May 31, 2012

Associations as Networked "Ecosystems"

In an interesting interview article appearing in the May 29 Inc. magazine, business guru Jim Collins references new thinking on leadership that he developed after working with ASAE and the associations that participated in research for the book Seven Measures of Success.

In a discussion of how the Internet revolution has changed business today, Collins says, "The Internet is all about networks and connectivity across networks, so one possibility is that there's a shift to a new fundamental building of society, namely, the network. We may be moving to a world of networks well led, as opposed to organizations well managed. You can't really manage a network, but you can help lead within a network."

Calling such networks "building blocks," Collins points to associations that "are, by their nature, networks. They're fluid. But an association has to have some sort of unity and cohesion.

"So how do you create a great association when it's inherently not self-contained? [ASAE's] researchers analyzed some really high-performing associations, in which you can see this network effect and the importance of being able to lead without direct power. I began thinking that associations may actually be on the leading edge of what more people are going to have to learn how to do. Instead of managing a company, you're managing an ecosystem that is networked and connected over the world."

You can read the full article, "Jim Collins: Be Great Now," here and please feel free to comment below.


March 25, 2012

A better culture, from the top and bottom


Two afternoon Idea Labs on the first day of ASAE's 2012 Great Ideas Conference offered different ideas on improving the organizational culture at an association.

First, in his session titled "Straight Talk: Creating a Culture of Creativity, Openness and Honesty," Larry Johnson, co-author of Absolute Honesty: Building a Corporate Culture That Values Straight Talk and Rewards Integrity, explained six rules for achieving a more honest culture:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Tackle the problem
  3. Disagree and commit
  4. Welcome the truth
  5. Reward the messenger
  6. Build a platform of integrity

The rules are all straightforward, but throughout the presentation, Johnson emphasized the importance of the leader's role in setting the example and building the culture. He asked the audience to finish the sentence "I would be more effective working with [insert colleague's name here] if...". Often, the responses Johnson hears begin with "he" or "she," but he said an effective leader completes that sentence beginning with "I." And he said building an honest culture is a manager's responsibility, like it or not. When you become a manager, you become a "famous person" and a role model. "Do you realize there are dinner conversations about you?" he said.

Later, presenters Nora Burns, SPHR, and Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE (pictured above), illustrated how "A Strategic Approach to Association Staffing" can improve the culture of an association.

Dorsey, executive director and CEO of the American Association of Snowboard Instructors and Professional Ski Instructors of America, shared how PSIA-AASI has broken down silos by revamping its hiring process. Burns, principal of Insightful Endeavors International, conducted an assessment of the PSIA-AASI staff using a profiling tool called Emergenetics to identify gaps in work styles and personality traits among the staff overall.

The organization used that information to decide what skills and values it needed to evolve among its staff in order to meet its mission, and it seeks those skills in new hires rather than simply filling the position based on technical skills alone. It has also incorporated more staff into the hiring process so that the people who make up the organization's culture play a key role in shaping its future.

While this new approach to hiring was a decision guided by Dorsey at the top, it shows how focusing on organization-wide, bottom-up skills and values can change the culture.

These two approaches to organizational culture, one focusing on the leader and one focusing on the ground-level staff, come from different directions, but I don't think either is right or wrong or better than the other. Rather, with culture being such an intangible, constantly evolving challenge, I think you need both.


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 16, 2012

What do associations do better than anyone else?

Here's a question to melt your brain: if your association had to decide which one product or service it was best at providing and from then on produce that one item alone and nothing else, what would it be?

This came to mind after reading Jeff Cobb's post this week titled "What if you were the Dyson of your market?" He writes:

I have in mind that obvious and yet amazing claim for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer to make:

Our vacuums have strong suction and they don't lose it.

[…] imagine if you could validly say "People who participate in our learning experiences gain high quality, actionable knowledge; they retain it; and, they use it. We guarantee it."

I often find myself envious of companies that design and manufacture one type of item, like Dyson does with vacuum cleaners (or perhaps "turbine devices" to account for their fans, hand dryers, and washing machines, too). It's that kind of singular focus that makes it a lot less complicated for a company to strive toward being the best in the world at what it does.

Leah Busque's recent post at Fast Company's Co.Exist blog on comparative advantage ("If You Want It Done Right, Don't Do It Yourself") drives this point home:

There is tremendous power in focusing on the things you are most skilled at, while relying on others to do the rest. … It's necessary (and a real skill) to acknowledge where your time is best spent and make conscious decisions to focus on those areas.

The variety of endeavors most associations pursue, however, is broad: meetings, education, knowledge sharing, advocacy, standards, fundraising, research, group buying, and so on and so on. (I'm reminded yet again of C. David Gammel, CAE's postulate about an association being "a conglomerate of small businesses.")

