to be Person 2 than Person 1. It's not that we're slackers, really. It's just that the business of giving ideas a real-world shape---the un-fun part, the implementation piece, the piece that happens well before we get to congratulate ourselves about a job well done---can be a lot harder than the idea-generation piece. I have this on my mind having read Jamie Notter's smart, provocative post, "The Down-Side of Great Ideas," which lays out this frustration in unmissable bold type: "We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change."

So what gets us unstuck? There's no easy answer to that, but there's something to be said for two things: First, tamping down our enthusiasm for thinking that innovation and ideation are the be-all-end-all of what teamwork is, and second, intentionally building teams that are a smart mix of thinkers and doers.

That's the message of an article titled "Conformists Boost Creativity," (subscription req'd) published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article discusses research by a group of scholars that suggests there are three distinct cognitive styles: creative, conformist, and attentive to detail. That third style can stifle innovation, the researchers argue, because attentive-to-detail types are overly concerned with picayune matters and are easily frustrated by ambiguity. (I'm guessing the researchers, were they feeling less diplomatic, would've called this style "anal-retentive fussbudgetry.") Conformists are conformists because they're more concerned with how the work gets done than brainstorming, but that's a valuable role when a team is stuck, or just too in love with their brilliance to actually act on their ideas.

"Managers should look not just at what they need and what this person knows [when assembling teams], but also how this person's personality can affect the dynamic on the team," says one of the researchers, Ella Miron-Spektor. "The ideal team should include a relatively large proportion of creative members, a lower proportion of conformists, and not more than one or two members who pay attention to detail."

You're probably thinking the same thing I did: I'm a mix of cognitive types, and I can't be pigeonholed as a creative, conformist, or whatever. But there's an easy way to tell, isn't there? We just have to listen to ourselves in those meetings. When do we step up to do something? When do we punt it to Person 3?

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March 27, 2012

Enrich the lives of your members

Great Ideas 2012"Your members don't care about your association. They care about themselves."

This was my favorite quote from Carmine Gallo, the closing general session speaker Tuesday morning at ASAE's 2012 Great Ideas Conference. Gallo, author of The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Power of Foursquare, shared a range of inspiring lessons from innovative companies, Apple chief among them.

We've all heard countless examples of the genius of Apple and Steve Jobs, but Gallo did a nice job showing association professionals how the lessons from those examples can be applied to their associations. Most emphatically, he urged associations to ask themsevles how they can help their members achieve their dreams.

Gallo pointed to the vision for Apple products and stores: not to sell computers, but to enrich lives. It's that relentless focus on the customer experience that makes Apple so successful (one of the reasons, at least).

For example, I don't like my iPhone because Apple made it, or because it's shiny and chic. I love it because it helps me stay more connected with friends and family, gives me faster access to information, and even helps me be more creative. Think of every iPhone or iPad commercial you've seen; they always show people doing things with them, like finding a nearby restaurant or creating music or video-conferencing with family. That's how lives are enriched.

And so the lesson for you as an association professional is to think beyond benefits. Think outcomes. Think dreams. Whatever will enrich the lives or professional careers of your members, that's where you should focus. Help your members achieve their dreams, and they'll love you for it.

For more insights from Carmine Gallo, see Kristin Clarke's interview with him, "The Game of Life: Engaging Members Through Foursquare."

Flickr photo by ahissrich.

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March 25, 2012

Open your beginner's mind

kao piano small.jpgHello, Acronym readers. Julie Shoop here, reporting to you from the ASAE Great Ideas Conference, now in full swing in Colorado Springs. This is my first Acronym post, so it's only fitting that I'm writing this with my beginner's mind switched on.

Let me explain: I'm a relative newbie to ASAE (having joined the staff as Associations Now editor-in-chief nine months ago), a first-timer at Great Ideas, and a complete rookie blogger. So imagine how perfectly right it felt to spend an hour this afternoon listening to self-described "innovation activist" John Kao tell attendees at the Opening General Session that one of the keys to organizational innovation is to adopt "the beginner's mind"--an attitude free of preconceptions, a mindset that says, I don't know, and that's OK.

Hey, I thought, he's talking to me. I suspect most of the 600 other folks in the room, who may have some misgivings about trying whatever scary new thing they know they really need to do back at the office, were thinking the same thing.

Tackling the new and different, Kao said, means getting comfortable with improvisation, a little dissonance, and the idea that you'll never be finished practicing.

The music metaphor wasn't accidental. Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a former professor at Harvard Business School, is also an accomplished jazz pianist, and he draws a direct parallel between the work of jazz improvisation and innovation of all kinds. In an interesting twist for a keynote address, Kao shared the stage with a grand piano, which he used to show his audience the difference between following a set of rules or instructions--the "sheet music"--and improvising to create something far more pleasing and valuable.

You had to hear it to really get it, but imagine the difference between your perfectly workmanlike rendering of a familiar old standard and, say, what Miles Davis would do with it.

"What's going on is a powerful illustration of innovation as a capability," Kao said, after using the piano keyboard to create his own version of "All The Things You Are," displayed above him in its sheet music form. "Innovation is a series of capabilities that allows the creation of a desired future. Practice builds the capability."

In organizations, as in jazz, he said, being innovative without being random or chaotic means finding the sweet spot: managing the "creative tension between risk taking and risk avoidance."

"People have the misconception about improvised music that the musician is just playing whatever they feel like," Kao said. "Jazz is not the absence of structure. It's the balance between structure and freedom, between what you have and what you're reaching for, between your expertise and your beginner's mind."

We all have organizational "sheet music"--our org charts, our standard operating procedures, our meeting agendas. We need those, but they can become straitjackets. To break free, Kao said, organizations need to create workspaces separate from their mainstream activity where innovative ideas can emerge and be explored, unencumbered by business as usual. Organizations need Charlie Parker's woodshed. (Read more of Kao's thinking on organizational structures that promote innovation in this recent interview in Associations Now.)

In other words, even though associations may become experts in doing certain things, they need to develop a culture where the beginner's is mind alive and well.

"It's important to learn the sheet music and the harmonies," Kao said, "but after you've learned them, it's equally important to throw them away."


February 7, 2012

A Day for Happy Accidents

Yesterday Jeffrey Cufaude's Twitter feed pointed me to an article from last summer about an interesting experiment at NPR: For just one day, it unshackled its technology staff from its day-to-day responsibilities and allowed them to spend that time working on ideas they were passionate about but couldn't quite find the time for. The "Serendipity Day" was apparently a success, according to the report from Nieman Journalism Lab: 30 employees generated 25 "usable" ideas. Not a bad haul for a day's worth of brainstorming.

Serendipity Day is a variation on Google's famous "20 percent time," in which employees use a fifth of their work week to tinker with side projects that might eventually become full-fledged products. It's hard to poke too many holes in the 20-percent-time concept—clearly it works for Google—but I can see a "Serendipity Day" concept being a better fit for association staffs, for a number of reasons:

  • Not all departments are created equal, ideation-wise. I've heard people propose 20-percent-time ideas for associations, but I've been skeptical about how well that can work across various association departments. Is every one equally in need of regular rethinking and innovation?
  • Hey, who's getting their must-dos done with 100 percent time? For some, the opportunity for free-thinking is liberating; for others, it can be just another task, and tasks that are done dutifully don't usually radiate brilliance. Making such efforts relatively rare gives it a sense of importance but doesn't make it feel onerous.
  • It's a member-engagement opportunity. Letting members and volunteers know that the association is working on a daylong ideation process might encourage them to focus on their own ideas. Put it on the listservers; put out a call on your Twitter and Facebook pages.
  • It's not a retreat. One-day getaways for staff can force them into a particular kind of collaboration and are often better for big-picture strategizing than for brainstorming new products and services or coming up with a way to better address a routine member issue. Serendipity days might be a little more small-ball, but that doesn't mean they lack value.

Thoughts? If you're actually putting a 20-percent-time idea into action, I'd love to hear about how you make it work, especially if you have a small staff. But aside from that, how do you give staff the time to generate the ideas that can improve the organization?

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February 3, 2012

What does it take to be an innovator?

The following is a guest post from J. Clarke Price, CAE, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

One of the most enjoyable assignments I've had in my involvement in ASAE was working on the Innovation Task Force. Figuring out the answer to "How do we cultivate a spirit of innovation in associations?" was simultaneously challenging and frustrating.

The challenging dimension was that it was fun to engage association executives in conversations around that question. I've heard lots of perspectives on the question, I've heard lots of examples of how associations have empowered staff to innovate, and I've heard how staff and volunteers are routinely challenging the status quo and creating innovative programs and solutions in some associations. It's energizing to hear the enthusiasm that some have for being innovators and creating a culture that promotes innovation.

At the same time, talking about innovation has also been nothing short of frustrating. Many of the CEOs I've spoken with seem paralyzed at the prospect of getting their arms around becoming innovative. While virtually everyone seems to recognize the importance of becoming innovative, they just can't figure out how to do it. Too many seem to be focused on innovation as the next big, grandiose new thing they can develop. They're not recognizing that innovation can also occur incrementally.

Everyone understands the concept of "process improvement" in their organizations, but they don't relate that to being innovative. I liken process improvement to "baby steps." By fostering an environment and culture that promotes baby steps, we begin to get people comfortable with the notion of change, and that can lead to comfort with significant change that can lead to major innovations. It's easy to get people thinking about and acting on simple process improvements, and that's far easier than saying "think big" with a hope that you'll see something innovative develop.

I've been in several conversations recently that have reinforced my belief that too many association CEOs are afraid to tackle the innovation challenge because of reasons like "it's too big to get my arms around" or "it will be expensive," or they rationalize that "I innovate all the time." I'd challenge everyone to think about the issue not as an undertaking that's too big to embrace but rather as something where small steps and a culture change can lead to big things.

Regardless of whether one's approach to innovation is through small steps or big steps, what's most important is that we embrace the notion of innovation as something that can lead to organizational excitement and great new things.

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December 7, 2011

Let Mobile Help You Find Your Focus


Luke Wroblewski's mantra, "Mobile First," reminds me of The Onion.

Not because it's a joke (far from it), and not because he's funny (which he is, but that's not the point.)

If you've ever read an interview with writers of the satirical newspaper (like this one), you know that they brainstorm in headlines first. They toss around joke headlines in meetings, and then they assign writers to the stories. The headline is the joke, and the joke is the most important part. The rest is just extra.

Wroblewski, digital product software designer, cofounder of Bagcheck Inc., and opening general session speaker at the 2011 ASAE Technology Conference, says associations should take a similar approach in designing online engagement opportunities for members: "It makes a lot of sense to start thinking about mobile as the first order of business." (So much sense that he wrote a book about it.)

Your first reaction to this might be, "Why design the tiny version first?" Wroblewski's answer is the same that The Onion writers would give about brainstorming joke headlines: because the constraints of a small space force you to focus on the most important part.

When you go from designing for a desktop to a smartphone screen, you lose 80 percent of your space, "which I think is awesome," Wroblewski says. "You put what your customers want first, and as a result your business grows."

For associations, this will be a difficult change. Focus isn't exactly a forte. "Association" has been aptly defined as "a conglomerate of small businesses … with a consensus-based governance model slapped on top." Getting consensus on what's most important, on what makes the cut for the small screen, will be a messy process.

But with mobile devices predicted to overtake PCs in 2013 as the most common channel for accessing the web, if you're not already thinking about mobile first, you might soon find yourself finishing last.

Follow the conversation at the Technology Conference at, and look for further coverage here on Acronym throughout the week.


November 28, 2011

One Organization, Two Ideas About Innovation

I spent most of last weekend doing what I hope you did: I spent a lot of time with family, I enjoyed some home-cooked meals, and I took advantage of the surprisingly temperate November weather in DC. This social and highly engaged behavior couldn't last a whole four-day weekend, of course. So late one evening I caved and wound up retreating into Netflix Instant, which is now showing Page One, a documentary about a legacy organization that has a powerful brand name but is struggling to overcome "that's the way we've always done it" thinking and find new ways to innovate and provide value.

Which is to say, it's about The New York Times. The film follows a year in the life of the paper circa 2010, as it attempts to respond to a collapsing advertising market and the explosion of countless new communications tools that threaten to render dead-tree media obsolete. Various pundits (including past ASAE Annual Meeting speaker Clay Shirky) smartly discuss the paper's prospects going forward, but the heart of the movie is the collection of writers and editors around the Times' media desk. They had plenty of big stories to cover: the Tribune Media company declared bankruptcy, WikiLeaks released a raft of classified files, NBC Universal announced a merger with Comcast. At every turn the reporters and editors needed to do the same thing: Test the available facts for their accuracy and for how they're being pitched. Stakeholders want their stories to appear in a certain way in what was once universally accepted as the paper of record. It's the job of Times reporters to push back against that spin.

The irony here is palpable: While the Times' reporters are challenging received wisdom practically as part of their job descriptions, they're doing it at an institution that's often been loath to break free of old models of thinking. That mistake is as true at associations as it is at the Times; in some ways that behavior is baked into the very being of organizations. In 1977, sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan wrote a paper, "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony," (PDF) that argued that an organization tends to sustain itself in part by perpetuating "myths" about itself—stories that can be damaging when they're invoked to put the brakes on any attempts at change. (In case you don't feel like curling up with scholarly articles, a brief summary is here.) It strikes me that the problem at the Times is that it maintains two contradictory institutional impulses:

  1. At the rank-and-file level it respects a base of employees that questions and challenges as part of its duties.
  2. At the leadership level it cultivates a resistance to change, precisely because it's constructed a myth about itself around point #1.

I'm being a little broad-brush here. Certainly the Times has been much more savvy about responding to new technologies and reader habits than a lot of its media brethren. But it makes me wonder if some associations that prioritize innovation do it at all levels—celebrating it in certain departments, or around certain initiatives, but not around the entire organization and not at the level of leadership. Often innovation is something that's discussed as something that needs to trickle down to staff and members; what if it needs to trickle up to leadership?

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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 12, 2011

So You've Discovered a Paradigm Shift, Have You?

Last month researchers at the CERN research laboratory near Geneva delivered some big news: They clocked some subatomic particles as moving faster than the speed of light. I studied English in college, not physics, so I won't pretend to understand the intricacies of this, but I can grasp the fact that This Was Not Supposed to Happen. Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity says that objects cannot move faster than the speed of light; if they do, they would be going backwards in time. (I'm not sure what the implications of that might be, besides providing fodder for bad movies.)

In any event, for the purposes of this blog I'm not interested in the science so much as how it was discussed. Faced with some earth-shattering news that undoes physics and we know it, the scientists at CERN announced their findings with remarkable humility. "We cannot explain the observed effect in terms of systematic uncertainties," Dr. Dario Autiero said. "Therefore, the measurement indicates a neutrino velocity higher than the speed of light."

Dr. Autiero added, in a sentence that suggests more bafflement than celebration, "We present to you this discrepancy or anomaly today."

As somebody who gets plenty of emails every week, both in and out of the nonprofit space, celebrating a "revolutionary" this or "paradigm-shifting" that, I find that kind of care with language refreshing. It also speaks to something that often goes unspoken when big changes are discovered, be they in science or management: Those changes, if they are genuine, can be messy. People long in comfortable positions might wind up marginalized; vendors' services might be no longer needed as an association changes tack; association leaders might discover they're woefully ill-equipped in terms of staff and board leadership to make the necessary adjustments; those same leaders might realize they themselves are ill-equipped to manage through that change.

The reason we use the term "paradigm shift" so much today is thanks to Thomas Kuhn, whose 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, discussed how unsettling seachanges in physics could be, from Copernicus to Newton to Einstein; Kuhn himself absorbed no small amount of flak for his book. I don't mean to suggest that leaders should shy away from addressing paradigm shifts when they see them; just that they should see them as opportunities for reflection and serious thought about what to do next. It's a time to get to work, not break out the champagne; no revolution worthy of the name ever got announced in a press release.

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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 26, 2011

Every Circle Wants to Be a Triangle When It Grows Up

One of the magazines I most look forward to getting at the office is Stanford Social Innovation Review, a quarterly published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. That's a mouthful, but the magazine's raison d'etre is simple: What does the latest research say on how we can make the world a better place?

This hits the sweet spot for association leaders, who seem to love hard data as much as they love their mission. There's plenty of good stuff in the latest issue (Fall 2011), but I was particularly drawn to "Circles of Change" (subscription required), an article about how small groups of volunteers can work together on specific problems to gain more knowledge about an issue or organize to improve their status. "One of the oldest, most widespread, and effective tools for creating personal change is the Circle," writes Tracy A. Thompson, a professor at the University of Washington's business school. (I imagine the folks at Google Plus have been thinking along much the same lines.)

But Circles, in Thompson's reckoning, shouldn't resemble the kinds of groups associations are familiar with, such as boards, or section councils, or task forces. Almost by definition, those groups are hierarchica—Triangles, as Thompson metaphorically puts it—while true circles are are hierarchy-free. Four things define Circles, she writes: "egalitarian participation, shared leadership, group-determined purposes and processes, and voluntary membership."

You needn't have read Lord of the Flies to be skeptical about how long an egalitarian group is going to stay egalitarian. Thompson is too: "Triangle dynamics are pervasive in human interactions, so the roles that Circle organizers and facilitators play need to be carefully monitored. Circle facilitators need to be acutely aware of how easily Triangle behaviors can slip in." She cites a few examples of cases where it's worked—microfinance self-help groups in India, for instance. I can imagine a few cases where it might work in associations. Perhaps an ongoing discussion group among self-selecting industry leaders within an association can routinely brainstorm ideas on new products and services. It wouldn't be time-limited, as task forces are. Nor would it have a specific set of things to accomplish, as section councils do—that requires reporting out to leadership, necessitating Triangular behavior. But it would give the organization a space to improve itself from within, and free the group from downward pressure to generate regular "report-outs," let alone results.

