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August 21, 2012

A Pair of Lessons Learned From #ASAE12

The following is a guest post from a pair of colleagues who attended the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo together: Kimberley Gray, event coordinator, and Juanita Kardell, training coordinator, at Associated General Contractors of Alaska.

Kimberley: The Importance of Moving On

While at this year's ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo, I attended some sessions that sounded like they were a perfect fit for me because the title and description covered a topic that would aid me in my work. For most time slots I actually picked two sessions and soon learned why that was a good decision. For a few of my selections, it took only 10 minutes in the first session before I was able to ascertain that it was not quite the right fit. I didn't want to waste my time (I don't mean the session wasn't of value; I know it was of value to others, just not for me), so I moved on to my second choice. Now, as I return to the office, I wonder if it isn't time to take that same look at my programs. Yes, I attended the Mary Byers session on just that topic, and I can see why.

I know when I start each new project for my association it seems like such a great idea and will be a value to my members. But can that be true of every new project or event? With new information fresh in my mind, it is a good time to look at my programs with a critical eye to make sure that they are a "fit" for my members. So even in leaving a session, I gain information that will help me on my return to Alaska.

I do know that I had a great time at the ASAE conference, both during the day and during the after-hour events, when I was able to network with a wide variety of people, share information about the association world, and even just relax among my peers, which is always a good thing!

Juanita: First-Time ASAE Attendee

After viewing a general description of the conference, I decided which sessions could help me improve in my job, so I signed up to attend. Then the ASAE conference book came and I thought to myself "How do I attend more than one session at a time?" Yikes! Thank goodness I had time to further pare down my choices before the conference. The ASAE app was a great help in making a plan of action. I had finally pared down my choices but by no means had made any final decisions yet. I finally had my list down to three sessions during each time slot and felt ready to tackle the conference. The decision to have options was a good one. All sessions I attended were great but not always what I needed, so the option to move on was a valuable choice. I did find sessions that were a fit for me, some were the first choice I made, but some were the second. I think ASAE did a great job finding a variety of topics to meet the needs of attendees. I am very glad I attended!

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July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!

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July 24, 2012

Walls and Fences Can Lock In Associations Unnecessarily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 8, 2012

Cracking the Role of Luck in Business Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 8, 2011

The pursuit of openness and inclusivity

In the past couple of weeks, I've been working with colleagues to set up a new discussion forum in relation to ASAE's upcoming Volunteer Leadership Retreat. The goal is expanding the number and diversity of viewpoints contributing toward organizational planning.

That's no easy task, and it's one that I think many associations struggle with. By now associations are (or should be) well aware of the business cases for improving diversity and inclusion and allowing for more open, transparent ways of doing business. It's clear that these are worthy goals to pursue. But a lot of the challenge comes in the execution. Even if you're highly motivated, it turns out being more open and inclusive isn't necessarily easy.

Often, the argument goes that closed organizational structures come from those in power clinging to their power and control. In many cases, this may be true, but I don't think it fully explains the existence of closed systems. In the article that Jamie Notter wrote for Associations Now last month based on his and Maddie Grant's book Humanize, he did a nice job explaining another major cause (and staying power) of closed systems: they're incredibly efficient.

Thus, moving toward more openness and inclusivity in group action or decision making comes at the price of efficiency, and that's often enough to stop such efforts cold. The traditional model of decision making just doesn't scale upward very well. Three people can come to a decision fairly easily, but 30 people would take much longer, let alone 300 or 3,000.

In my mind, a more open organizational model can still have levels, but the levels must become flatter and wider—i.e., more people must be allowed to be involved in meaningful ways closer to the point where actual decisions are made. And hierarchy is still OK, too, but the flow of information up and down the levels must be freer. Designing a system that can do these effectively and efficiently is, again, not easy, but as Jamie and Maddie and others argue, technology and social media are making it more achievable (as well as more imperative).

I'm curious how other associations have tried to tackle this challenge. What methods have or haven't worked for you in trying to make your association's governance and planning processes more open and inclusive? If you've had any luck (or hard lessons learned), please share.

[Also, if you're interested in contributing your viewpoints on ASAE's strategic framework, please join the discussion at http://collaborate.asaecenter.org/leadASAE.]

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October 26, 2011

Would your annual report ever sound like this?

My RSS feed from Wired magazine doesn't typically bear much relation to association management, but Maryn McKenna's summary of the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative caught my eye: "Scathing Report: Polio Eradication 'Not... Any Time Soon'."

Maryn writes that the report "is striking for its brutally frank and even frustrated tone." She later writes that the report "identifies problems that extend throughout the worldwide effort. The board is strikingly candid in asking pointed questions about them."

The nature of the report isn't exactly parallel to an association annual report, but I couldn't help but compare them. The truth, though, is they don't really compare at all. The association annual reports I've seen have typically been positive, light on genuine analysis, and rather dull. Anything but brutally frank.

This disparity could be a byproduct of vague missions and goals. Clearly, eradicating polio is a "big, hairy audacious goal." Bigger goal equals more room for failure, which an honest report will identify. But a vague goal, like "advancing the industry," means there's more room to be just as vague in assessing results.

The disparity could also result from who writes the report. In the case of the polio initiative, the report was written by an independent board convened specifically "to monitor and guide the progress" of initiative's strategic plan. In the case of most associations, an annual report is assembled by staff, possibly with involvement or sign-off of the board—two parties with a clear bias toward highlighting an association's success and downplaying its shortfalls. Perhaps a committee of at-large members tasked with authoring an annual report would offer more honest analysis.