I commented on Jeff's post to say that I worry that this lack of focus in associations might prevent them from achieving a Dyson-level of quality—the level of "we're the best in the world and we guarantee it"—in any particular product or service. Of course, any given association could, theoretically, pick one of its offerings, eschew the rest, and pursue it at the highest level. And the particular offering chosen would likely be different at every association, depending on each one's unique circumstances and skill sets.

But is there one comparative advantage for associations overall? For the association model? What is it that associations are better at than anyone else? I'll admit I struggled with this for a while, but I think the answer is rather straightforward: associations are the best at being large groups of people with common interests and goals. Their comparative advantage lies in having a critical mass. Power in numbers is what lends credibility to all the products and services associations create.

A lot of people would call this "membership," so it's understandable that we all get whipped into a froth when we debate the future of the membership model. If membership is the fundamental advantage that associations carry, and they lost it, they might cease to exist. I think this viewpoint is half right. "Membership" often denotes payment to enter, and I don't think that's always necessary. "Community" seems like the better label to me. As long as an association can foster a community, whether the community members pay to be a part of it or not, it will have opportunities to remain sustainable.

But you can't sell membership in and of itself. People don't join a community just to be a part of it. They join for all the benefits that its power in numbers enables. And so maybe the question at the start of this post is irrelevant. Perhaps we're comparing apples to oranges. What do you think? What is that associations can guarantee they're the best in the world at? Or can they at all?

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December 14, 2011

In denial about technology

So #Tech11 is about a week past us now, and I'm still letting what I saw and heard soak in. I regret to say that I was only present for about half of the conference, what with other responsibilities to tend to back at the office, but I didn't need to be there very long to come to the following conclusion:

Whatever amount of resources your association is currently devoting to technology and web development is not anywhere close to enough. Double it. Triple it. Probably still not enough.

I promise no technology vendors paid me to write that. My first inclination would be to increase in-house tech and web staff anyway. And I say this acknowledging that money, time, and staff don't grow on trees, of course. I just think it's time for a significant reorganization of priorities.

In speeches and presentations at the conference, I heard references to companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo!, Instagram, and Rovio (makers of Angry Birds). To be clear, these aren't just companies that are good at technology. They are tech companies. Tech is either the majority or the entirety of what they do. The common reaction is to take these examples as inspiration for lofty but unattainable ideas and think, "Yeah, but we're an association. We're not a tech company."

Are you sure about that? Here's a rundown of common association endeavors, each with a tech/web component:

  • Membership (online application and renewal, member directory, discussion groups)
  • Volunteer management (discussion groups, document sharing and collaboration)
  • Meetings (online registration, digital or mobile/tablet program guides, recording and livestreaming, virtual conferences)
  • Publications (e-newsletters, mobile and tablet editions, audio and video, e-books)
  • Communications (email, social media)
  • Advocacy (alerts, online petitions)
  • Education (webinars, self-directed online learning, digital course material)
  • Research (electronic surveys, interactive databases)

This list is not complete, but you get the idea. How many of your association's activities can you think of that involve no technology whatsoever? There aren't many. In-person meetings and face-to-face collaboration still count, of course, and they count for a lot. But when I look at this list above, I wonder what associations actually did before the invention of the internet. I really do.

And so it's with that mindset that I wonder why associations still devote such a small percentage of their in-house resources to technology. An association might not be a "tech company" in the traditional sense, and associations will always need technology partners for big, hairy projects and for highly specialized work. But if nearly everything your association does involves technology and the web—if the core of the business is helping people meet, communicate, interact, and collaborate, almost entirely online—how can you justify not shifting a larger percentage of your resources toward making those tech and web components excel? Luke Wroblewski said associations should start thinking about mobile first. That's going to be tough if you're still in denial about being web first.

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September 30, 2011

Organization has to come from somewhere

Organization is not my strong suit. I'm not terrible at it, but I have to force myself to work at it because it doesn't come naturally to me. So that probably colors my viewpoint on the value of organization; I know it has to happen to get things done, but I sure wouldn't call it easy.

This week Tom Morrison argues on his blog that membership is still the strongest model for associations and points to the value of organization. One of the three keys to success, he writes, is "you must provide services and products that your members can't provide themselves effectively." And he tells a story of a fellow attendee at a Florida SAE event:

… an executive right next to me [said] "he didn't need FSAE to be able to pull together people and have a meeting like this. Members don't need an association for that anymore as much," he claimed. […] I immediately piped in and stated that, "You paid $50 to be at this 2-day event with 35 of the best minds in association management and you're telling me that for the $50 you paid to be at this amazing event, you could pull together this crowd for 2-days? Who's going to do your day job?"