But even as I type that, I have my doubts. Our instinct is to build rules into any group, and inevitably some people want to take charge more than others. (And would you sign up for an open-ended group with only a loosely formed goal?) So here's what I'm curious about: Would a Circle format work in your organization? And if you think it would, how do you keep a Circle from becoming a Triangle?

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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 15, 2011

What is the true cost of association business-model innovation?

The following is a guest post from Robert Barnes, general manager, operations, at Fitness Australia, in Alexandria, New South Wales, Australia. Twitter: @robertmbarnes

The 21st-century association works very differently from the way we know them operating even today. The transition to new and successful business models requires an investigation far deeper than simply asking about "membership versus nonmembership."

In my 20-year career as an association manager, I have always felt there was some other way for associations to be valued in the community and provide value to the industry or profession they have served. Until I read Jeff De Cagna's articles on association business-model innovation (see here and here), I was unable to put my finger on exactly what I was thinking. Now, it not only has some tangible presence; it also is a model for managing on a day-to-day basis.

I recently experienced Jeff's business-model innovation work over the course of one week where I was able to practice the design thinking, building blocks, and game dynamics that give Jeff's platform its solid foundation. Having given the modeling some significant thought since then, and in the lead up to ASAE11, it has me asking, What is the true cost of business model innovation for 21st-century associations?

I enjoy the big-picture thinking as much as the next COO; however, my performance is measured in the doing, so when it comes down to it I am responsible for the costs of innovation as much as I am accountable for maximizing the opportunity it brings. The more I practice using the business-model innovation canvas, I find myself counting the human capital costs where people's roles and responsibilities—even their jobs—are in question if we are truly to capture the 21st-century platforms of "associating."

I think the true value in considering the cost of business model innovation is in comparing and contrasting it to the costs that rise from traditional change-management planning. When a person's role, their perspective on their work, and their future is questioned in the course of "normal" change management, it is easily perceived as change for change's sake. Or worse, change because management is taking action to save itself in the face of serious challenges to the association's status quo.

Business-model innovation born from scenario development with a healthy dose of game dynamics is so transparent that an association's leaders and team members cannot hide from all the factors that give rise to new opportunities and expose the true costs associated with achieving a new future. The collaboration between key stakeholders is a far cry from the consultation usually associated with change management. Change management normally applied by associations allows the leadership to gloss over or flat-out ignore key components without which the objectives cannot be achieved, or at least not achieved with the requisite measure of success.

Business-model innovation generates visions of a plausible future of the association with all the building blocks having to be in place for the picture to be complete. Miss one and anyone, stakeholder or not, will see the gaping hole in your future and ask why? The incomplete picture exposes either a lack of courage or the laziness we would normally be able to get away with when we "plan" the next five years of our association's work.

I, for one, want to engage the people I lead and whose livelihoods are invested in our association. I need them invested in the full process of making my association the best industry association in Australia. Not only will they see opportunity I could never see, but they will also be directly linked to the true costs of that future and therefore prepared to do whatever it takes to get there.


August 11, 2011

Getting my I on

The following is a guest post from Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president, Mariner Management.

I have to say my head is still spinning from the last day at ASAE11. In particular, it's spinning from "Collective Intelligence: A Community Innovation Challenge." In a very quick 75 minutes, we explored a very timely topic - volunteerism - and an innovation process. The session was set up as a truly experiential learning opportunity. We were tasked with developing a prototype solution to the question: "How can the volunteer experience be designed to address the evolving skill, knowledge, and time needs of associations and the interests of individuals?"

We were given 4 steps of an 8-step innovation process to work through. We had a facilitator, Marsha Rhea, CAE, president, Signature i, to keep us on time and focused. We had a great group of executives who were respectful and creative.

What made this session so powerful though was what went before it and the promise of what is to come. And, this is perhaps one of the best learnings from the event. You see, sitting in the airport awaiting the homeward bound flight, a group of us talked about how learning should not be a discrete event.

This event began before ASAE11 as part of the Innovation project. The idea is to encourage innovation talks and even to begin to define a process associations can use. Staff reached out to members and asked for challenges that could be tackled in the innovation talks at the annual meeting. Volunteerism was a popular topic. Following this session, ASAE will be continuing the conversation through Collaborate where a group will be set up to further work on the ideas our groups sketched in this Tuesday morning session.

Do you see the whole picture? Tie a new project to a session, engage input in that session before you get to town, then continue the work virtually. So stay tuned to more info. Be prepared to join the conversation on Collaborate.

Let me leave with three lessons learned in the session about crafting a successful innovation conversation:
1. Start if off strong - we began with the Beatles' song "Revolution."

2. Set up the conversation in parts with distinct time periods. We began with exploring current challenges, future assumptions, and strategic opportunities followed by defining the problem to overcome; then brainstorming innovations and solutions, and wrapping up with designing an initial prototype of an innovative solution or strategy.

3. For effective brainstorming, practice the 2-minute pause. Take 2-minutes for everyone to write down their ideas. Then share in a rapid-fire fashion.

Let's get our collective "I's" on.


August 9, 2011

What is your association's story?

Throw out your mission statement, vision statement, all that nonsense. Just tell your story. That's what all the boilerplate is supposed to convey anyway, right?

"You're in the business of storytelling far more than you're in the business of fact telling," said Peter Sheahan, author of several books on innovation, including his latest, Making It Happen: Turning Good Ideas Into Great Results, in his keynote presentation at the closing general session at ASAE's 2011 Annual Meeting & Expo.


The story should be simple. It should be emotional. And every product and service your association offers should be evaluated for how it supports that story. The ones that don't aren't worth doing.

Sheahan delivered a stronger message than opening general session speaker Tina Brown—he had clearly studied associations and their challenges, even citing some recent Associations Now articles—but they both extolled the power of storytelling.

Brown talked about The Daily Beast's annual Women in the World Summit. The subtitle of the event is "Stories + Solutions." The stories shared at the summit were so powerful that The Daily Beast—a news website, remember—created a nonprofit foundation because people who heard women speak at the event wanted to know how to support them. The presentations at the live event are streamed on the web, and the stories are told in article form on The Daily Beast and in Newsweek.

The story is what ties all of it together, and the combo of Women in the World with The Daily Beast is no different from a nonprofit with a publishing arm. For any association, its programs should all support the same story:

  • The live event builds passion and excitement about the story;
  • Research builds knowledge that makes the story tangible;
  • Publications spread the story far and wide;
  • Advocacy puts the story in the minds of influencers;
  • Development raises money that can help shape the story;
  • Membership builds the pool of people who can put the story into action;
  • And so on and so on.

Humans make decisions based on emotions, not logic. Sheahan hammered this home, and Brown's case supported it. Yesterday's Ignite! sessions were a series of five-minute stories, and the atmosphere in those sessions was electric. If you walk away from #asae11 with one lesson (or want to know what you missed), let it be this: If you're not telling your association's story, chances are no one is listening.


August 7, 2011

3 lessons from day one at #asae11

The following is a guest post from Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president, Mariner Management.

On my to do list for this meeting is to explore the "I" - innovation. My gleanings today came from three sources: "Change Your Language, Change Your World" with Mark Alcorn and Shelly Alcorn, CAE principals, Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, "The World is Changing Fast, Are You?" with Tom Morrison, CEO, Metal Treating Institute, and other panelists, and Tourism Toronto's Imaginarium.

Lesson 1: To jumpstart innovation, try changing your language first. As Mark and Shelly Alcorn suggested, flip "innovation to language" to "language to innovation." We tend to frame the problem, search for a solution, and then name the solution. Unfortunately, our words are limiting and so can be barriers to innovation. It is true. When we say chapters we have a picture in mind that is essentially a mini-organization with bylaws, officers and a bank account. If that's our image, then it's difficult to create a new model. What if we started with reframing the word chapter to "local network"?

Lesson 2: Give innovation space. Tom Morrison, CEO, Metal Treating Institute, talked about two habits he has that help achieve this. First, he sets up the innovation process through almost casual conversations. The innovative launch of a member community began with a comment to a leader that he was troubled by members' frustrations with getting younger staff. He didn't go to the board with a "we need a Facebook group." He just seeded the conversation. Secondly, he assures consistency in the innovation process through regular conversations with his executive committee to talk about key projects. By drawing all in regularly, he has involvement that keeps projects moving even as leaders change.

Lesson 3: Play with options. One speaker in "The World is Changing Fast" session summed this up by saying his strategy is to do lots of pilots. Tourism Toronto brings this to life. In their Imaginarium room, you create your signature perfume, create a piece of jewelry or cufflinks, or try a decidedly different drink. It's about creativity and options. It's about exploration. It's about piloting a different way of introducing your city to potential clients. It's about piloting different ways to have attendees interact with you and your city.

In all three lessons, there is one common theme: the "I" in innovation isn't for idle.

One final note: ASAE is supporting innovation in some, well, innovative ways. In addition, to the series of innovation exchange sessions here, you can visit the Innovation Exchange online at And watch for information on Innovation Grants coming in 2012.


July 27, 2011

Can small innovation sustain us?

Just 10 days left between now and ASAE's 2011 Annual Meeting & Expo. Continuing in our arbitrarily timed series of "one question" posts here on Acronym, I'd like to pose an open-ended question on innovation.

Speaking at the closing general session and luncheon will be Peter Sheahan, author of several books on innovation, including his latest, Flip: How to Turn Everything You Know on Its Head—and Succeed Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings. One of Sheahan's messages is to focus on what he calls "non-sexy" innovation, the type of innovation that improves upon established processes to make them more effective and efficient.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows the association community has long been wringing its hands over the future of the membership business model. Some think it's doomed to failure; others think it just needs to evolve. Given Sheahan's experience and research with examples of innovation, I'm curious how he might answer this question:

Can "non-sexy" innovation keep the association membership model sustainable?

It might not be a question that he—or anyone—can answer with much certainty. Predicting the future isn't easy. But it's a question all associations are grappling with, particularly when the amount of time and resources they can devote exclusively to innovation is limited. Do they focus on incremental change or on finding something revolutionary?

Given the focus on innovation at this year's conference—there will be a quasi-track of Learning Labs on innovation (look for "Innovation Exchange" in the titles) and an "Innovation Exchange Forum" lounge that will host informal discussions on innovation—the closing general session with Peter Sheahan will be good way to conclude.

Until then, what are your thougts on "non-sexy" innovation in regard to membership? What questions would you have for Peter Sheahan?

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May 9, 2011

Borrowed from ASAE

One of the things I love about the association world is the willingness to share ideas, models, plans, programs, documents, themes, strategies, and more. And how we're pretty okay with letting another association take our ideas and transform them into their own. Within state CPA societies, we have an entire conference where our staffs get together to share ideas (lots of other good stuff happens there too). Some have created almost identical brochures, switching out the organization name and benefits (with permission, of course). Are you feeling the love?

Imagine now if Burger King and McDonalds started selling natural fries with skin and sea salt and had a commercial with customers standing in a giant fry box. The king and clown would be battling Wendy in court.

I thought I'd share the two ideas I recently borrowed from ASAE. I've been on the Associations Now Writer's Resource Pool for a few years. Every month I get an email that asks what I think about what's on the editorial calendar, if I have anything to contribute or know someone who they might interview about a particular topic. Some months I have nothing to contribute and other months I send a quick email. All in all it takes me 5 minutes per month. Associations Now Senior Editor Mark Athitakis told me there are 400 people on the pool, so if I don't respond one month, I don't feel guilty.

It was such an easy way to be involved and NJSCPA was looking for more of these small-scale opportunities to engage members. I prepare editorial content for our e-newsletter for young professionals. We needed a way to make the content more relevant and a way to engage the members who said they wanted to write for the publication through our Volunteer Interest Profile. A writer's pool was the perfect answer. I'm now up to 30 volunteers - several of whom are writing or being interviewed for upcoming articles. Almost all of them had never been involved. We continue to look at our Volunteer Interest Profile in order to develop opportunities that match our member's interests.

One of the article ideas came from the April issue of Associations Now. There was a short article called "What you missed at the Diversity and Inclusion Conference." It included quotes from four speakers and a two-sentence summary of the speaker's overall big idea. I have two writer's pool members writing a "What you missed" article about our upcoming conference. I'm providing them with a cheat sheet they can bring with them to the event and fill in as they attend each session. It asks for the big ideas of the general sessions, one practical tip from the technical sessions and their best take-away.

It's a bit of common sense, but it bears repeating: when anything gets you to act, ask yourself how and why it did so. And follow that up by asking yourself how you could do something similar in your work. You never know where inspiration will come from.

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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 25, 2011

Innovation: Let the defining lead to the doing

This post from Jeffrey Cufaude is the final in the short series of posts from members of ASAE's Innovation Task Force on how association leaders need to be thinking about innovation in their organizations.

One of my takeaways from serving as a member of ASAE's Innovation Task Force for the past year is how difficult it is for many in our community to: (1) define innovation, (2) label any of their own work as innovative, and (3) appreciate the real value that incremental innovation can play in advancing mission and vision.

Peter Drucker once defined innovation as "change that creates a new dimension of performance." A lot of meaning and guidance can be unpacked from this simple definition:

  • What is the new dimension of performance that our members (future members) would value? Answers for this question often start in the form of "Wouldn't it be great if you could ..."

  • What change, if implemented, might make that new dimension possible? Producing enhanced value and a new dimension of performance may require approaching the work from fundamentally different premises or assumptions to unleash new possibilities in process or programming.

Note that the new dimension of performance might be incremental or exponential, evolutionary or revolutionary--both are a part of innovation.

Disney has institutionalized the value of incremental innovation in the form of Walt Disney's plussing strategy. Walt used plus as a verb, one defined as adding more value than the customer paid for or expects: How do we plus this? Disney cast members are daily tasked with plussing all of their efforts. Over time, the aggregated value enhanced by hundreds and thousands of plussing efforts is quite significant, but generally requires little to no new resources to produce. Think about the delight a member would experience if in every interaction with your association her expectations were slightly exceeded.

Exponential innovations often can be jumpstarted by a total overhaul of an existing program or service you plan on retaining, but such efforts often are stymied because people perceive the motivation to do so as personal or political. We can counter this be ensuring that association programs that meet a certain threshold (budget, number served, etc.) routinely go through a periodic major maintenance effort. Now your efforts aren't being singled out; it's just your turn.

During these major maintenance reviews, every single aspect of the initiative comes into question including the fundamental assumptions for the effort. It's the programmatic equivalent of zero-based budgeting, professional recertification, or institutional re-accreditation. Breakthroughs in new dimensions of performance for longstanding programs often require "re-creating" from the ground up instead of merely tinkering around the edges.

Just as the 60,000-mile maintenance for your car is more comprehensive and expensive than 15,000 -mile maintenance, so might the refreshing of a 5-year program require a more significant rethinking and investment than the review of a 3-year program. But failure to do either almost certainly ensures untimely breakdowns and expensive repairs in the future. The same can be said for unexamined association initiatives.


Quick Clicks: Elite Eight

As the NCAA Tourney pares it's way from 16 to 8, I bring you this week's Quick Clicks -- an Elite Eight of posts from the past week plus that caught my eye.

If you find yourself annoyed, angry or otherwise flummoxed at some key members, Jamie Notter has the right advice: Stop Making It Worse.

Mizz Information's Maggie McGary calls them like she sees them, and she doesn't like this organization's publicity approach.

David Gammel reminds us that charging for online content can be a perfectly viable business model... but you have to do it smartly.

Acronym has been on point in innovation posts this week, but we're not alone. Elizabeth Weaver Engel has a nice take on the idea side of innovation.

The always thoughtful Shelly Alcorn also gives us a lesson on innovation, namely that governance and policy are binders, not enablers.

And another look at innovation from Radian6 blogger Amber Naslund, who tells us to Put Some Skin in the Game.

There are a ton of blogs where this title wouldn't get attention, but none of them are in my Google Reader. So when I saw "The Politics of Queering Anything" from Microsoft social media researcher Danah Boyd I had to look. I'm glad I did, and if your organization plans panel discussions and uses a demographic qualifier to describe the panel, you'll be glad you looked, too.

Finally, I must always include a Seth Godin post when I do Quick Clicks. I mean, I have a Seth Godin action figure at my desk. Don't believe me? Here, I just took a picture as I'm writing this:

seth godin action figure.JPG

The post I'm choosing this time is "Better than it sounds," in which he says:

"Is your product better than it sounds, or does it sound better than it is?

"We call the first a discovery, something worthy of word of mouth. The second? Hype."

That's 75 percent of the post, so don't follow the link to read that post; follow the link to see all the other perceptive things Godin has to say.


March 24, 2011

The accidental classroom

Yesterday, Kerry Stackpole, CAE, president of Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic, helped provide a lense through which association leaders can look at innovation. He's back today with a second post on the importance of an eyes-open approach to innovation.

Let's be honest, you've got plenty on your plate already--maybe it's overflowing. Everyday there are greater demands for your time, association resources, and improved outcomes in all that your organization seeks to achieve on behalf of the membership. That's exactly why you should want innovation at the center of your plate. Really stupid idea, you say? Don't be so sure.

Part of the opportunity that underlies the work of association leaders is the opportunity to extrapolate from history, experience, and current events what the future might hold for our organizations. Ultimately and more importantly of course is applying those hypotheses to your organization by creating a new product or service or establishing an entirely new, more competitive position. In a word, innovating.

In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs described his life as a college dropout. "Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life.

"Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do."
With that as backdrop consider one of this country's grand old organizations. The International Typographers Union (ITU) beginnings dated back to the 1850′s. The member's were craftsmen who set wood block and metal type by hand. Publishing in all forms flourished through the growing use of machine type and the launch of photocomposition in the 1960s. While the move to photocomposition was viewed mostly as an evolutionary change, in fact, it was revolutionary.

With a membership of over 121,000 typographers in 1964, the ITU was a powerful part of the labor force. Twenty-two years later they ceased to exist. The age of craft typography had come to an end, thanks in part to Steve Jobs and that accidental calligraphy class. What remained of the ITU was absorbed by the Communication Workers of America Printing, Publishing, and Media Workers Sector led by the man who is now the Public Printer of the United States, William J. Boarman.

It is a cautionary and parallel tale for many associations, professions and industries today. Revolutionary information technology is competing to capture market share from what were once the exclusive domain of associations and organizations in a diverse array of markets.

As leaders we are being challenged everyday by new technologies, content delivery systems, and new business methods that chip away at our organization's core value. While some of the early competition or technology-based efforts have fallen short or failed miserably, there is little reason to take comfort. These are the seeds of the future. So as a leader here's the question you need to consider now: If your association or organization went out of business today, who would miss you and why? It should be a simple question, but given serious consideration it is not so simple. Creating an innovation pathway to deliver the future is about answering this question and others more fully and with fresh zeal. How to get started? You might consider making that trip to an accidental classroom near you.

Tomorrow Jeffrey Cufaude completes this short series on innovation in which he'll take us from defining to doing.


March 23, 2011

60 seconds to failure... or is it success?

In today's post on innovation -- the second of four -- Kerry Stackpole, CAE, president of Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic, republishes a post from his Wired 4 Leadership blog from earlier this year:

Innovation is defined as the introduction of something new--a new idea, method or device. The Economist playing off an ancient joke asked, "How long does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer was 136 years--the time it has taken civilization to move from filament based illumination to new compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL). Filament light bulbs are notoriously wasteful. They give off 95% of their energy as heat, not light, which in the summer season or in warmer climates means cooling costs are higher too. You can see the cycle. All this attention to lighting has also increased research into a whole range of new lighting methods including non-mercury plasma light bulbs, and light emitting diodes (LEDs).

It is a larger scale problem for leaders. Which innovation does one embrace? In a world of increasingly scarce resources, organization leaders are faced with a dizzying array of choices. Cloud computing or proprietary databases? iPad formatted publications or Android? Web-based applications or shrink wrapped licensed software? LEDs or CFLs? Work harder or work faster? Increasingly, leaders live in the "and" world, not the "or" world. As in, we need to support iPad and Android and Kindle. Mac OS-X and Windows 7. We need to print and we need to deliver digitally. Embracing an increasingly complex and divergent population requires laser-like focus on getting the essentials right. Our fear of missing the next great leap forward propels us, our customers, clients and members toward early adoption of all means of innovation. All at a price.

That's not as bad as it sounds. Increasingly, our organizations can experiment with new ideas and innovations for free. Chris Anderson's intriguing hypothesis captured in his book FREE: The Future of a Radical Price makes the point that this opportunity comes from a unique happenstance--the movement from atoms to bits. The cost of bits--the online world as we know it--is increasingly free. When one bit of online software falls by the wayside, a new improved application can be found. It's a point reinforced by entrepreneur Cameron Herold during his presentation this past year at ASAE 2010. Herold says he doesn't worry and doesn't think any of us need be concerned about the business model of online entrepreneurs or whether they make any money from their free applications. Free can be replaced by a better "free".

The conundrum for leaders is they are responsible for the profitable operation of the enterprise. Not to put too sharp an edge on it, but could Gillette have risen to greatness selling shaving cream as a profit-center in place of razor blades? Could Microsoft have amassed billions and created wealth by giving away DOS or Windows OS? We'll never know the answer. We do know the actual cost of delivering Microsoft Word to your desktop today as a download is miniscule. But what if your enterprise was built on controlling access, limiting distribution and constraining community to only those willing to pay an admission fee to get past the gate? Across the spectrum publishing organizations, associations, specialized information sellers, magazines, distribution companies, content producers, music labels, newspapers and movie studios all face the unending question of how to re-work their respective business models and craft workable innovations to sustain the value of creation while attracting and retaining customers. Leaders face a bold new responsibility for building new clarity about the goal of innovation. Is our goal to eliminate waste? To get our products and services to free? Or is it the cheapest possible distribution channel and the lowest possible price point? Or something else altogether? On today's innovation frontier the difference between success and failure is fleeting.

Tomorrow, Stackpole continues with a look at why innovation needs to be at the heart of what an association leader does.

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March 22, 2011

If you build the culture, the results will come

This is the first of four posts on how associations can or should be thinking about innovation from members of ASAE's Innovation Task Force exploring how innovation can be fostered in the association community. This post is from Jeffrey Cufaude from Idea Architects.

Innovation in associations often starts down the same path as diversity and inclusion: as a freestanding separate initiative with its own designated resources or champions. It may be somewhat natural to go this route--let's focus attention and resources on something specific--but it postpones the inevitable. Success requires that innovation be infused in the association's DNA and integrated into all of its efforts--it's culture.

Volumes can be written on culture so let's just use the following definition from noted organizational development guru and MIT professor Edgar Schein in Organizational Culture and Leadership, 3d edition:

"A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

In short, culture is defined by "just the way we do things around here" and the way we think about them. Culture is reflected in the stories you tell, the examples you champion, the language people use, the patterns of communication, the way meetings occur, and the lessons used to orient others. So perhaps the easiest way to get started on the innovation path--and get out of being stuck in neutral--is to infuse an innovation lens into the way you think about the things you're already going to be doing.

Have an interview with a prospective candidate next week? Include questions that assess their innovation potential. Staff meeting tomorrow? Include a few questions about how the value of a particular program on the agenda can be enhanced. Planning orientation for new volunteers? Build in a component charging them with upping the innovation factor in their efforts and discuss they key organizational priorities they should aim their efforts at improving.

While such steps alone won't completely transform your association into an enduring engine of innovation, they certainly move you in that direction while you engage in more significant overhaul of some of your major processes (idea management, budgeting, new initiative development, etc.). Culture is learned through what we do and what we say, so simply start talking the innovation talk better and walking it in every incremental way you can. Over time, looking to create new value will become the way things get done.

What are simple steps you've taken (or can take) to integrate an innovation commitment into your existing efforts?

Tomorrow: Kerry Stackpole, President, Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic, offers a perspective on innovation choices.


March 14, 2011

Cookin with Crepe Paper

If you've met Rhea Blanken, you are unlikely to ever forget it. She's a Type A, moving forward, having fun, jump-to-the-next-thing person. And that's why I love the message she consistently unleashes at the Great Ideas Conference. Her message: take the time to get to know yourself. Really get to know yourself.


Several years ago, she ran a play room--games, puzzles, Play-Dough, what have you. Come, create, be yourself, and, more importantly, learn about yourself. Last year she ran a Cookin Up Leadership cooking class here at the Broadmoor, where people worked in teams to create a meal experience, from preparation to cooking to decorating.

This year, it was an arts and crafts Cookin Up Leadership, the food, the decorations--it was all made from pipe cleaners and tissue paper and glue and other crafty supplies. I asked Blanken, why the change:

"It was faster and less expensive for participants," she says, "I wanted to create an experience that would have a lot of the same lessons, but would give the participants the time to go eat lunch with everyone else and wouldn't cost them extra."

And the lessons were similar. "The same things happen," Blanken says. "Resources get shared and they don't get shared. You have to repurpose things. You have to interpret directions." And the most important lesson, you have to learn about yourself and how you give and follow directions, how well you communicate.

"Maslow said transformation comes with self-awareness," she says. "Plato talked about how you discover a lot when you play. These sessions give people an opportunity to note things about themselves. 'How well do I communicate? How well do I make requests? How well do I share?' [In the session today, black ribbons were doled out to those who didn't share.] It's an opportunity to discover things about yourself in a safe environment."

And what was different, other than the obvious, when you cook with pipe cleaners and glue than meat and gravy? Creativity.

"This is a more creative way to do it. When you have to make chicken out of felt and salad out of crepe paper, it forces you to be really creative. This group was amazing--look at this stuff, it's incredibly creative."


March 13, 2011

Resource constraints as innovation catalysts

WebMatthew May gives keynote at Great Ideas.jpg

Just going to add my quick takeaway from Matthew May's general session to add to the one Summer wrote earlier. The point that made me think was when May said, "Resource constraints spur sustainable innovation." May didn't do me any favors in terms of applying this principle to association work when the example he used was of the PlayPump:

play pump.jpg

It's merry-go-round playground equipment that solves the very real purpose of providing water to African villages desperately in need of it. The resource constraints you have in running your association may seem trivial in comparison--I know mine do, but it's still my takeaway. Too often we use lack of resources to squash things. I've seen it countless times, and, yes, I've been a willing advocate of such a position many times. What May is saying, however, is essentially you're being lazy. If you have a goal and you can identify what your constraints are, then you can work to design a solution. Nothing is going to be that simple, of course, but I am going to make an effort to turn resource constraints into innovative solutions.

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March 7, 2011

Book Blogging: Shocking the system

Following a brief respite to allow the Young Association Executives to have fun storming the castle of the Acronym blog last week, I have returned with my final post on Umair Haque's new book, The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. Umair's book is an unapologetically in-your-face challenge to the status quo of organizations, business, and the 20th-century capitalist system as whole. That's why I like it, and why I know many association executives won't. The New Capitalist Manifesto delivers an intentional and powerful shock to the system, which may be the last thing anyone in the association community wants and yet the one thing our community most needs.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have adopted the phrase "build to thrive" as a personal mantra, an urgent appeal to association leaders to take responsible and purposeful action to prepare their organizations for the profound uncertainties of the decade ahead. But building our organizations to thrive is much more than a mantra. It is a choice that association leaders must make everyday. It is a choice to reject any further perpetuation of a paradigm that is clearly in decline in favor of creating a radically different future for all of our stakeholders. It is a choice to move beyond incremental improvements in our outputs to pursue revolutionary breakthroughs in our outcomes. To me, this is an incredibly exciting set of choices for our organizations. Why is it that so many association leaders find these choices so terrifying?

To explore your comfort level with making the choice to shock your organizational system out of its 20th century stupor, here are three big questions inspired by Umair's book:

Why are we really here? We will not find serious answers to this question in politely phrased and reassuring statements of vision and mission. We must look deeper and connect with the passionate belief that truly purposeful and disruptive action can lead to radically better outcomes for our stakeholders. If that's not what we're about, then why bother?

How much are we questioning the past? Every association professional expends considerable time and energy excavating and extricating their organizations from the past. These efforts are wasted, however, when we use "change containment" strategies to reduce our discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, instead of accelerating the pace of organizational progress to break free of the past once and for all.

What will it take to achieve the impossible? Associations operate in the world of non: non-profit, non-members, non-dues revenue, and so on. The world of non creates more barriers, boundaries, and obstacles to overcome. But will the struggle inspire us to build our organizations to thrive so we can achieve the impossible and create previously unimaginable forms of thick value?

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts on The New Capitalist Manifesto, and I hope you will read the book. You will not be disappointed. Let me close with a sincere expression of gratitude to Lisa Junker, the former editor-in-chief of Associations Now, for her kind assistance in making this BookBlogging series possible. Thanks also to Joe Rominiecki for taking charge of putting these posts up following Lisa's departure last month.

[BIG NEWS! If you're planning to attend ASAE's Great Ideas Conference at The Broadmoor this week, I will facilitate an informal group discussion of The New Capitalist Manifesto on Tuesday, March 15, beginning at 2 p.m. in Colorado Hall Room E. Please contact me at if you have any questions.]

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February 8, 2011

Disruptor or disrupted?

In our recent podcast interview, Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business (Harvard Business Review Press), told me he makes the following pitch, in the form of a simple question, to boards that need to be persuaded to confront what Umair regards as the "existential threats" facing so many organizations today and going forward:

Do you want to be one of the disruptors, or do you want to be one of the disrupted?

This question is the perfect way to frame the series of posts about The New Capitalist Manifesto I'll be publishing on Acronym throughout the month of February. In these posts, I will do what I have been doing for the last few years: challenge association leaders to take seriously the idea that their most significant responsibility is building their organizations to thrive over the next decade and beyond.

I'm sure that some association boards and CEOs would prefer to dismiss Umair's question as a rhetorical scare tactic, but what's actually happening in the world around us does not support that view. It's not just about the increasingly rapid flows of learning and knowledge that have overwhelmed the association's traditional information franchise, or the growth of social technologies that have made interaction and collaboration ubiquitous and inexpensive. Today's associations exist as institutions within a broader economic system that is seriously out of balance, something we have all experienced firsthand in the last few years. As a result, our ability to create authentic, meaningful and enduring value--what Umair calls thick value--is compromised. To change the dynamics of this situation and create a different kind of future, incremental change will never be enough. We need truly transformative shifts in both thinking and action.

Association leaders need to get comfortable with this reality very quickly, and engage in the work of transformation as a strategic imperative, not an intellectual exercise. In every organization of every size and scope, we must act to disrupt ourselves without further delay. If we don't, a rapidly failing status quo will continue to wreak havoc with "what we've always done," and cause further damage to our long-term prospects for success. There is no middle ground here. We must be bold, or those willing to be bold will supplant us.

In this post, I have staked out my position. In my upcoming posts, I will develop these themes further and explore ideas from Umair's book that can help individual associations, and the association community as a whole, think differently about what is possible going forward. Of course, this is a conversation, so I hope you will share your thoughts in the comments below. Let's begin the dialogue with Umair's question:

Does your association want to be one of the disruptors, or one of the disrupted?

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Bookblogging: The New Capitalist Manifesto

Please welcome our latest Acronym bookblogger, Jeff De Cagna. Jeff, as I'm sure you know, is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC as well as an association blogger and a regular commenter on Acronym.

Jeff will be writing about The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business by Umair Haque, published last month by Harvard Business Press. Jeff has a lot to say about how Haque's insights apply to associations and the future of our sector. I hope you'll add your thoughts to the discussion.

Thanks to Jeff for volunteering to share this thoughts on The New Capitalist Manifesto on Acronym!


January 10, 2011

Imagining association doomsday (or not)

I wrote the bulk of this post in December but sat on it until after the holidays. In light of the discussion spurred by Joe Flowers' post about not renewing with ASAE and Scott's follow-up post about social media changing the future for associations, I'm glad I waited.

Anyway, some other online discussions that actually preceded Joe's post already had me wondering what the world would look like without associations. Frankly, I have a hard time picturing it, but that might just be because I'm not very imaginative. In addition to the posts ensuing from Joe Flowers' post (which Scott is compiling as they arise), also see:

  • On ASAE's Executive Management listserver, in response to a request for guidance about starting a membership organization, Steve Townsend posted a lengthy message about the challenges that the membership model faces today. "If we all had the option of starting from scratch ... we might explore other alternatives to that model," he says.
  • Eric Lanke, CAE, wrote last month that members of associations greatly underestimate the true costs of the services associations provide.
  • Back in October, Diane James, CAE, wrote an excellent post here on Acronym asking why associations haven't adopted new business models, despite an apparent consensus that the traditional association model is doomed.
  • Also last month, Jeff Hurt asked how associations will transition from push economies to pull economies.

The question we all seem to be struggling with is, more or less, "It's getting so easy for people to self-organize and to find what they want for free, why would people need associations in the future?" But Eric Lanke's post struck a particular chord with me, on which I'd like to expand here.

I'm not convinced that free stuff and self-organized groups (the internet's two-pronged menace) would fill the void that associations would leave if they disappeared tomorrow. (Poof!) The question that's always stuck in my mind is, "Where's the business model?"

Here's what I mean by that: if self-organized groups were to inherit the Earth, how will they (or who else will) pull off the most resource-intensive services that associations currently provide? Things like conferences, advocacy, and certification. Despite the forward march of technology, the value of all of these is still quite high. I've just never been able to make the leap in my mind from self-formed groups to large-scale products and services. When a group of like-minded people finds it can no longer bear the burden of serving itself through the goodwill of volunteers, it hires a staff to manage these things, and it turns to bundled or unbundled fees to support that overhead. At its very basic, isn't that how every association gets its start?

Don't mistake this for an argument against the need for change, though. I'm with you. We all need to evolve. But rather I put this forth as a challenge: Paint the scenario in which what associations do today is fully replaced by emerging social dynamics and new business models tomorrow.

We've fidgeted over business-model innovation for associations for a while; let's red-team it and create the anti-association business model. Then maybe we can learn from it. So, please, tell me: what does association doomsday look like?

[Sidenote: Lisa Junker, CAE, got this started in her "A World Without Associations" vignette in the "Visions for the Future of Associations" feature from the January 2010 issue of Associations Now. The only reason she wrote that essay herself, though, is because she couldn't find anyone else to write it. Here's a new chance to step up, people.]

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October 13, 2010

Important note: People are fallible, myopic, vindictive, emotional & biased

One of the main value propositions people get out of associations is meeting, networking with, learning from, and sharing experience with peers. So when I was recently at lunch with a colleague and we talked about an idea of getting a small group of members together in a facilitated discussion once a month, I was surprised when she had tried the idea, and it had failed miserably. The idea itself seemed to have little downside. ASAE has done this with success in the past, and there are several examples of other associations doing something similar (a few articles: 1, 2, 3). And then I ran across this in The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely (a book I'm currently reading):

"But when people design intangibles such as health insurance, savings plans, retirement plans, and even online dating sites, they somehow forget about people's built-in limitations. Perhaps these designers are just overly sanguine about our abilities; they seem to assume that we are like Star Trek's hyperrational Mr. Spock. Creators of intangible products and services assume that we know our own minds perfectly, can compute everything, compare all options, and always choose the best and most appropriate course of action.

"But what if--as behavioral economics has shown in general...--we are limited in the way we use and understand information? What if we are more like the fallible, myopic, vindictive, emotional, biased Homer Simpson than like Mr. Spock? This notion may seem depressing, but if we understand our limitations and take them into account, we can design a better world, starting with improved information-based products and services..."

What I take from this is that we need to design products, programs, and services for emotional response, not logical action. I don't know exactly what that means for the idea described above. I know that logically, the idea made a whole lot of sense to me. Trying to think about the emotional response to it is much, much harder. The emotional response, as I gathered from my colleague, is that the group would be one more thing on a to-do list.

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August 19, 2010

What motivates employees?