This brought to mind an op-ed from The Washington Post (more than six weeks ago) by David S. Meyer titled "Americans are angry. Why aren't they protesting?" A couple points stuck out to me, the first about the transfer of emotion into action:

There is plenty of anger in America today […] Where are the people taking to the streets? The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced the activists at the grass roots. This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn't make a movement — organizers do.

He later pointed out that even Rosa Parks had organizational support:

Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. […] Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.

This is not the first time I've said this here, but I'll say it again: It takes a vast amount of organization to channel the energy of a large group of people into collective action. And despite all the advances in tech-enabled self-organization, I still only see these types of movements knocking off the low-hanging fruit of those organizing bodies (e.g., associations).

So count me in agreement with Tom on that first key to success being effective organizing that a market can't provide itself effectively on its own. I don't know if that means membership is the model that must support that organizing function, but the means for that organizing to occur have to come from somewhere.

Below the logo on the cover of every issue of Associations Now is a tagline: "Ideas Into Action." I've always liked it because I think it embodies what associations do in just three words. But as any association executive who has come out of a board or volunteer meeting with a brand new initiative to implement knows, getting from idea to action is never, ever as easy as it sounds.

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April 14, 2011

What's in a name?

Let's talk titles.

A conversation with fellow YAEC-er LaKesha McGuire inspired this post, as we discussed what's in a title? Mostly as it pertains to lateral and vertical movement through the association world.

What's "lateral" though? Sometimes, a Director position to a Manager position can be lateral or even upward, depending on the naming structure. My mother is as high as she can possibly get at her mid-sized association, and has a Director title, as it's their top title. I work for a small staff association and have a Director title, but our jobs could not be more different.

Similarly, I've seen seasoned employees called "coordinators" who do incredibly high-level strategic work, and I've seen new part-time customer service reps called "coordinator".

How do you get around this in reviewing resumes for potential hires? How important is title to you? As important as a raise/promotion?

Some associations call their highest employee "CEO", others go with "Executive Director" or "Executive Officer" or "President". But "President" could also be your top board member. I think that structure seems to often mimic the structure of members' companies.

What structure does your association use? Have you had any confusion explaining it to people or in the HR process?

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December 7, 2009

What if associations abandoned hierarchy?

This part 2, see part 1 from Friday, answering the question:

“What if associations abandoned the notion of hierarchy and every employee was valued equally?”

Today, I’m going to talk about the hierarchy half of the question, which, in all likelihood, is what the author of the question thought was the “big idea” part of the question.

At various points in my life, I’ve been a hierarchy-hater, which is, I think, the trendy management flavor. (That is, that hierarchy is a bureaucracy that throws roadblocks in the way of progress and that flatter organizations are more effective.) But as I try to answer this question, I first want to take a contrarian view—one that even surprises myself a little. The view is, that at a basic, definition level, hierarchy is simply a decision-making tool.

When looked at this way, it’s really not such a bad thing. Don’t hate the hierarchy; hate the lack of leadership from the people at the top of it. A hierarchy per se doesn’t create red tape, it doesn’t squash innovation, and it doesn’t perpetuate a culture of elitism. A hierarchy does say that a particular person is responsible for making a particular decision. If the person is a poor leader of groups, then the hierarchy will suck for all those involved (well, except maybe the sucky leader). Oh well. Build whatever powerbase you can around it or get out of the situation (as Jeff Hurt said in his comments to Friday's post)—I don’t see other options for you. But if the decision maker is a strong leader, he or she will empower others to build a strong solution to whatever issue is at stake. People in these situations don’t complain about the hierarchy because they don’t feel like it gets in the way.

But take out the hierarchy, and you spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out who has the power to set norms for the group and make decisions. Many people who know me, know that I hate graduate-school-style group work. I took a lot away from my graduate program, but nothing is stronger than the idea that this kind of group is to be avoided at all costs in the real world. Maybe—and I’ll concede (grudgingly) that even probably—the group’s work will exceed the work that could be done alone, but I believe the resource cost far outweighs that benefit.

So to sum up this part of the argument, I think that when people clamor for an end to hierarchy, they really should be clamoring for effective leadership that empowers staff in that hierarchy.

“Don’t hate the hierarchy” may be heretical, but it’s not really a big idea. So I’ll spend the last 150 words of this post trying to think.

When I think of a hierarchy-lite association, I think of those entrepreneurial-minded technology companies you’ve heard about where the idea champion is the project leader, and he or she forms a team from others willing to devote resources to the project. How could such a model work in associations? Picture this: An idea will need dual leadership, one staff and one volunteer. They then work to convince other staff and volunteers to devote resources to the project. If they get enough support, then they launch the project team. Some parameters could be set: maybe no one could champion more than one thing at a time, and everyone is required to devote no more than 60 percent of their resources to what they champion themselves.