A number of people now leaving for ASAE & The Center's Annual Conference & Expo in Los Angeles Aug 20-24 may be hoping to learn about ways to recruit, retain, and motivate staff. A new article in Knowledge@Whartoncontains the results of a fascinating series of studies about whether ranking workers (and, in particular, sharing that rank with the employee) would inspire good performers to greater heights and poor performers to buckle down.

Short answer: no. The worker rock star began slacking off, while the loser workers became discouraged but--although companies apparently hoped otherwise--generally didn't quit their jobs to move on.

After reading the article, I wondered how old the workers were. Would age affect this result?

I had recently listened to the September issue of Success magazine's CD, which shares interviews with 3-4 leaders of interest to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Featured was a terrific conversation with three inspiring and insightful Millennial leaders of the nonprofit Invisible Children.

Invisible Children aims to prevent child soldiering, the kidnapping of youngsters by rebel tribes in Northern Uganda for use as horrific "soldiers" in their battle against the government. The nonprofit, born out of a documentary filmed by student 20-somethings, has been remarkably successful at raising political attention to the problem and engaging supporters of all ages to their cause. (See here for a short video of its Schools to Schools program.).

One quote really stuck with me. The interviewer asked the trio what companies and organizations can do to attract, retain, and motivate Millennial workers. "Millennials value the impossible," one answered. They'll "work like crazy" and are "extremely passionate," but they want to have fun doing it, and they are attracted to projects, causes, and programs that are trying "to do things never done before." They also want their organizations to think beyond themselves and to take their role as a global citizen seriously, the leaders said.

I'm hoping that conference attendees will keep an open mind and the reality check provided by these three brave nonprofit founders as discussions begin again on worker "reward" systems in associations.

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August 5, 2010

Quick Clicks: Sorry There Are So Many Edition

A lot of great stuff out there on the information superhighway this week, IMHO. Enjoy.

  • Innovation: In a guest post on the SocialFish blog, association exec Eric Lanke offers reasons why associations tend to be bad at innovation, based on research he's leading at the Wisconsin SAE.

  • More innovation: Meanwhile, author Vijay Govindarajan argues over at Harvard Business Review that most organizations' real innovation problem is execution, not creativity: "[I]deation is sexy, while execution is long, drawn out, and boring."

  • Diversity: Jamie Notter followed up the discussion on Elizabeth Engel's post about the TEDWomen conference with some ideas about "Why Diversity Issues Are Hard." The bottom line, he says: "The systems that perpetuate the inequality survive precisely because they have managed to convince the people with the upper hand … that the privilege doesn't exist." The post alone is a must-read, but the ensuing comments are enlightening as well.

  • Volunteer management: Jeff Hurt at the Midcourse Corrections blog offers "10 Ways To Ensure Your Nonprofit Volunteers Fail."

  • Tax exemptions in danger: Nonprofits with annual revenue less than $100,000 must file a short version of the IRS Form 990 by October 15 or risk losing tax-exempt status (and that date is an extension, by the way). This explainer on the Lancaster (Pa.) Law Blog makes sense of the new requirements for you.

  • Big questions: Elizabeth Engel, CAE, at the Thanks for Playing blog poses a question—"How do we connect with stakeholders who have public, digital and highly networked relationships?"—and then answers it in regard to her association. This is part one of a series, so I'm looking forward to more big questions from Elizabeth.

  • Websites: Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Blog suggests 11 questions to ask yourself to answer "How In Touch Are You With Your Website?"

  • Online privacy law: In another guest post at the SocialFish blog, Leslie White shares a case that shows employers can run afoul of the law by gaining unauthorized access to employees' private online sites or groups. "If you ask the owner or administrator for access to a private site and they say no, walk away," she writes.

  • Social media and employment law: Meanwhile, David Patt, CAE, at the AEM blog shares a tip he heard at an Association Forum of Chicagoland meeting that offers a way to check a job applicant's social-media presence without putting yourself at risk of breaking anti-discrimination laws.

  • Membership: Funny how, as associations are worried about membership failing as a business model, media organizations are turning to membership as the model that might save them. At the Nieman Journalism Lab, author Ken Doctor examines how membership programs might work for media orgs in "The Newsonomics of membership" and "The Newsonomics of membership, part 2." Reading how another industry views membership is a little like hearing what people are saying about you when you're not in the room.

  • Web content: Also at Nieman, a fascinating look at how Slate has had great success with long-form journalism on the web. This caught my eye at first because Slate is the homepage on my Mac at home (two facts that surely out me as a yuppie liberal), but it's a valuable read for its ideas both on how you might make in-depth content work at your association and how to inspire your employees or members to make that in-depth work happen.

  • Life: Last but not least, a link that has nothing to do with associations but one that will stick with me for a long time, from the mental_floss blog: "He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died."
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June 25, 2010

Doing it one better

A few years ago I had the good fortune to work with Monica Bussolati and the magazine design team at Bussolati Associates. I reconnected with her briefly at the Association Media & Publishing conference and she told me that a practice they started with the magazine they designed for me had become a staple for her studio--almost a calling card. The practice was this: A team of designers worked out ideas in a collaborative process: a messy but exhilarating affair where people came with ideas and they brainstormed around those ideas with a concept or two that emerged as the chosen ones to move forward. Then, rather than plow ahead, the group meeting ends with the direction for everyone in the group to take the top idea to their desk and make it better in the next 30 minutes or hour. They would come back to the table, and the results were often spectacularly better.

I tell the story because there's no reason this practice wouldn't work outside the creative atmosphere of a design studio. It could be an excellent challenge to any work group: Develop the absolute best solution you can as a group, then go back and make it even better.

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May 6, 2010

Quick clicks: Thursdays with zombies

Good morning, and welcome to this week's Quick Clicks!

- Quite possibly the best thing I've ever seen: David Gammel unveils a wonderful cartoon on the Orgpreneur blog. Go see it. Don't worry, we'll wait.

- Laura Otten at the Nonprofit University Blog has a beautiful post on the many people who looked to her father as a mentor.

- A challenging post from Joe Gerstandt on what inclusion really looks like ("Inclusion is not giving everyone a trophy.")

- Shelly Alcorn has strong feelings about the importance of net neutrality for associations and nonprofits.

- Chris Bonney argues that the power of free is in the mind of the giver, not the recipient.

- Carol-Anne Moutinho at the Association Resource Centre blog considers what reverse innovation might look like in nonprofits.

- Jamie Notter is thinking through some very interesting ideas about cultivating strategy without traditional strategic planning.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders some potential implications of corporate social responsibility for the association sector.

- I continue to love Jeffrey Cufaude's "Wednesday What If" posts. This week, he encourages us to consider what our members would miss the most if it were eliminated.

- Peggy Hoffman considers ways to make chapters and components more effective.

- Jeff Hurt has a few suggestions for ways to encourage active attendee participation in learning sessions--even from folks who might not initially love the idea.

- Some helpful case study posts: Scott Billey at Associations Live on lessons learned from their first webinar, and Maggie McGary on what she learned on the way to 20,000 Facebook fans. (I guess technically now they're "likers," but as an editor I oppose that word.)


April 8, 2010

Examples of "free" in action at associations

A morning panel discussion at Digital Now offered up a bunch of examples of associations using the "free" model in various ways. Panel moderator Mark Golden, CAE, executive director and CEO of the National Court Reporters Association, used Chris Anderson's book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, as a framework for the discussion; you can get the crash course on Free via Anderson's article on the same topic from Wired magazine.

We've debated free here on Acronym before, but often without many association examples. So it was great to hear stories from associations that are trying it. Anyway, on with the examples:

  • At the Association for Information and Image Management, basic membership is free, while premium membership is $125.
  • AIIM also offers six online courses for free to give people a free sample of the quality of its additional courses. AIIM President John Mancini, cautions, however, that even being required to email to request an access code is a "cost" that detracted from the number of people who took up AIIM's offer.
  • The American Library Association and AIIM also offer free webinars that are sponsored by industry partners. Mary Ghikas, CAE, senior associate executive director of ALA and Mancini of AIIM each reported that these sponsorships are significant revenue generators for their associations, and they're also attractive to sponsors because the audience for a specialized webinar is a niche market by default (b/c it signed up for the webinar).
  • The Project Management Institute has greater success with free webinars at its chapter level, because sponsors can gain exposure to a geographically local market, says Mark Langley, PMI executive vice president and COO.
  • The American Counseling Association pays for student liability insurance for its student members. What would be a $25 insurance policy for these students to buy on their own becomes an attractive incentive for them to pay $85 to join ACA, says ACA executive director Richard Yep, CAE.
  • ACA also established a syllabus clearinghouse for its members. Access is free and the content is user generated (in that it's just an exchange of information among members), but the syllabi often list the books that professors assign in their classes. ACA sells those books.

These were just examples from the panelists. Others came up in discussion from the audience:

  • The American Geophysical Union has an "almost free" model. Its basic membership rate is $20 per year. Revenue comes from everything else that AGU sells to that broad membership audience.
  • Another audience member pointed out that the model above is the same as that of AARP.
  • The American Institute of Architects offered portions of its annual meeting for free online in 2009, which attracted more than 2,000 viewers, most of whom were new to the annual meeting. (Coincidentally, this was part of a feature in this month's issue of Associations Now: "Hybrid Meetings That Offer the Best of Both Worlds.")

And another version of free came up in a separate session about membership models:

  • The American Dental Education Association recently changed to an "open membership" model, in which its individual membership fee went from $125 per year to $0 (it also has institutional members). ADEA went from 2,000 individual members to 18,000. That expanded audience can be sold to, of course, but it also has enhanced the level of engagement, community, and educational quality at ADEA.

The moral of the story here from all of these examples? "Free" doesn't have to be completely revolutionary. It doesn't have to completely destroy your business model. Most of these examples above are rather simple and straightforward and could be emulated at other associations rather easily.

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Habits for innovation

Today, Friday, and Saturday, I'm at the Digital Now conference, and I'll be posting thoughts from various sessions while I'm here.

First up is opening keynote Andrew Zolli, curator and executive director of Pop!Tech and a fellow at the National Geographic Society. More simply put, Zolli is a futurist.

Zolli shared the common qualities he sees in the world's most innovative leadership teams:

  • They make the top (their executives) accountable.
  • They make lots of small bets on future developments. (For the baseball-inclined, "They're winning the game on singles," Zolli says.)
  • They invest in their employers who are closest to the customers, i.e. the bottom third of their organizations.
  • They copy best practices sparingly. ("Best practices are outcomes, not inputs.")
  • They take a "cognitive portfolio approach." (In plain English, they assemble a wide diversity of perspectives and thinking styles.)
  • They scan for "weak signals." (Zolli says it's the slow changes in the world that have the biggest effects, not the fast ones.)
  • They link up with unlikely partners.

Zolli named demographic changes, the rising power of networks, and mobile tech as the slow, powerful changes that we all must adapt to. Those are all deep topics for further discussion later, but the points Zolli mentions above about future-thinking organizations seem like a good checklist for any association board and staff leadership team to try to follow in order to give themselves the capacity to adapt and innovate.

For real-time updates from Digital Now, you can follow the conversation on Twitter via the #diginow hashtag.


March 7, 2010

Don't worry be crappy

Ok, one more Guy Kawasaki post. His 5th tenet in the art of innovation is "Don't worry, be crappy."

Am I wrong, or are associations hypersensitive to criticism? We spend a lot of time trying to get things perfect. Actually, I'd say we spend a lot of time trying to get things really good, which is quite different.

But what Kawasaki said was you can't be afraid to serve something that is only mostly baked--"Don't worry be crappy." Now that doesn't mean, he says, you can be forgiven for developing a crappy product. Rather, "you want to ship something revolutionary with elements of crappiness to it."

Your organization is going to function better if it's speedy with its release and then takes feedback to improve the product.

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Kawasaki on the art of innovation

Guy Kawasaki

A lot of good takeaways from Guy Kawasaki's general session, and one big conflict for me. It's the conflict I want to explore.

Kawasaki gave 10 steps to the art of innovation. Step 3 was "Jump to the Next Curve." Kawasaki is an innovator, a venture capitalist; you could describe him as a thought leader, an early adopter, a critical thinker. It should be no surprise that he favors making big jumps in improvement rather than small, incremental steps. That's what he mean by jumping to the next curve. It's not about making the incremental improvement of a bigger name keynote speaker; jumping to the next curve is rethinking how and what a general session at an annual meeting is.

So the contrast is his eighth point: "Churn, baby churn." Once you've jumped the curve, put out the beta, learn, improve, put out the next version, learn, improve, etc. I don't know if Kawasaki would bristle at this or not, but to me this is the definition of incremental improvement. I think Kawasaki meant to also churn from curb to curb, but clearly at least on of the examples he talked about was to be quick to release and then improve the product the next time.

In general, I think associations spend tons of time on incremental improvement and not near enough time jumping to the next curve. But I think there has to be a place for both. The art, and something I'd like to ask Kawasaki, is how do you know when to keep churning on a product and when to jump to the next curve?

I think one common answer might be to wring all the value you can out of a product and then move on. Getting out a little quicker might mean having the philosophy of getting out when the product is on top, when it reaches its goals and is doing well. But I think my optimal answer is both more aggressive and more conservative. I think you jump to the next curve while the product is still gaining momentum. Obviously that sounds aggressive. The conservative part comes in because if you don't get it and you're waiting to be on top or to wring the value out of it, the risk of clinging to something too long is too great, and the upswing of the next curve would actually be more important and lucrative to your organization than the value of getting to the top (or wringing the last bit of value from something).

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February 13, 2010

Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events

In anticipation of the next weeks’ of avid TV watching of the Winter Olympics in Canada, I visited the official website in search of potential tools, ideas, and takeaways for association event and meeting planners.

I’m pleased to find that groups involved in sporting events and fundraisers (think golf tournaments, walk- and bike-a-thons, team-building field days, etc.) can download a free Sustainable Sport and Event Toolkit ( created by the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) in partnership with the Switzerland-based International Academy of Sports Science and Technology. Topics covered include community and supply chain involvement, transportation, and venue management.

The nine-piece how-to toolkit—aimed at organizers/sponsors of both large and small events--is one of the many social legacy projects completed or underway by organizers and attendees of this month’s Olympics, which kicked off in grand style February 12.

Organizers have spent seven years developing and executing actions and policies aimed at lightening the event’s wide environmental footprint, ensuring an ethical and inclusive competition, and leaving behind a positive social legacy. You’ll find highlights at

However, a summary of 12 of their major initiatives ( provides association meeting planners and

Continue reading "Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events " »

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February 8, 2010

Quick clicks: Snowy day edition

This is a bit of a catch-up edition of Quick Clicks, so it's a little longer than usual. But if you're in the DC area (or elsewhere) and snowed in, what better time to catch up on your reading?

First, I'd like to welcome to several new association blogs:

- Aaron Wolowiec, a former Acronym blogger, has launched his own blog at An early standout post: Exposing the silo effect.

- Karen Tucker Thomas recently began the CEO Solutions blog. Early standout: Board orientation or board development.

- Management Solutions Plus brings us The Common Thread blog, featuring a number of staff, including well-known association blogger Jamie Notter. Early standout: Enquiring minds want to know how and why, by Angela Pike.

- If you follow any of the ASAE & The Center listservers, you're surely familiar with Vinay Kumar; he now has a blog of his own, too. Early standout: The Ferrari, the race, the pit-stop.

- If you have an interest in legal issues related to associations, check out Mark Alcon's new Association Law Blog. An early standout post: top 10 signs of a dysfunctional board.

Several existing blogs and bloggers are putting together interesting new series:

- The Vanguard Technology blog has begun a new "5 Questions" series, where they'll be asking five questions of an association professional doing innovative things with technology. This first interview (presented primarily in podcast form) focuses on why email marketing matters more than ever.

- DelCor has begun a weekly "Social Media Sweet Spot" show on Ustream, hosted by KiKi L'Italien.

- The SocialFish blog is hosting a series of interviews with association social media managers.

Many other association bloggers have had interesting things to say in recent weeks:

- Maddie Grant shared a thought-provoking post from Bruce Butterfield on lessons associations can learn from the struggles of the newspaper industry. Kevin Holland responded with his thoughts on what is missing from that comparison. Both posts inspired very interesting comment discussions.

- Elsewhere, Kevin Holland had a great discussion with Matt Baehr about aggregation as a value proposition for associations.

- Shelly Alcorn shares her take on the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case.

- Joe Gerstandt has a thoughtful post on opportunities he sees for local SHRM chapters to advance the cause of diversity and inclusion. I think his ideas could be applicable to a lot of other associations, too.

- Jeff Hurt shares a meeting planner's perspective on conference housing and attrition.

- Jeff De Cagna shares his five key words for 2010.

- Ellen Behrens argues that many of our current work practices are unhealthy for both ourselves and our organizations.

- Judith Lindenau shares her "A list" advice for association membership recruitment and retention.

- Maggie McGary is starting a list of association and nonprofit community managers.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog shares a first draft of principles of innovation for the association community.

- Sue Pelletier responds to one possible model for the future of work and speculates on how associations might fit in.

- Tony Rossell has a simple method you can use to calculate where your membership numbers are headed.

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December 16, 2009

Innovation with boundaries

Next question in our Big Ideas Month:

"What if associations put aside a percentage of their budgets to try out some offbeat ideas?"

This is a fun one, because, somewhere underneath, it also means this:

"What if associations didn't stink at innovation?"

Not all associations are voids of creativity, of course, but the call for greater innovation in the association management field is common these days. Setting aside budget dollars for tinkering is just one method along a scale, bounded by these extremes:

  • "Nothing new is allowed here, ever." (Familiar, zero short-term risk)
  • "Every association employee and volunteer is encouraged to try any and every new idea they have." (Unknown, lots of risk)

A lot of associations seem to lean toward the former, if only because the familiar feels safe. As they say, better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.

So this is just a long way of saying that risk is often, if not always, the driving force against innovation. Why bother spelling that out? Because the acknowledgement of risk is exactly why dedicating budget dollars to testing new ideas is, itself, a great idea.

By dedicating a specific amount of money, in advance, to testing new ideas, you've removed a key level of uncertainty. From the risk perspective, you know exactly how much money will be sunk into ideas that may never deliver a return, and you know that, in a given year, you won't "waste" any more than what you've budgeted.

And thus, some modicum of that oh-so-important control.

Setting up some parameters for innovation at an association could take a variety of forms:

  • Time allotment: By the phrasing, it sounded like whoever originally posted the question was familiar with Google's famous "20-percent time." It could look like that. Conveniently, 20 percent of full time is one day per week.
  • Laboratory-style R&D department: A lot of industrial and scientific organizations would probably chuckle at the fact that we're even having this conversation, because Research & Development departments are a standard part of their companies. Associations could simply follow the R&D model and employ dedicated staff to testing new ideas and practices.
  • Chief Innovation Officer: This would be a staff leader who is tasked with fostering new ideas throughout the association in a measurable way and reports to CEO and board with hard numbers on yearly investment and return. This person wouldn't personally do all the testing; rather, he or she would guide others in experimenting effectively.

You could employ some sort of blend of these ideas, too, of course, or apply them to staff with other roles rather than creating new positions.

Innovation evangelists out there might scoff at the notion of anything less than a fully permeating "culture of innovation" within an association. If you can get to that point, great, but as a general idea, it doesn't account for the reality of actual business decisions based on dollars and resources and returns.

By dedicating a specific, finite amount of money and staff to innovation, perhaps you've fenced off your innovation efforts, but at least you've set up some sort of space for them, which is better than nothing. And nothing is what often happens in the face of unknown risks. Don't think of it as a fenced-off area that keeps innovation in; think of it as a protective bubble that keeps fear and risk out.

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September 19, 2009

Quick clicks: Life and death

- It's always great to welcome new association blogs to the community: Plexus Consulting Group (Plexus is led by Steve Worth, a former Acronym blogger); the Association Subculture blog, written by Shelly Alcorn; and a new blog from BoardSource, Board Life Matters, focused on younger board members and their experiences leading nonprofits.

- A recent blog post by Seth Godin arguing that nonprofits are far behind for-profits in terms of risk taking and innovation sparked a number of responses in the nonprofit community. Jeff Hurt has a good rundown, as well as his own response, here; Maggie McGary at the Mizz Innovation blog also posted her take.

- Cecilia Sepp shares 10 things she loves about association management.

- The Signature Insights blog shares some reasons why so many future forecasts are wrong, and thoughts on how to get them right (or at least less wrong).

- Shannon Otto at the Splash blog responds to some of the recent discussions on Acronym about the death (or life) of membership. Judith Lindenau touches on similar themes in the post "RIP, Associations?".

- If you aren't following the Harvard Business Publishing blogs, there's a ton of good stuff there. A couple of posts that recently stood out for me: "The Awesomeness Manifesto" and "Is Work Taking Over Your Life?"

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August 17, 2009

“Social is a way of being”

I attended Jeff De Cagna’s session, Associations Next: Serious Questions for 2010 and Beyond this afternoon. Whenever I have the opportunity, I make it a point of attending Jeff’s presentations, which are always insightful and thought-provoking. I find that the questions he raises linger with me long after the conference is over and typically prompt rich discussions with my colleagues. This afternoon’s session was no exception.

After stepping us through a series of 6 questions that get at the heart of what it means to associate, govern, and innovate in the web-enabled 21st century, he asked us to spend 10 minutes brainstorming radically different approaches to our association work. What would make the biggest potential impact, even if it meant making our CEOs, boards, and even ourselves very uncomfortable?

Several of the suggestions that came back were so intriguing, I thought I’d share a few of them here:

- One table suggested making membership completely free (we don’t control the network any longer, so why try to make it into a commodity?). Charge a fair-market price for the professional content that is currently packaged with membership and remove the barriers to the conversation. Then the members of our networks who are truly engaged and truly do contribute to the conversation will be able to join without barriers, making the conversation richer for all. (Any association that has opted for open, publicly accessible social media groups understands the value of this free association and not trying so hard to control the message or limit the participants.)

- Another table suggested crowdsourcing our next annual meetings. Empower the community to make the best decisions on its own behalf and deliver a meeting that is exactly what our attendees want. (NTEN, an association I’ve long admired, successfully structures its annual meeting this way, and their conference is consistently an audience favorite.)

- Another group suggested making board service based not on fixed terms, but on best ideas. Decide who remains on the board based upon record of service, innovation, and follow through. Those who aren’t contributing to the conversation could be voted off the island, a la Survivor. (I happened to be sitting in this session with the president of our board, and this suggestion was major fodder for conversation back at the hotel tonight!)

My brain is still buzzing with these ideas and Jeff’s many good questions, and I can’t wait to get back to my own association to continue this conversation with the rest of my team. How could a radically different ISTE better support and shape the conversation for our members and other educators?

What radical idea will you bring back to your organization at the end of this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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August 16, 2009

Talent goes where it is welcome

One of the best quotes currently making its way around the #asae09 twitterverse is “Talent goes where it is welcome,” as heard in today’s diversity session. I wasn't able to sit in on this particular session due to a conflicting presentation of my own, but was able to hit the high points thanks to Twitter (isn’t social media great?). The quote resonated with me because it indirectly references so many of the themes we’ve been discussing at the conference—how to encourage innovation, how to make our associations truly collaborative, and how to make it easy for volunteers and staff to do their very best work every day. So much of it starts with a commitment to nurture and support talent in our organizations (and the belief that talent can and should be everywhere, and is not a designation reserved for just a select few “rock stars”).

In this morning’s opening keynote, Gary Hamel talked a lot about innovation and the structures that will support it (and in some cases, the lack of structures). I’m lucky to work for an organization that does support talent and innovation, and is willing to recognize those things with enough room to pursue the next great idea. Even still, we grapple with creating the right systems and structures to both attract and retain talent, and also encourage the innovative thinking required to be a world-class organization.

Today at lunch, several of us from my organization were discussing the nuts and bolts of setting up an innovation fund. Who would make the decisions about how to use the money? How would we be accountable to the bigger picture? What would prompt us to stop doing certain things (sometimes even good things) to make room for the great things? Ultimately, the right answer may emerge as a combination of best thinking, and trial and error. But the important thing is the commitment to talent development, at all levels of the association.

How do you welcome and support talent in your organization? And what have you done to make it feel at home? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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July 24, 2009

Are you making it easy for your members to volunteer?

It’s safe to say that many (if not most) associations are struggling with two realities these days: attracting younger members and engaging members as volunteers. The old understandings about joining an association and serving in a committee or leadership structure aren’t foregone conclusions the way they once were. This is particularly true for younger workers who want flexibility, recognition, and interesting work from the get go, and may not instantly “get” the value proposition that a professional association brings.

We know that volunteers are more likely to renew, attend annual meetings, and engage more deeply with our organizations, so we have a vested interest in structuring successful volunteer programs. But what are we doing to respond to these new realities? Though many associations have made concerted efforts to attract younger, more diverse volunteers through outreach and marketing campaigns, the single thing that could make the biggest impact may be thinking differently about the volunteer opportunities we offer.

ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer describes typical barriers to volunteering, among them: inconvenient location, not offering short-term assignments, the volunteer opportunity costing the volunteer money (due to travel or other unreimbursed expenses), and not offering virtual opportunities.

Think about your own association’s typical volunteer roles, and answer the following questions:

• Are most of our volunteer opportunities within multiyear committee or officer structures?
• Do we require face-to-face travel or engagement for the majority of our roles?
• How many project-based or short-term assignments are available?
• Do we offer virtual, asynchronous ways to volunteer?

A solution that addresses many of these barriers may lie in your association’s social media strategy. There are numerous ways that short-term, virtual, convenient assignments can be crafted within the tools you’re already using to build community or communicate. Here are a few options that have worked well for us:

• Leading month-long book club discussions on our wiki or Ning
• Serving as organizational “docents” in Second Life
• Greeting new members of our Ning every few days for a month
• Short-term guest blogging
• Offering an informal “UStream” live event about a particular topic

All of these options allowed us to tap into our members’ expertise and provided opportunities that were exciting and rewarding. In some cases, these short-term assignments have been the gateway for a particular volunteer to serve in longer term volunteer assignments (such as a Special Interest Group officer or board committee member). In all cases, it brought the member closer to our organization, fulfilled an identified need, and diversified our volunteer pool.

What are some ways that you are creating opportunities that make it easy for your members to volunteer?

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Quick clicks: To the Moon!

Good afternoon! Some reading material for your Friday:

Several association bloggers were inspired by the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. (Was I the only one who got choked up watching the footage from the first moonwalk on all of those 40th anniversary documentaries?) Jeff De Cagna asks if we've lost our ability to imagine impossible goals like putting a man on the moon. Kevin Holland responds with some thoughts on why the competitive spirit is so important to the creation (and accomplishment) of such goals. Mark Bledsoe at the Association Okie blog also has some thoughts on the moon mission and BHAGs.

In case you've missed it, Tony Rossell at the Membership Marketing blog has been doing a series of posts based on a benchmarking study he conducted on association membership marketing practices. You can access all of the posts so far here.

Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog wants to know why we default toward creating formal structures for groups of volunteers, when they might be perfectly happy as a more informal group.

Cecilia Sepp reminds us that volunteering is a commitment to be taken seriously.

At the Mizz Information blog, Maggie McGary wonders if associations are prepared for the way advertising is changing and will continue to change.

Bruce Turkel at the Turkel Talks blog reminds us that learning is only useful if you actually use it.

At the Association Voices blog, Steve Drake has posted part three of his "Reinventing Associations" series.

Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog has some important questions your organization should be asking (and you should be asking yourself, too).

Eric Casey at the Association Unbound blog has a few pet peeves he wants to air out. (If you're enjoying the "classic association blunders" conversation here, I bet you'll enjoy Eric's post.)

Stephanie Vance shares some advocacy advice with an acronym. (Say that three times fast!)

Cynthia D'Amour advises team leaders (and chapter leaders) that you can't expect blind faith from others.

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June 17, 2009

If You Build It

We’re all familiar with the concept popularized by the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams,” which suggests that if you build it, they will come. I’m wondering how many association professionals actually believe this to be true.

Several months ago I researched web and audio conferencing solutions, selected a very reputable company and began work customizing an interface that is both user-friendly and cutting-edge. All this, of course, after piloting a series of virtual education programs that were very well attended.

We then surveyed our members and identified more than 150 different program ideas that were both interesting and appropriate for health care professionals statewide, all of which lend themselves to either web or audio-only formats.

I worked diligently to select the most innovative topics and to secure the most respected thought leaders in our industry. We also identified a very reasonable and affordable rate at which to offer these programs to our members.

We then launched a new biweekly education newsletter, as well as a monthly education-at-a-glance e-mail, to help promote these programs. We also mailed a memo from our president/CEO outlining our newly-expanded educational programming and provided our members with an easy reference tool intended to assist them in navigating our complete education suite.

In 30 days we’ll send another mailing with more literature and a fun promotional item to help create additional buzz. We’re also sharing our reference tool with anyone and everyone who’ll listen to our spiel.

And still we have low participation during our newly-launched and very professionally-produced virtual education programs.

My question to you is this: Have you experienced a similar situation with a new product or service? How long did it take to “catch on” with your members? What else can be done to encourage “early adoption”? What advice do you have for others who may be experiencing this same predicament?

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May 26, 2009

Finding ideas

Last month, I was fascinated by Ashton Kutcher and CNN’s race to reach the 1 million followers mark on Twitter. (As you may have seen, Ashton won.) Reading through the coverage, I’ve been wondering where the idea for the competition came from. What inspired the idea for the challenge? What inspires you to think outside the box?

Ideas, like "I should get a million followers," often come about when we least expect them. We’re chatting with colleagues, family or friends, often not even talking about the subject that inspires such a movement but perhaps random thoughts and ideas, and sparks begin to fly. It’s these random chats, these idea-sharing opportunities that often inspire us to collaborate with each other to achieve success on one project or another. We shouldn’t shy away from these moments, even if the ideas we come up with are not really feasible or practical and are eventually tossed aside for another. That is all part of the process. If you find that you aren’t coming up with these little sparks of genius, these ideas that motive others to movement, perhaps you aren’t chatting with the right group. Maybe it isn’t the strangers we meet on LinkedIn and Twitter that will drive us to new ideas. Sometimes it’s the staff in our own office who are often not asked what they think on a subject they would love to share ideas on, or maybe it’s just your drinking buddies or shopping friends who would inspire you most.

So don’t be afraid to gather in groups and share that idea that seems stuck, or as you fear, even a little stale. Ask for advice from those around you and toss around ideas that might improve your projects or services. See what happens when you meet with your group, perhaps monthly or weekly, and let the sparks of great ideas fly where they may.


May 5, 2009

"Green Desks"--An Option for Meeting Attendees?

While many association meeting planners are adding special educational programs and tracks on adopting more environmentally friendly work habits and goals, the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Supplies has crafted an additional approach for its upcoming conference: a "Green Desk."

The Green Desk, which debues at the July 2009 AWFS Fair, provides “a place where anyone in attendance can stop by to ask questions related to green practices and issues that are impacting virtually all businesses.” This one-on-one approach is in addition to the association’s education track, “Going Green,” to help corporate members move to more sustainable products and processes, and to meet new “green building” standards.

I like the idea of associations offering such "green coaching," even if it isn't more complicated than serving as a one-stop resource desk at an event to pick up relevant tips lists, discuss the latest industry eco-trends and benefits, or connect members interested in the same green steps.


October 15, 2008

Is Idea Sharing Truly Innovative?

Many organizations hold idea swaps to encourage interdepartmental collboration. At these meetings, each team announces the projects they work on and any great ideas they have for their area. The ideas typically are well-thought and processes formed before presented at the meeting, in order to present the 'best picture.' At the end of the meeting, teams leave feeling better about their respective projects and most likely forget opportunities for collaboration.

There can be a better way of doing this. Here's one idea - to encourage innovation and idea sharing, association's should encourage employees to keep an idea file. Here, the employee keeps their initial ideas whether the idea is related to their department or not. At the idea swap, these rough draft ideas are shared, potentially anonymously, in order to encourage discussion between the departments about how these ideas could, or should, be implemented.
This could become a gripe session, so a team member would need to pre-screen these rough draft ideas to ensure they are productive.

Like the idea file, this idea for idea swaps is a very rough idea. Has your organization instituted a successful program?


September 19, 2008

It's a fake, fake, fake, fake, world

And Jim Gilmore talks about the antidote — authenticity — in the new series on This Week in Associations. Longer blogpost on this next week, but I'm curious on your thoughts: do associations have a problem being real?

Update: Due to a vendor's player change, the video cannot be embedded directly. To access the video in this post, please choose it from the playlist in the video player below.

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July 14, 2008

Quick clicks: Sharing Slideshare

- Several association bloggers shared Slideshare presentations this week, including Tony Rossell's presentation on the levels of membership engagement; Ben Martin highlighted a presentation by Marta Z. Kagan on Generation Y and social media.

- The Association Social Media Wiki is back--and completely redesigned. If you're ever interested in seeing what other associations are doing with blogs, podcasts, mashups, wikis, Facebook, and in many other social media categories, visit the wiki to quickly find examples. (And if your association is active in any form of social media, you can share a link to your site(s) there, too.)

- I found a few new (or at least new to me) association bloggers recently: The Mind of a Generation Y Association Executive, by Ryan Tucholski; Thanks for Playing, by Elizabeth Weaver Engel; and the Challenge Management blog.

- Do you ever have a great idea that withers on the vine, waiting for buy-in from all appropriate parties? Jeffrey Cufaude has some thoughts on improving the idea approval process in your organization.

- FOLIO has an interesting case study about the relaunch of a 116-year-old association magazine.

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May 5, 2008

IDEO on Innovation

Creativity and innovation came up repeatedly during last week's Global Summit on Social Responsibility, and those of us at the event watched a six-minute video about the innovation process as executed on an updated shopping cart by the world-famous IDEO design firm. Anyone interested in learning more about how associations might incorporate its process can check back to a feature by IDEO leader Tom Kelley called "Innovation Personified," which appeared in the February 2006 Associations Now.


May 1, 2008

Ego versus Idea

One suggestion in the "dream and design" phase of the Global Summit's Thursday session is for associations to look around them and see if it might be worth....disappearing. Seriously. Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists (and--full disclosure--my husband), suggested that association leaders examine where overlapping associations exist and needlessly compete when they could simply merge and "create half the number of associations with twice the memberships and eight times the influence."

It's an interesting thought. Certainly I've been part of organizational coalitions in which external stakeholders such as corporations or government agencies have complained that they could hardly keep track of which organizations may be the best partners in, say, the environmental sector because so many have similar agendas, duplicate programs with different names, and murky leadership within their field.

Call me cynical, but I think ego would be the biggest barrier to even a discussion of what widescale association mergers might mean to society and the earth. In the fascinating book Egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), authors David Marcum and Steven Smith look at business success and performance from the standpoint of ego. Their extensive research concludes that unbalanced ego "becomes the ultimate blind spot," with more than one-third of all decisions in failed organizations driven by ego. they note that unbalanced ego slows change and innovation, and "there is a clear difference in the power of knowing versus the discipline of becoming."

However, nearly two-thirds of executives "never explore alternatives once they make up their mind," and "81% of managers push their decisions through by persuasion or edict, not by the value of their idea." A surprising 63% of surveyed businesspeople report that ego harms "work performance on an hourly or daily basis, while an additional 31% say it happens weekly." That's a lot of poor productivity and decision making, as well as lost opportunity.

Might the research differ among association employees? What would you think if your boss walked into a staff meeting and said, "For the sake of the planet, let's do a competitive analysis in our industry with an eye toward potential mergers?" Would you think, "Oh, my gosh, my job's in trouble." "Has he lost his mind?" "Finally!" "Whoopie!"