One thought is that for something like this to work, you’d need to have projects that can be completed, rather than ongoing. I think the trend is toward this type of project--certainly it's toward this type of volunteering--but associations have to be dragged there, as we are typically unwilling to give up our perpetual programs and services.

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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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August 17, 2008

Honest Words about Diversity--for a Change

I've lost count of how many diversity programs I've attended in my career, but I thought this morning's General Session on "Looking Through the Lens of Others" was especially terrific. Here are some samples I valued:

--Nadira Hira, the impressive 20-something journalist for Fortune, is an articulate mouthpiece for young and younger workers. Her advice: "Be authentic. Don't try to pretend you're diverse when you're not." In other words, forget the BS.

--Doug Klein, executive director of the Association for Conflict Resolution, noted that the reason race or ethnic-based professional and trade organizations still exist is "because there's a need not being met" by the broader association in that profession or trade.

I immediately recalled a conversation I had with--of all people--actor Louis Gossett Jr. backstage at the last Nation’s Capital Distinguished Speakers Series. He had told me about the evolution of racism from a black professional's perspective, and I had asked him if the time had finally come for the association community to make a commitment to facilitate mergers of broad-based associations with similar niche groups grounded in race or gender as well as the profession or trade, such as the Society of Professional Journalists with the National Association of Black Journalists.

The actor, who founded and actively guides a New Orleans-based foundation to help at-risk youths, said no. He urged associations to instead focus on youth--the next generation of workers--rather than try to overcome the prejudices of the current workforce, which he said was essentially fruitless. Klein's comment today seemed to reiterate those conclusions on an organizational level.

--The always-blunt, always-superb Patti Digh laments that "people aren't focused on retention at all. They just want to 'get 'em in the door.' This lack of "diversity succession planning" was raised at ASAE & The Center's last diversity forum. Basically, no one knows how to do it or even what such a plan looks like. Perhaps that's a project or research idea for our Diversity Committee or for a select task force.

--Co-moderator Cokie Roberts noted, "At some point we have to be the token," but then that representative should "bring others in." That implies a responsibility, not a choice, on the part of the, say, female executive about actively attracting other smart, accomplished women into the organization.

I have mixed feelings on that. I think we should do what we can to attract all smart, accomplished people to our association IF that organization is best set up to leverage their talents and knowledge for the benefit of the members. I'm uncomfortable screening candidates primarily because they look like me or share a cultural commonality. That said, I'm likely to be a more successful recruiter within those desired demographics because of that reality. Comments? I need to think about this more.

A "Say what?" moment: Patti was called by a company that said its white employees were putting nooses on the lockers of black employees. Patti said she could design an intervention, etc. The response? "We're thinking of a two-hour training session."

Quotables from the General Session:

"We talk about diversity as an end in itself, not what that brings us.... Diversity is not a problem to be fixed.... We've damned ourselves in this country by being too PC [politically correct]. You can't know if you're talking to yourself only." --Patti Digh

"We're afraid of [diversity], even though we know it's good for us."--consultant Steve Hanamura

"Powerful" and "moving"--just some of the high praise I heard about the "Peer Perspectives" video clips of diverse association executives.

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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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September 24, 2007

Are you an agent of calcification?

On the Gaping Void blog last week, Hugh Macleod mentioned an interesting term: “agents of calcification.” Macleod defines such agents as “the folks in a big company … whose role isn't to invent, make, or sell stuff, but to maintain and enhance the apparatus of bureaucracy, even at the expense of the business itself.”

I would say that such calcifiers aren’t unique to big companies. It’s possible that all organizations have calcifying tendencies—and specific individuals may be active agents of calcification or just enablers of an ongoing organizational hardening of the arteries.

If calcifying tendencies get out of hand, the symptoms can do real damage to an organization and its ability to fulfill its mission. Unneeded bureaucratic procedures take time from employees who could otherwise be providing your members with great customer service or dreaming up new ideas. Not to mention that, while some bureaucratic paperwork is understandable and necessary, past a certain point it can drain individual employees of energy and enthusiasm.

Here’s a little quiz to determine if you or your association needs to go on a bureaucracy diet:

1. Do you find yourself saying any of the following things on a regular basis?

- “That’s a great idea, but we tried that x years ago and it didn’t work.”
- “That’s a great idea, but it would never work here.”
- “That’s a great idea, but we don’t have the resources to pursue it.”

2. Do you spend more time reporting to others about a problem than you spend thinking of creative solutions to the problem?

3. Do you ever find yourself filling out more than three forms that are all related to the same, single task?

4. Do you spend more time filling out forms and writing up informational reports for a board meeting than you do preparing for strategic discussions?

5. Do you spend more time filling out paperwork during the budget process than you spend thinking of improvements to your area of responsibility that could take place in the next budget year?

If you’re answering yes to several of these questions—is it time to consider some changes?

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