I remember one small trade association whose CEO actually requested that the board let him shut down the organization because the programmatic and mission overlap with industry competitors had led to unsustainable financial hardship. The board was appalled at the idea. He suggested merging with another group instead. Still they balked, citing the organization's long history and criticizing all possible merger candidates.

I don't recall what happened to the association in the end, but I do know that the CEO eventually left, and at some point, I stopped receiving press releases from the organization. Perhaps if leaders--whether volunteer or paid--move their egos more to the side of humility, they will find that exploring potential mergers would indeed lead ultimately to accomplishment of their broader mission.

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Speed-dreaming a Better World

Wow--what an amazing afternoon of what I'll call "speed sharing," which reminded me a bit of speed-dating but with people exchanging ideas instead of personal phone numbers. Some of the ideas are natural extensions of the exciting momentum we've been building during this Global Summit on Social Responsibility (SR): an SR listserv, an association SR blog and monthly Idea Swap, create a "Social Responsibility in a Box" how-to toolkit, and a new requirement that SR strategies are integrated into CAE knowledge domains.

But here are some of the larger-vision ideas that got me personally jazzed during today's "dream and design" exercise:

Use ASAE & The Center as "innovation incubators."

Create a "Retired Association Exec Corps" to help coordinate and contribute to SR efforts by associations.

Develop an offshoot version of the United Nations Global Compact that allows associations to sign on in agreement to meet specific SR metrics and standards.

Create a "Bright Light Network"--a coalition of associations that want to work together on social, economic and environmental challenges.

Create a "Seven Wonders of a Socially Responsible World" committee structure in ASAE & The Center to focus on global problem solving in the areas of education, environment, health, prosperity, innovation and technology, peace and security.

Friday we'll be breaking into groups to begin creating something tangible from the best ideas in the various categories generated by our "dreaming." Keep checking back for news of our progress!


Innovation vs. fear of change

Frances Hesselbein spoke at the Global Summit this morning based on her reflections from Day 1 of the event. (If you're not familiar with her work, she is the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Leader to Leader Institute, and served as founding president of the organization back when it was called the Peter F. Drucker Foundation. She also served as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976-1990.)

Just to share one anecdote from her speech, she told the audience that, when managing major changes like those being contemplated during the Summit, she always kept in mind Peter Drucker's definition of innovation: "Change that creates a new dimension of performance." Who's going to be afraid of new dimensions of performance? she asked.

"Can you imagine when we changed the Girl Scout pin?" she said. "Women clutched it and said, 'My grandmother wore this pin.' So call it innovation!"

(She also noted that the old pin continued to be manufactured for anyone who wanted one even after the change to the new pin, so in their case major change was combined with allowances for those who weren't ready to make the leap.)

The next time you're managing a major change for your organization, maybe that definition could come in handy for you.


April 30, 2008

Enduring Ideas: Understanding Your Organization

Are you trying to better understand your organization? Are you responsible for innovation and constructive change in your association? Perhaps you’re considering an organizational and career change, and are thinking about what makes organizations successful. If so, a recent McKinsey Quarterly article may be interesting. “A Watershed in Thinking About Organizations” is an April 2008 McKinsey article that revisits their 7-S Framework, introduced in the 1970s. The interactive article, the first in a series, “reflects on 7-S…introduced…to address the critical role of coordination, rather than structure, in organizational effectiveness.” Readers can click on any of the seven elements in the framework and listen to McKinsey’s description of the element.

The article can be found here.

The article goes on to note “While an increasingly complex business environment has rendered some (organizational) models obsolete, others have endured.” McKinsey says the series presents “frameworks that are as relevant today as they were when first created.”

The 7-S framework “maps seven interrelated factors that influence an organization’s ability to change—shared values, skills, staff, strategy, style and systems—and shows how these forces interact”. The framework suggests that achieving progress in any one part of the framework “will be hard to achieve without progress in the others.”

Here’s an illustration of the 7-S framework:

7-S Framework

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April 25, 2008

Unlocking cool

If anyone knows innovation, it’s Jeremy Gutsche, founder of He makes a living studying it. His online magazine follows the newest trends and tells the world what will be cool in six months, a year, or five years. He spoke this morning at the 2008 Digital Now conference.

Gutsche is a sound-bite seeker’s dream, so here are several of his snappy bits of advice on finding and fostering innovation and "unlocking cool," with some thoughts added in italic:

“Situational framing dictates outcome.” What you believe may be blinding you to reality.

“Complacency will be the architecture of your downfall.”

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Don’t try to fight culture or the world around you. Accept it and adapt accordingly.

“Innovations must often fail.” This is perhaps the most important point he made. We have to accept the bad with the good and have faith that every failure is an opportunity to learn and increase the likelihood of future success.

“Create opportunities for failure.” Great example that Gutsche shared: the BBC established a “gambling fund” to develop programs that very few people thought would work. The Office, one of the BBC’s most popular shows (and now a popular show in the United States) was a gambling fund idea.

“Innovation starts with observing your customers.” Put yourself in their element. Visit them in their places of business. Create open online environments for them to interact.

“Senior people need to be crazy.” Aren’t they already? (Sorry, bad joke from a millennial). What Gutsche meant is that senior-level leaders need to encourage, accept, and foster wacky ideas. Too many great ideas from all levels get killed at the senior-leadership level.

“Relentlessly obsess about your story.” i.e. stick to your mission and reinforce it consistently through your marketing.

“Simple, direct, and supercharged.” According to Gutsche, these are the qualities of “infectious” marketing.

I followed up with Gutsche after his session and asked him about his emphasis on embracing any crisis as an opportunity. He even promoted declaring a crisis so as to bring that opportunity out into the open. “When you are in a crisis, regardless of how you got there, you get good ideas,” he says. prides itself on finding the “next big thing,” seemingly in contrast with the previous day’s keynote message about the long tail and the death of culture-wide blockbuster hits. Turns out the next big thing for any organization is just a matter of scale. “So many things can be a success,” Gutsche says, “but that doesn’t mean everyone in America buying a toaster.”


April 24, 2008

There is no average member

So says Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail. In his opening speech at the 2008 Digital Now conference Thursday, Anderson said associations must let go of the notion that members all share common wants and needs.

(The Long Tail was published a few years ago, so no need to go into detailed explanation of it here. If you're unfamiliar, check out the Wikipedia entry for it or Anderson's blog, titled (what else?) The Long Tail.)

Anderson cited a variety of media and corporate examples, but he related the principles of the long tail to associations with one key idea: an association’s core constituency is the vertical portion of the curve, and the long tail represents everyone else (read: mailbox members and/or nonmembers). Seems obvious, but here’s what he said about “everyone else”: they might be interested in what your association has to offer, but they just don’t have enough reasons to join or become overly engaged.

These are people who might be only partially related to your profession or who might not have the financial resources to pay for a membership or who may just not be the “joiner” types. But there’s opportunity in appealing to them. They may, in fact, never join, but maybe they’ll buy a book, or maybe they’ll download an education session recording, or maybe they’ll lurk on an open listserv or virtual community and connect with a member with similar interests.

Is your association ignoring these people? The dilemma here, of course, is that the measurable return to your association of one person finding a useful article in your web archives is next to nil, and these types of long-tail interactions will never explode into blockbuster returns. But with new technology, providing these options also costs next to nothing, and if they spread out over 1,000 or 100,000 interactions, the returns gradually add up. You just have to be patient.

The associations that are finding success in appealing to the long tails of their markets are finding creative and cost-effective ways to broaden their products and services or to broaden the audience those products are available to.


April 2, 2008

Let's look at it another way

Apologies to any long-time Acronym readers as once again I'm going back to something I've talked about before.

About five months ago, diary of a reluctant blogger Maddie Grant got me fired up by saying she prefers to ignore views, outlooks, whatever that are different than hers (my post about it, and her original post). A recent short article from the New York Times Magazine reminded me once again of the value of questioning one's own views.

The article talks about new interpretations of classic social psychology experiments (you have to look past the Elliot Spitzer references, which I thought were a cheap tie into todays pop/political scene). One of the experiments is the one that demonstrated that people are basically sheep, and will go along with the crowd even when they know the crowd is wrong. But a reexamination of the data is less absolute. It turns out people usually didn't go along with the crowd, but did sometimes. Far from being a negative, as the sheep-like description would have you believe, it could be seen as a positive that first, people usually aren't sheep-like, and, second, when they are it's because they've made an active determination that in that particular case the group is more important than the individual.

The other famous experiment in which the classic interpretation is challenged is the one where people think they're giving progressively more severe shocks to other study participants (see an ABC News video re-creating the experiment). The classic conclusion is that people will blindly follow orders from people they see as superior, even when it is morally repugnant. A different interpretation is that people trust those with authority, including trusting their moral judgment.

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March 17, 2008

Next Traditions Discussion Thread


It is a great honor to be the author of this month's cover story for Associations Now. In the print version of the magazine, the article is called, "Beyond Today," but you can find it online under its original title, "The Next Traditions of Association 3.0." I hope you will take the opportunity to read it, and share your ratings and reviews. (The rate and review area appears at the end the article on the website.)

This week, my hope is that we can engage in some dialogue around the article and the implications of the argument I make for your association. To get the conversation started, please take the oppportunity to reflect on the following questions:

+What role does tradition play in your association?

+How does/can your organization use tradition as a platform for innovation?

+Among the six "next traditions" discussed in the article, which of them does your association embrace? Which does your association find it difficult to embrace?

I look forward to our discussion. Please share your insights, as well as any questions, in the comment box below!


March 13, 2008

Optimize for less stress

Michele Martin’s comment on the “Interesting juxtaposition” post addresses the need for a shift in the way U.S. organizations think about their employees. The field of association management has a unique opportunity to compete for today’s most valuable human resources by taking the discussion about compensation to another level. Associations can build on their appeal to talented, socially-conscious workers by creating satisfying job environments where all factors affecting an employee’s well being are taken into consideration.

Fritjof Capra, a brilliant scientist and major voice in the discussion on sustainability, applies the principles of ecological systems to human communities. His emphasis on dynamic balance seems particularly significant for managing teams: a healthy system is flexible and has the ability to right itself after facing stress, but “trying to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it will invariably lead to the destruction of the system as a whole.”

Creating the right mix of employee takeaways—both tangible and intangible—may be an answer for recruiting and retaining talented staffers. Beginning to understand our teams, organizations, and the broader industry as part of interconnected networks will provide a leg up in the increasingly complex work world.

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February 13, 2008

One part inspiration, one part Star Wars

If you ever watch video online, I highly recommend you watch this inspiring story about a company working to develop a new prosthetic arm that can enable amputees with only a day or so's training to handle operations as complex and delicate as picking up grapes.

The inventors were at least partially inspired by the robotic arm (well, hand) that one of the characters in Star Wars is given at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. They took at a look at something they'd seen only in the movies, and they said, "Hey. We can find a way to make that."

Is there an initiative your association has thought of as so far out there, it's a fantasy just to think you could do it? Maybe this story could inspire you to reach for that goal.

Another interesting thing about this video: It's brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of IEEE. It's great to see associations sharing stories like this with their members and others. In the March issue of Associations Now, you can learn more about another association that's telling great stories in a similar multimedia format.

(My thanks to Clark Wallace, for sending this link!)


February 1, 2008

Magnetism of the Known

TED seems like such a cool conference. No doubt, they are doing something right when they sell out a year in advance of each conference! In an interesting twist, releasing much of their session content as free online videos has done nothing but drive further interest in the live event.

Anyway, there's a ton of great presentations archived at the TED site (including one by game design guru Will Wright) and I've made it a personal mini-goal to watch a bunch of them. Browsing the archive, I caught myself bookmarking all the speakers/topics I was already familiar with.

So what? There's gotta be some research out there already regarding the "magnetism" of the familiar. Well, the irony here is that TED is explicitly designed to cross-pollinate topics/speakers/areas of knowledge via their single track approach (and of course, very careful curation over the sessions) and their vetted attendee list. (For those interested, Convene profiled TED in their December 2007 issue.)

And, now that I think about it, I often do this at bigger multi-track conferences. Rather than looking for new stuff, I always go to see the topic I already know a lot about (ya know, so I can "compare notes" or more successfully heckle).

What about the idea of organizing an industry conference on all the stuff members don't know much about (aka, "The Stuff You Should Know, But Have No Clue You Should Know Conference"). Would anyone actually show up?

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December 17, 2007

When a bad idea gets going

Early this year, I wrote a post on the notion that there absolutely are dumb ideas. The gist of the post was: get over it. If you don't have a bunch of bad ideas to sift through, then you haven't given yourself permission to actually try to think creatively about how you or your organization can innovate. I was saying bad ideas or ok, as long as you find some good ones to work on.

Now Shankar Vedatam from the Washington Post hits again on an insightful idea in his "Department of Human Behavior" column. He explores how bad ideas get rolling and develop lives of their own. His quote from Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale University and the author of the book Irrational Exuberance, really made me think (sorry, don't know if the quote is from an interview or from the book):

"I am talking of views that seem intuitively right," Shiller said. "One hears other people saying things and confirming ideas you have. When things are commonly accepted, you file it in your brain as something that is true."

So here's the can of worms I'm opening today... I read this and I think about 7 Measures.

Now, assuming I still have a job after others in the organization read that, let me explain.

At one of the Great Ideas sessions I was at, the presenter made a point from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I have no problem quoting from the lessons in that book. But the presenter praised the meticulous research of Collins for the purpose of underscoring how unapproachable and irrefutable the lesson is.

I encourage anybody who has ever read Built to Last, Good to Great, In Search of Excellence, 7 Measures of Success, or any of those books that study what really successful companies do right to read Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.

Rosenzweig’s argument in a nutshell—the research, while time-consuming, isn’t objective. Yes, it uses objective data to determine if an organization is successful, but when it comes to picking out the qualities of why they are successful, the research is much more subjective, relying in large part on interviews and press accounts. This may come as a huge shock, but people tend to talk favorably about successful companies, workers tend to be happier, and executives win awards and give well-thought-of speeches.

As Rosenzweig says, this doesn’t disprove the points that Collins makes or the measures uncovered in 7 Measures. It does, however, take them off the “indisputable” shelf. As a general rule, whenever anything is indisputable, I’d say be skeptical. It could very well be that following the tenants in Good to Great or 7 Measures or whatever management consultant/guru of the week espouses would be disastrous for your organization. Remember, Taylor’s scientific management was once common sense, too. I think a lot of good can be derived from Collins and 7 Measures, but success will always be more art than science. No step-by-step prescription or program will get you where you want to go. Try, feel, react, try, feel, react… that’s how to move forward.

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October 29, 2007

3 reasons why we don't do anything new

1. Approximately 6 months before the fiscal year ends, we turn in our first crack at the budget. If we happen to have an interesting idea that is likely to cost money after that -- say 2 months into the fiscal year -- then anyone in the chain of command can basically kill it with the words "we didn't budget for it." To overcome that, it had better be a whopper of an idea.

2. We don't have time. Middle- and lower-level staff are swamped executing the plan (I love the double meaning of the word execute -- you be the judge of what's happening in your organization); senior staff spends gobs of time as personnel managers -- both for staff and committee/council/task force volunteers; and CEOs are mired in board and component and funding traps. Thinking about the future, if it happens at all, comes in tiny, disjointed bursts.

3. We've built an entire culture around painfully slow-to-change organizations. A group of consultants likely well known to readers of this blog even wrote a book about it: We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change. We've made making big decisions extremely hard. Maybe that's livable, but we've made making small decisions extremely hard, too, and that leads to stagnation.

So what can you do about it?

Well, you could come with an alternative to the annual budget cycle (here's a previous rant on that). Something less radical, but just as hard: set aside 5 percent of the budget for unbudgeted ideas -- and develop a process to ensure the money gets used and is not cut the first time financials start to look a little iffy. (That should handle part of the time issue, too.)

As far as time and culture -- if you're a CEO you have tremendous power to affect your organization's culture. Start now as it will take time – years – for a change to take hold. Other staff people can still have major effects on culture, though without support from the CEO, you may be pushing boulders uphill. To steal from Jim Collins and use what has become a cliché, I think it comes down to having the right people on the bus. Set up structures and procedures that force future thinking, and use the hire-and-fire authority to get the right people thinking for you.

And then there's the volunteers. Sometimes it's the board or members whose collective inertia are the real culprits. CEOs have to convince them that the best interests of the organization (and industry/profession/interest) necessitate looking beyond what the organizations is doing and asking "what if...".

I know all of this is more easily said than done, but we have to try, don't we?

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August 12, 2007

More blogging tips from smart association bloggers

  • Keep up with other blog posts that mention your association (through Google Alerts, Technorati, etc.) and comment on those posts. The bloggers will be honored by your presence and will become your allies.
  • Decide on a posting schedule, and stick to it. Choose a schedule that's manageable -- quality is better than quantity.
  • Reinforce the idea that your blog is a discussion: If there is a smart comment, paste it into its own post, which will invite more interactivity.
  • To be an effective blog writer, read many blogs -- not just in your own area of interest, but more broadly as well.
  • Choose a voice and a topic, and stick to it. Your blog might be a personal reflection, or a news sharing vehicle, but it's hard for it to be both -- and your readers will notice when the voice isn't consistent.
  • Read your own archives – you might be surprised at what you find.
  • Your blog could include more than just text -- video, audio, photos. A great source for audio interviews are authors promoting their new books. And if you shoot photos of an event, send a link to the post with those photos to the people pictured in them. They are likely to send the link to others, and to comment.
  • Post idea: Read what your readers what to read and summarize it.
  • Know how many people come to your blog, and where they are coming from.
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June 11, 2007

Aligning Mission and Money?

ASME Program Annual Evaluation Matrix


• Model based on Boston Consulting Group’s “Growth-Share Matrix”
• To use the model, analysts plot a scatter graph using net annual margin (green) or subsidy (red) to scale diameter of each program, product or service
• Programs illustrated are for example only & do not represent actual margin or performance
• 1=Stars (High investment brand leaders-surplus capital); 2=Questionable (requires major investment-low results); 3=Cash Cows (Low investments-surplus capital); 4=Retire (limited investment-limited results-beware expensive/risky turnarounds)

Some of you share my long-term interest in annual evaluation of association programs, products and services (PPS). The reason for an annual evaluation is simple: evaluation looks at PPS performance and life-cycles, and provides the basis for rational decision-making about which PPS should continue and which should be retired.

Annual evaluation is also important because it is one method to release precious resources and capabilities to support innovation and consistent annual new PPS development. The old association adage is true for many of our associations, “If something new is to be added to the wagon, then something old must be removed.” The adage is true because it’s not often that our associations have on hand substantial unused capacity that can be devoted to new PPS development. And our ability to simply go out and increase our capacity to meet new opportunities is generally limited. There’s little venture capital available for non-profits.

Now, one could argue that innovation will let an association do more and better. But there is a finite limit as to how much one can and should try to stuff into a 5-pound bag, if you get my point. Many of us are past our organizational bag limit, and innovation just to add more to an overloaded bag is not the answer.

Thus, annual evaluation is important. But it’s hardly simple. The challenge is that associations generally provide PPS in two very different categories: 1) Mission-focused activities which are often subsidized in whole or part; 2) Business operations that provide the net margin necessary to subsidize the mission-focused activities. Both categories of activities support the organization’s overall mission and both categories reinforce and strengthen one another. And as many of us have learned the hard way, there is no mission without a margin. Evaluation of these two different categories of activities, however, can be challenging, since they are often so different. Targets and measures used to measure subsidized activities, for example, often are not the same targets and measures used for margin-producing activities.

Mark Golden and I had an interesting discussion of PPS evaluation of these two categories of activities in the “Driven by Mission Not Money” thread on the ASAE & the Center iCohere Measures of Success Strategy Lab web site, in which we both concluded that annual evaluation should be based on how the PPS is actually performing. Mark rightly commented, “It isn’t good enough to have good, mission related intentions, (evaluation should be based on) how well it (PPS) achieves mission related ends.” Said differently, evaluation of all activities should be based on results.

This has led me to develop the chart above for comment and trampling action. It uses some typical ASME programs and hypothesized data to illustrate how the approach might (or might not) work. Would such an evaluation process work in your organization? Could it be refined and made more useful? Inquiring minds want to know…I look forward to your comments.

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April 23, 2007

Three questions

I’m reading another interesting article from the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Improving the Performance of Top Management Teams.” (So far, their spring issue has been a great one.) While tangential to the main arguments of the article, one quote really caught my eye as I was reading:

“Consider, for example, the standardized system that 3M Co. uses to evaluate potential innovations. Each candidate product must pass a three-pronged test: (1) Is the opportunity real? (2) Can we win at it? and (3) Is it worth it?”

Does your process for evaluating proposals for new products and services help you find the answers to these three key questions?


April 20, 2007

The resource discussion and Apollo 13

In the associations where I’ve worked, I’ve heard many conversations over the years about resource constraints. Each association has been distinct in budget size and number of staff, but no matter how large (or small) the organization, at some point, we haven’t had the time/money to take on a particular project. It was just a question of scale.

That’s why an interesting commentary in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “In Praise of Resource Constraints,” caught my eye. The article argues that resource constraints can fuel rather than frustrate innovation.

Although it isn’t cited in the article, the authors’ arguments reminded me of a scene from the movie Apollo 13 that I’ve always found very inspiring. It’s at the point in the movie (as in real life) where the explosion in one of the oxygen tanks has crippled the spacecraft, and it’s an open question whether or not they will be able to get home before it runs out of oxygen. In the film, the NASA flight controllers are brainstorming solutions, and one of them dumps a load of objects on the table—a pile of materials that exactly duplicated what was available on Apollo 13, out in space, so they could determine what could be used to save the crew.

In that situation, the resource constraints were absolute—there wasn’t an interstellar shopping mall that the astronauts could run into for coffee and spare parts. The flight controllers had to figure out a solution based on a very specific set of items—and they did it.

The next time I’m confronted with a lack of resources, I’ll try to remember the Sloan article and Apollo 13. Perhaps the article will inspire you as well.


April 10, 2007

Cybermobbing just got easier

Did you find yourself scratching your head and saying, "so what?" as you read about the Cybermobbing trend in Mapping the Future of Your Association (1 MB PDF), ASAE's most recent environmental scanning project? The trend reads:

Cybermobbing: The channels of political infl uence are broadening to include digital broadcast media that offer specialized forums for political discussion and Web-based communities that practice “swarm advocacy” and “smart mobbing.” To attract support for their positions in this crowded public arena—and to gain the attention of elected offi cials, regulators, and agencies—associations must develop a creative, multi-pronged, and Web-savvy approach to advocacy.
I suggest that you read the Wikipedia entry on smart mobs referenced here. The Mississippi Hospital Association, employer of one of my fellow Acronym bloggers, Shawn Lea, is already using tactics rooted in cybermobbing. Using text messages, the Mississippi Hospital Association can inform their constituents that a vote on a particular issue is about to occur, and that they should phone their representative to advocate on the association's position.

I know what you're thinking: So what?

There's a relatively new (and free) web service that has recently captured the tech community's attention in a big way: Twitter. Twitter allows anyone to create a text messaging network in a matter of seconds and send text messages (or tweets, as they're called by Twitter users) via the web, instant message or cell phone to anyone who chooses to opt in to the network. The service is getting more popular by the hour, and businesses are already figuring out ways to leverage Twitter. Bands send reminders about tonight's gig. Small businesses use it as a kind of mini blog. Realtors use it

The barrier to entry on mass texting used to be quite high. Now it's just a few clicks away. How could you use Twitter in an association? Here are a few ideas:

  • Use it during conferences to update attendees about changes in the schedule or room locations. Communicating with attendees in the hours following the fire at ASAE & The Center's most recent Great Ideas Conference could have been greatly facilitated with text messages.
  • Use it with your employees to inform them if the office is closing due to weather or power outage or some other emergency.
  • Use it to provide up to the minute reporting on important developments in the legislative, regulatory or judicial arenas.
  • Sign up for Twitter, get a glimpse of what it's about, and I'm sure you can come up with more great ideas. Here are two Twitter clones, though to be fair, Txtmob pre-dates Twitter. Txtmob and Jaiku.


    March 21, 2007

    Work/Life Balance: The Social Impact of Personal Choices

    In December 2006, Senators Chris Dodd and Arlen Specter launched a bipartisan caucus on Children, Work and Family in the US Senate. The purpose of the caucus is to look at the problems faced by working families - to revive a conversation last addressed deliberately in our legislature in 1983. In their words, “The mission of the caucus is to bring national attention to the ‘kitchen table’ issues that impact individuals, families and our economic security.” To put it mildly, I think that’s a swell idea.

    Since I began thinking about how we are 'missing' a conversation about associations and social responsibility my family has relocated, expanded from two people to four, and I am now a telecommuter full-time, working for an association across the country in an odd schedule (5:30 AM to 1:30 PM local time), in part to accommodate the needs of my family and to try and balance them. When I log off in the afternoon, I help my husband put the kids down for a nap, grab a shower and try to catch up on reading or housework or occasionally, exercise. To use the inadequate language of the current debate, I am occupying a strange limbo between being a stay-at-home mother, and working mother.

    I am extremely lucky. I have managed to continue working full time though I have two children under age three – they are in daycare twenty hours a week, which depending on your perspective is either very little time, or far too much.

    My hunch is that if you’re thinking that’s very little time, you’re a working parent with a working spouse. If you think that’s far too much, you’re either in a family where one parent can stay home, or you expect to be in that situation if and when you do have children.

    My husband also has a flexible schedule – he is employed full-time and then some, a professor teaching a full course load at his primary employer, and two distance-learning classes every term for the institution he left in Georgia. Half of his work is completed from home while the kids are sleeping, or while we watch a movie on the weekends.

    You don’t come here to read personal blogging, however, but bear with me just a bit longer, because I do have a point in telling you how I balance work and family.

    I hope I can make it clearly: For too long, families like mine have been juggling the demands of childrearing and work in relative isolation. A recent study from UC Hastings shows that when articles surface about women in the workforce, they don't tell the whole story, and they talk of personal ‘choice’ – as in, feminism was about women having the ‘choice’ to work or stay at home. That language has put us in a complicated place.

    Since I became a mother, I’ve determined there is another conversation we are missing, and it’s related to my first conviction: associations have a role to play in finding peace in the so-called ‘mommy wars’, and it’s in our best interest to lead employers towards fixing this enormous social problem. In the coming months, and the coming posts, I’ll be exploring how we got here.

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    March 14, 2007

    Becoming a founder

    Virgil Carter made an insightful comment to my last entry that I wanted to make sure wasn’t missed. (Also, don’t miss his comment on Peter’s last entry…)

    I wonder if “good deeds”, and worthy achievements are less about 1) available resources; 2) having done it before or not, and more about individual vision, initiative and commitment. I don’t know Steve Wozniak, but from what I know about him and Apple, it strikes me that he has all of these qualities, enabling him to overcome most obstacles.

    I wonder if the role of a “founder” isn’t a strong contributor to innovation, achievement, and overcoming great odds? Do you suppose that if more of our volunteers and staff had the self-image of being a “founder” that all of our organizations would be much more (successful) results oriented?

    I wonder how we could empower more folks to think of themselves as “founders”. Hmmm.

    To continue along that train of thought, I wonder what you would see if you compared relatively new associations where the founders are still active with older associations where the founders have departed (especially if you can compare apples to apples in terms of resources available). Is there more innovation in one than in the other?

    I wonder, too, if it’s harder for association staff to think of themselves as “founders” when they can be doubly removed from that role—both as staff (instead of members) and as contributors to an organization that (in many cases) was there before you started work and will be there after you leave.

    Just as a personal example: When I was the senior editor/manager of an association technical journal, the journal was significantly older than I was (founded in the 1930s). While I had ideas for radical changes that could be made, I was concerned about potentially doing serious damage to a publication that had become such an institution, and didn’t pursue those ideas as fervently as a “founder” might have. How do you overcome such fears?

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    March 2, 2007

    Association Research and Development

    I had the unfortunate displeasure of traveling last weekend through snow, ice, wind, and a never-before seen dust storm in Dallas (who says business travel ain’t glamorous?). As is always the case when I travel, I had the opportunity to catch up on my reading. A short article in the March 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review caught my eye. It was an interview with Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella, who talked about his company’s research and development program, in particular as it related to China. While no association can possibly have a $33 billion budget (!), it caused me to wonder how many of us might be setting aside money to invest in short- and long-term projects not usually covered under an operating budget.

    At AIHA, we set aside $50,000 annually in a bucket we call the “Opportunity Fund.” Based on guidelines we created for this fund, my chief staff officer and I approve, or not, money that goes toward doing something outside of our typical budgeting process that will generate a needed member service or benefit and that may produce revenue in the next three fiscal years. We started funding this line item three years ago and have had some successes, and some failures.

    Our biggest success has been the initial funding of an online digital library that we are now in the middle of implementing with the American Institute of Physics (AIP) as a partner. Our biggest failure was the launch of an online auction site for our members to exchange gently used equipment. Despite our best efforts and solid market research, it simply didn’t succeed.

    Further on in the March HBR, I was reminded that the Opportunity Fund also serves another purpose for us in that it enables us to retain what HBR calls “clever people.” In this article, HBR authors Goffee and Jones state that “… clever people have one defining characteristic; it’s that they don’t want to be led.” It didn’t occur to me before reading their article, but we actually use the Opportunity Fund in a way that allows our staff to lead the organization down paths that we might not have identified on our own.

    If you know of other organizations doing something similar, I would be curious to know more about them.

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    January 26, 2007

    Zingful Tenets

    A sign I photographed while taking my cub scout den to our local go-cart racetrack to get in the spirit of our upcoming Pinewood Derby. I remember thinking, "We all need this service at work!" ;)

    Fridays are my Really Un- Unconference Days. I find it much easier to carve out an hour to myself to explore online when everyone is in a good mood. (And today is the first sunny day we've had here in quite a while so everyone seems doubly cheery.)

    This week, I'm going to the How Design Conference in my head. (If you can go in real life, it will be June 10 through 13 in Atlanta.) Sam Harrison is leading a session on "Uplift the Face and Pace of Your Space" which caught my eye because we are rearranging in my area next month and my fellow officemates and I have been talking about how we would like our shared space to change and why. During the session, he will share the guiding principles behind the Serenbe project - sustainability, naturalism, a sense of community, collaboration and more - then help you develop a plan for injecting them into your own work/life environments.

    But that's not what I'm here to talk about. (Maybe next month when we get into the hands-on work I can report back.)

    I found an article written by Mr. Harrison that then led me to his Web site and these great creativity "zingful tenets." I like that they are short and sweet and easy to follow. (And, OK, I really like numbered lists, too, for reasons which I've never fully understood myself.)

    So here you go...start your weekend with a zing. And print the list out so it will be waiting on your desk as a reminder on Monday morning. (And with this, I officially proclaim Sam Harrison my innovation muse for this week.) Here are the first five tenets:

    1. Don’t stop with the first idea you spot. Even if it’s a good idea, it’s probably the same one everyone else would spot. And the good is often the enemy of the best. Put the first three ideas aside and dig deeper.

    2. Laugh. A common trait of most creative people is the ability to laugh at themselves and their circumstances. OK, Hemingway had no humor, but do you want his ending? Don’t take yourself too damn seriously.

    3. Be passionate. Watch any artist possessing zing, and you’ll see passion. Want it with all your being.

    4. Work hard. Wanting it with all your being isn’t enough. You’ve got to do the work. Stay up late. Get up early. Take responsibility.

    5. Be childlike. Not childish, but childlike. Wide eyes. “How come” questions. Playful. Giddy. Eager.


    January 25, 2007

    There is such a thing as a dumb idea

    I was just at a meeting where someone said there was no such thing as a dumb idea.

    Come on! Of course there is. And while I'm at it, there really are dumb questions, too.

    The only thing worse than asking a dumb question is not asking it. Ignorance is a terrible place to live. One thing to consider about dumb questions: you are a terrible judge of whether or not your own question is dumb, so ask away. No one with an opinion worth caring about will hold an occasional dumb question against you.

    Ideas seem to me to be a different animal. The reference at the meeting pointed out the story of 3M and Post-It Notes. You probably know the story, and I do think it's a good story to tell. But it doesn't mean there are no dumb ideas. For every Post-It success story, there are 999 ideas that deserve to remain unknown and lost. What it does mean is that an idea needs to be expressed and shared, just like a question. And, again, you may be a terrible judge of whether your own idea is dumb or not. In addition, no one with an opinion worth caring about will hold dumb ideas against you either.

    But here's the difference. A dumb question is answered and you move on. Dumb ideas are trickier. For every Post-It Note story, there's a New Coke counterpart.

    Leaders of organizations have two duties when it comes to dumb ideas. First be able to spot them. I can't believe I'm bringing this up, but I think this is a twist of an old debate from this blog on the need to be right. You have to be right here, actively search for and enact the good ideas, shelve the bad ones.

    Second, you have to create a culture where dumb ideas are plentiful and their rejection is no big deal — you just move on to the next thing.

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    January 17, 2007

    Idea a day, part 7: Ode to Godin

    My idea today was going to be if you ever have the idea of doing something for seven straight days, map it out before you make a public commitment!

    Ok, not really, but if it's not obvious to everyone, I've just been winging this one day at a time.

    My seventh idea is this: find an innovation muse. For me, it's Seth Godin. He's the reason you're reading this blog right now — or at least the reason why you're reading me on this blog right now. About three years ago, he came out with a book called Free Prize Inside. Ask most folks, and they'll say Purple Cow, or maybe Ideavirus, is his seminal work. I can't argue with them, except that for me, Free Prize Inside is the most important. I interviewed Godin and wrote an article about it for Executive Update.

    It's a book about how to be about a champion. Not how to win a contest, but how to be a champion of ideas. He says we don't lack good ideas, we lack the willpower to get them done, that organizations are actually organized in a way that stifles ideas and idea implementation. Because of that book, I pushed through the idea of a conference blog for the Minneapolis ASAE annual meeting. The resources I needed were three or four volunteers to blog with me, about $5,000 (it turns out, I'd plan it without a big chunk of that if I could go back in time), and someone with tech smarts to help me get it up and running. A big challenge at the time was simply explaining why I was talking about a strange word like "blog." Adding to the challenge was this little thing called the merger. I was with GWSAE at the time (the Greater Washington SAE) and our members were about to vote on whether or not to merge with ASAE. It wasn't the easiest time to get anybody's attention for a pet project. I'm glad I persisted. (I'd link to that first blog, but as far as I can tell, it's been lost. You're not missing much. I remember it fondly, but that's more because it was accomplished than for its quality, which is probably best described as "a good start.")

    So I close this seven-day little experiment, which, remember, is inspired by the upcoming Great Ideas Conference, with a twofer: (1) Find an idea muse, and (2) Read Free Prize Inside, and if you're serious about creating an idea culture, buy a copy for everyone on your staff.

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    January 13, 2007

    Day 3 of idea a day: Rethinking books

    Before we get to the idea, a thanks to Jeff De Cagna and Jeffrey Cufaude for making the second idea better.

    Before all seven days are over, I'll try to have an idea that is original (or mostly original), but today, another pilfering. I first became aware of this idea in an article for Associations Now by David Gammel in January 2006. One of the things he talked about was a publishing company called Pragmatic Programmers. Its unique way of publishing is to release a "beta" version. Interested readers download a PDF of the mostly complete book. It has typos, isn't typeset, and may contain some factual mistakes. Readers are encouraged to send corrections, which then get incorporated into the final product. It's created a collaborative book publishing environment. Its customers have ownership in the end product and the end product is better than it would have been. It's been a very successful venture for them.

    It's not hard to see how associations could take advantage of this model; associations almost by definition have a community of interested people who could be significant collaborators. I also think the idea could stretch beyond book publishing. I've wondered how I could do an Associations Now issue this way. Could such an idea be adapted for other content, such as education?

    And keeping with the theme of stealing ideas, here are some other places using a model similar to Pragmatic Programmers (Note: I didn't engage in any heavy research, so I'm not saying anybody did the idea first or that anybody is copying anybody else.)

    Several publishers use Safari's online book publishing, a system it calls Rough Cuts. Peachpit Press is one of them.

    We Are Smarter Than Me

    And something that hits a little closer to home: We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change by Five Independent Thinkers. This book was published as a blog before being printed and bound. Copy the idea. (And buy the book; you won't regret it.)

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    January 12, 2007

    Idea a day, part 2

    Yesterday, the idea was to steal things. Today, here's one specific idea to steal. Most of you know that Google encourages its engineers to work on pet projects for 20 percent of their time. That's nice for the Silicon Valley, but you don't have time for that. You have real work to do.

    Think about that real work for a second. How much time do you spend diffusing an insignificant situation that a single or small group of members has decided to start making noise about? If you don't spend time about the next big thing, there won't be a next big thing. If you're a leader at your organization, is there anything that should be a higher priority than critical and strategic thought. Give yourself permission to make a ritual of doing nothing — no phone, no staff, no BlackBerrys — except finishing the question that starts with "What if..."

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    January 11, 2007

    An idea a day for a week

    Peter O'Neil and Shawn Lea each mentioned the Great Ideas Conference in recent posts. I should mention that Acronym will be your place to keep up with the conference as me and a few others will be blogging from there.

    We'll also whet the appetite so to speak with some preconference coverage. In that spirit, for the next seven days I will offer up one idea each day. I won't have the audacity to call them "great" though. You'll have to judge if they're useful or not.

    And another disclaimer — I'm not saying these are necessarily original ideas. In fact, the first idea is to steal ideas. Before you roll your eyes at the blindingly obvious, allow me to clarify: actively and passionately steal ideas. Take notice of what catches your attention and analyze and find something to use in it. Why does Lost or Law and Order grab your attention? Action, mystery, brain teasers... are these things you can think about when you're trying to grab your members' attention?

    When you're at a gathering where most of the people are new to you, assess who seems to have power in the room. What clues signify this and is there something in their approach you can use when you're in front of your volunteers or staffs?

    Everything — everything — in the world around you is inspiration.


    November 20, 2006

    My answers to three questions

    Jeff De Cagna asks three questions in a recent blog post. Here are my answers:

    1. What are you learning about the future that excites you?

    Though I hate the term, I'd have to say it's Web 2.0 and all that is emerging in social online connectivity. This is as profound a shift as having a world of reference information at your fingertips.

    2. What are you learning about the future that concerns you?

    I am concerned about the membership model of associations. Let's consider the 80/20 rule. While the percentages may not be right for your organization, I'd guess most associations have some kind of 80/20 split happening, where 20 percent of members make up 80 percent of the participation (it wouldn't surprise me a bit if many associations had a 90/10 rule; 10 percent of members make up 90 percent of participation). It used to be that the 80 percent not participating very much were still association joiners. I think the era of instant information has begun to change that. And the rise of Web 2.0 social connectivity lets people drift in and out of participation more easily than association membership does. I am also concerned that Web 2.0 social connectivity will peel off chunks of the 20 percent that do participate, as they can create their own environments when they formerly needed the association's logistical support.

    3. Are you motivated more by the excitement or the concern?

    Jeff makes this point about the last question: "If you’re motivated more by the concern, you probably prefer to play it safe. If you’re motivated by the excitement, you probably want to innovate."

    My two answers seem to be intertwined quite a bit, but if I had to choose one, I'd guess it's my motivation around the concern that is fueling the excitement. Almost no one would rather be described as "safe" rather than "innovative," so I'm hoping that I'm an exception to his last statement. Many of my thoughts on the matter seem anything but safe—up to and including my own job security.

    For example, I think one possible good and successful outcome to all of this might be forgetting the current notion of membership. I propose that the two traditional metrics we use to measure the success of membership are flawed. The two are number of members and retention rate. The metrics I care about have to include member participation. I don't care about the 80 percent. I'll take their dues dollars, but I'm much more interested in 20 percent of participators. The metrics that matter to me are the number of members participating and the retention of those participating. By casting my net narrowly on this 20 percent I think I lose a lot of the 80 percent. Obviously I'd expect this approach to transform some of the 80 percent into the engaged 20 percent, but I could only hope for a little of such growth.

    The upside to this approach is you get more people more involved. I think content and quality improve, and the mission of serving the industry or profession is better served. The downside, of course, is that even though dues as a percent of total income has been declining for most associations for quite some time, dues is a huge chunk of revenue. I don't think the improved content and quality necessarily make up that revenue, either. As a result, a lot of products and services—and the people who manage them—that are developed to attract the 80 percent go away.

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    November 17, 2006

    An open forum

    In recent entry on the Face2Face blog, Sue Pelletier links to several new websites that provide opportunities for any individual to post information, comments, or feedback about conferences and meetings—much like Amazon’s customer review system. Confabb is a good example if you’d like to check one out.

    I would guess that most associations do some kind of attendee survey either during or after their major meetings. But it’s not likely that most associations will post those attendee comments for the world to see (except for the really good ones, which might make an appearance in future marketing materials).

    What effect would it have if your association used Confabb or a similar system to solicit open feedback about a recent or upcoming meeting? Would it improve the experience for attendees? Would it allow you to proactively fix problems in an upcoming (or ongoing) event? Would it let you have real dialogue with attendees who had negative experiences, instead of just hearing about their concerns after the fact?


    November 16, 2006

    The world loves a challenge

    Thousands of economists and other stats geeks have been spending hours and hours helping Netflix improve its movie-suggestion algorithms. Netflix is offering a million dollar reward to the first person (or team) to reach a 10% improvement. They're giving interested parties 100 million ratings (more than 700mb of information) from their own database to test their theories. (The Freakonomics authors have written on it in their blog a couple of times: 1 & 2).

    If you mix in some creativity with a dash of inspiration, I'd think you could steal this idea. Here are the essential elements: offer a distinct and hard challenge (it doesn't have to be as quantifiable as Netflix's), open up your resources that can aid those interested, and come up with an incentive that will be valuable to your audience (or a niche of your audience).

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    October 26, 2006

    Innovation and leaps of faith

    Jeff De Cagna takes Associations Now to task with a post on his Principled Innovation blog. As usual, Jeff offers well-reasoned and thoughtful points, almost all of which I agree with. But I do disagree with his characterization of the "Calculated Leaps of Faith" article in the October issue.

    First of all, the article isn't about innovation per se. Everything that Jeff says about innovation being a discipline for organizations to practice in the many posts on his blog and in the several articles he's written for us over the years is heady stuff that I'd advise association leaders to listen to and try to implement.

    The article is about seeing the need for a massive course correction and having the determination and courage to act. The word "innovation" appears once in the article, in a way that I believe is consistent with the notion of an organization practicing the discipline of innovation:

    Building an organization that thrives on calculated risks requires a variety of ingredients. Among them are a seasoned and courageous CEO, thorough research and planning of "risky" endeavors, the ability to predict change, a board and staff team that is encouraged to embrace and cultivate innovation, and, perhaps most importantly, a plan for getting from Point A to Point B.

    Angela Brady, the author of the piece, is saying that the innovation discipline is one of several interconnected qualities that risk-taking organizations need to have if they are to be successful.

    Jeff seems to especially bristle at the notion of "faith." I would argue that short of clairvoyance, every decision is a leap of faith. The pool at the bottom could very well be 6 inches or 20 feet. The article is about doing what you can to ensure before you leap that you're aiming for the 20-foot pool, but you never really know for sure. What you do know for sure is that the wild animal that chased you to the cliff means certain annihilation.

    A final point: Sometimes, the best thing that can happen is to smack into the 6-inch pool, blow the organization apart, and piece together the parts that will enable you to soar from there.


    October 25, 2006

    Getting to know your members

    I’ve been reading an advance copy of Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath—a study of how and why some messages “stick” in the popular consciousness and others don’t. One story they tell is about a brand manager at General Mills who revitalized the Hamburger Helper line.

    When she began her work, she was given reams of sales and marketing research data (the “death binders,” she called them). But none of that was as valuable to her as what she gleaned by actually watching customers “in the field.” Seeing a parent put a meal together while holding a baby on one hip and watching small children pick through unfamiliar foods at dinner gave her a whole new perspective.

    A related question was raised earlier this week during ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s CEO Think Tank on 7 Measures of Success. Attendees were asked whether staff at their associations visited members at work. Scattered hands were raised around the room—it certainly wasn’t a majority. And come to think of it, in my past experience in association management, I’ve never had the opportunity to observe a member at work. I regularly spoke with them about their jobs; I wrote articles on the issues facing their profession. But none of that was the same as actually shadowing a member as he or she supervised construction of a bridge or sampled for chemicals at a manufacturing plant.

    Clearly, quantitative research has its place. But I think we would be much more inspired to come up with solutions to members’ daily challenges if we were able to see them, up close and personal.

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    August 13, 2006

    The No Fly Annual Meeting

    The news this past week has me thinking about what the association world would be like if business travel as we know it ends.

    Seems far fetched, and I hope it is, but the UK has begun to ban electronics from carry-on luggage on their flights. How many of you are confident that a checked laptop will make it to your destination unscathed? Or even arrive? I know of people who are contemplating going to London via Paris and the Chunnel in order to avoid UK flight restrictions. Such draconian measures seem likely to depress business and other travel.

    If these trends continue and spread, I can see business travel by air drying up significantly. The first things to be cut in that kind of travel-unfriendly environment are often non-essential meetings, which basically defines the association event.

    How could you hold an annual meeting or convention in that environment? One though I've had is that you could convene simultaneous local meetings within drive distance of a majority of your membership. Each locality would recruit their own concurrent speakers. The national organization could provide keynotes via satellite, a common web site, virtual exhibit hall and supplemental online community space for attendees around the country to interact and network. It would have to be a different economic model, of course, but the current one would not survive the death of air travel.

    I am interested in what you think about this idea or other options under the assumption that business air travel might be severely restricted for an extended period of time. How might associations innovate around this kind of challenge?

    (Update: News this morning says that laptops are being allowed back onto UK flights.)

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    August 7, 2006

    Breaking down barriers to thought and action

    Newton Holt wrote the cover story for the August issue of Associations Now, “A Healthy Lack of Discipline.” I asked him if he ran across any other examples of cross-discipline thinking that readers might find interesting. Here is his response:

    “If it worked with Reese’s cups (who put their peanut butter in my chocolate?), then, naturally, a multidisciplinary mindset ought to work for creating advanced thought and new knowledge, right? Well, of course it’s not that simple, but the same sort of playfulness (I’m not going to call it 'daring' or 'courage'—everything is 'daring' or 'courageous' these days, right down to, at least according to one reviewer, the really awful CD I just regrettably bought) that tempts you to mix peanut butter and chocolate just to see what will happen is what makes the work of the ‘multidisciplinary masters’ I profiled so fascinating and, more important, groundbreaking. Here’s a look at three more examples of multidisciplinary alchemy I’ve run across in the past few weeks.

    “Religion and science reconcile. Up until age 27, Francis Collins, the leader of the Human Genome Project that mapped the entire genetic structure of human beings, was a staunch atheist. But as a young doctor, he found himself impressed by how some of his most critical patients persevered with the aid of their faith. That led to a fateful meeting with a Methodist minister, who introduced Collins to the work of Christian philosopher, author, and critic C.S. Lewis (who is perhaps best known for Chronicles of Narnia). Now, at 56, Collins has combined his disciplined scientific genius with his passion for evangelical Christianity—an interesting combination. He currently is focusing on reopening the ‘age-old debate between science and religion.’ His book The Language of God will publish in September—find out more in a London Times article.

    “Chemical cuisine. The May 2006 issue of Wired featured a profile of Chicago chef Grant Achatz. Why? Because Acahtz’s kitchen looks more like a sci-fi laboratory than it does a typical kitchen. At his restaurant, Alinea, he uses lab equipment and industrial preservatives to prepare such weird (but reportedly good) dishes as a supercold applewood-flavored ice cream. He also, like many chefs, sees food as art and has prepared, along with his colleagues, some very intricate, laser-precise delicacies.

    “(Non)physician, heal thyself. Finally, there’s a story about someone who for good reason would rather not be named. It shows how refusing to keep yourself confined to any specialized area of thought is not only ignorant but potentially deadly. After years and years of ‘mystery’ symptoms and misdiagnoses, an association executive with a potentially life-threatening disorder was fed up. This association executive also happens to be an avid fan of all things medical. So after misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, failed treatment after failed treatment, she said, ‘You know what? Screw this. If doctors can be good at golf without being Ernie Els, then I can be good at medicine without being C. Everett Koop.’ She pored over Web sites, books, and newsgroups until she came across a set of symptoms—rare symptoms—that rang way too familiar. ‘One of my doctors had written off Charcot-Marie-Tooth [a rare genetic disorder] a few years ago, but I knew. I knew, but I didn’t trust myself, because I’m a nonphysician.’ What was her diagnosis? You guessed it: Charcot-Marie-Tooth.

    “The last example is the one that strikes me the most. There’s the world ‘out there,’ the ‘real world,’ and the ‘neighborhood.’ The people whose multidisciplinary prowess I had looked at in the article were ‘out there’ (i.e., university researchers) or ‘real world’ (i.e., applied in the workplace). But to see multidisciplinary thinking in action—right there, in the ‘neighborhood’—and in a way that was potentially life saving really proved its validity to me.”

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    August 3, 2006

    Long Tail wagging the dog?

    Thank God for people like Jeff De Cagna who elevate the level of discourse in the association community beyond the simple concepts. In comments posted to this blog, Jeff suggests that association executives need to fully consider the ramifications for our organizations of an emerging economic theory called the Long Tail, not just dismiss it out of hand. I read the article written by Jamie Notter and Jeff when it first hit Associations Now back in February 2006 and posted a few thoughts about it back then. In the time since I jotted down those thoughts, I've considered this more fully, and in my view, the Long Tail doesn't translate well to associations for these four reasons:

    1. In order for the economics of the Long Tail to be fully realized, there has to be a sufficient number of consumers to take advantage of the myriad products and services being offered. I would venture to guess that an association would need an audience of about 100,000 or more in order to begin to see results from a Long Tail strategy. Pragmatically, associations' audiences are their members, and I concede that every association has the opportunity to sell to nonmembers as well.

    2. Related to the first point, the Long Tail can't be fully harnessed unless there is a sufficient diversity within an audience. The blessing (and the curse) of associations is that our audiences are very homogeneous groups. How diverse can our Long Tail products and services really be if we want to sell them to an audience with relatively similar needs?

    3. Association executives are accountable to their organizations' tax exempt missions or purposes. Any association executive that wants to pursue a long tail strategy will have to determine if such activity falls within the scope of their association's objectives. The task of developing a diverse line of products to satisfy a Long Tail strategy may very well fail this test.

    4. The Long Tail seems to run contrary to another economic principle that seems to work quite well for associations. It's the principle outlined in books like Blue Ocean Strategy and Purple Cow. Do something remarkable and something that no one else is doing, and charge a lot of money for it. This is a strategy that, in my mind, stands a far better chance of generating a high rate of return than a Long Tail strategy.

    Even if your evaluation of the Long Tail strategy suggests that your association should pursue it, there's still the problem of actually developing the thousands of products to fill your inventory. Who will do it?

    Staff? How many staff would it take to develop thousands of new products and services? And aren't we all struggling with what programs to cut?

    Volunteers? Are you finding enough committed volunteers to undertake projects like these?

    Will your association become a reseller of other companies' products?

    There is lower-hanging fruit out there. More targeted segmentation, better member service, more innovative products and services that carry a higher value and a higher profit. If you want my advice, go after those.

    And here's a deep thought: The association industry itself is the long tail.

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    June 23, 2006

    Like it or not, innovation is still king

    Yawn. It’s old news. There have been hundreds of books written about it. You’ve heard it from Jeff De Cagna a couple dozen times. But a key message of the conferences I’ve attended recently is that smart business leaders are still taking innovation very, very seriously. Peter Georgescu, chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam, said this at the Invitational Forum:

    • We must compete on innovation because we can no longer compete on price and win.

    • If you are trying to sell a product at a decent margin, you have to have differentiation. To achieve differentiation, you need innovation.

    • Every single employee must be a creative contributor to the enterprise.

    • The job of a leader is to empower the creativity of all of their employees.

    • Quality, productivity, and competitiveness are all results of enabling creativity (which leads to innovation).

    Mike Rhodin, general manager of Lotus Software at IBM, reinforced this thinking at the conference I attended on collaborative technology (I was the only association exec in the room). Saying that “Future productivity will largely come from the way people innovate,” Mike defined innovation as “the intersection between invention and insight.” Innovation is no longer principally about invention, because anyone can copy a product or service. Innovation is now mainly about the way a product is executed to enable differentiation.

    From the amount of head-nodding going on, it appears that corporate America, particularly in the tech sector, gets this. I am not sure if we in the association world do yet. A lot of folks I talk to in our profession still roll their eyes when the word “innovation” (or, God forbid, “creativity”) enters a conversation. Among many association professionals, innovation is seen as something soft and trendy and somehow “unbusiness-like.” While innovation is nice (nobody really argues against it), wouldn’t it be better to talk about execution and margins and metrics?

    What business leaders like Georgescu and Rhodin are saying is that the best and maybe only way to achieve better productivity, stronger execution, and greater margins is through innovation. And the longer we take to start talking about, planning for, and measuring innovation in our organizations, the more at risk we are for becoming irrelevant. Jeff’s right. Maybe it’s time to get serious.

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