Of course, the actual substance of the polio initiative report is disappointing, from a global-health perspective. But sugarcoating the lack of progress toward the initiative's goal would have been a disservice to the people dedicating their energy toward eradicating the disease and to those who still suffer from it. The report's honesty is exactly the kind of kick in the pants that can motivate people to fix problems, and it's exactly the kind of analysis that has to take place when measuring progress toward a mission, whatever it may be.

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September 1, 2011

Deconstructing lovable losers

This was originally meant to be a comment on Joe's post yesterday on "lovable loser" programs, those programs that lose money but are too important to kill. The comment seemed too important, so I'm making it a post on its own.

What Joe makes me think about as he coins a new term, is that organizations are what they measure. Dollars is obviously a basic measurement of a program/product/service. I'm not saying we shouldn't measure financials; you obviously have to. But so often that's where the measurement stops - or maybe you measure a few other things (you know the list, recite it with me: butts in seats, total members, member retention, etc.).

I've never seen an association mission statement that mentions the profitability of the organization itself, so it's a shame when so many of our programs and products use that as the primary measuring stick. Most mission statements talk about making a profession or trade stronger, or helping those in a profession or trade be better at it. Finances and the other measurements (cue the chorus: butts in seats...) are at best distant measurements of such missions.

We could easily get one step closer by figuring out how to measure engagement. Even developing some rudimentary metrics around engagement would go a long way to killing Joe's new term - and that's my goal with this post. I think he's right, where associations are right now is calling such programs losers. But start measuring engagement and I'm guessing those lovable loser programs are actually winners, maybe big winners, in the metric that gets closer to telling you if you're being successful in working on your mission.

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August 31, 2011

Loveable losers (and how we talk about them)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 7, 2011

Does anything trump the economy?

For those of you not already counting down, the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in St. Louis is 60 days away. That means it's the time of year when we start to look ahead to the topics, ideas, and discussions that will be shared at the meeting and examine them here on Acronym.

What better place to start off than the opening general session? This year, the Sunday morning keynote will feature Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of MSNBCs Morning Joe, who will "dissect the events that are transforming our world."

I'm looking forward to their perspectives, as I enjoyed the global trends expertise shared by Fareed Zakaria at the 2009 Annual Meeting. It's good for association leaders to get some insight on how major political, societal, and economic trends are affecting their work.

This brings me to a big question, though:

Even with a long list of major national and global trends shaping our present and future, does anything but the current state of the economy come close to the top of the list of concerns for an association executive?

Of course, it would be foolish to simply ignore macro trends and events—the rise of the BRIC nations, conflicts in the Middle East, and changing demographics in the United States being just a few examples—but I'd think an association struggling to get attendees for a conference because its members are cutting expenses, for instance, would be more concerned about, well, finding ways to drive attendance at its conference.

So I'll be curious to hear what association execs at Annual say are the most pressing trends facing their organizations and how many of those are related to the economy. For now, I'm curious for your thoughts on the question above. Does anything trump the economy on your list of challenges? Either way, what other macro trends are the most pressing for your association when its leaders discuss strategy?

As August approaches, we'll continue with this format here on Acronym, focusing on important questions related to topics to be discussed at Annual. Sometimes we'll reach out to speakers and presenters to offer their answers, and other times we'll just keep questions open-ended. In any case, your thoughts are welcomed.

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May 24, 2011

The nimble advantage

Small Staff Week continues on Acronym... this post is from Joseph Normandy, executive director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association.

Small associations, thy name is nimble...

How many times have you heard that? What? Never? I get it, but it's very true.

I have run both large and small groups, and the advantage small groups have for a quality exec is that you get to touch each operation point and trust each employee that shoulders the various efforts.

That is where the long-range plan comes into play. Created by current leadership, past chairpersons, and staff, this critical give-and-take session will separate the pie-in-the sky dreams from the realistic goals a small staff and small budget can accomplish (and they should be able to accomplish a lot, or you have the wrong team). Small organizations do have resource constraints but being nimble in those long-range plans is a huge advantage. You're not dragging around all the momentum that a large organization carries with it. Often, a large organization will lose focus because an elected leader will see it as "their" year and they are going to adjust the ship in a different direction and thus any long-range planning document is useful only as a doorstop. Small staff organizations can build flexibility into their planning; they can analyze their environments and change appropriately with staff and elected leadership working together to chart the best course. The key is planning smartly.

You want to have a good year, your staff wants to have a sense of success, and surely your leadership team, especially your chairman/president, wants a good year, and that can only be achieved through a working long-range plan. Such a working plan is one that everyone follows and is flexible enough to enable the organization to capitalize on circumstances, but provides enough guidance and support to thwart outcries from singular individuals that want the group to address their pet issues.

Being nimble is fun, and used wisely, it is one of the greatest advantages of working for a small association.

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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.

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March 13, 2011

Responding to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Amazon.com is one of a growing number of companies that are partnering with nonprofits and associations to help raise funds via their websites for disaster relief agencies such as Save the Children, Architecture for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and the American Red Cross in response to the record 8.9-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit March 11. The Japanese Red Cross has been assessing damage, activating volunteers, and communicating with emergency response organizations overseas that have hundreds of volunteer professionals on standby.

Charity Navigator has issued a tipsheet to help donors avoid charity scams related to the disaster, as well as a list of organizations already involved in relief efforts.

You'll also find a serendipitous article in the February issue of Associations Now titled "How Your Organization Can Help with Disaster Relief" that talks about the process four associations went through to be ready with member volunteers, a crisis communications plan, and other resources that may be urgently needed anytime worldwide.

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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 12, 2010

Giving Away Success

I love Success magazine for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, especially the accompanying audio CD that features three to four interviews with leaders from various industries. I always glean great information relevant to our sector as well, and the September issue is no exception, because it carries a series about giving--why and how businesses should give, why folks in the top positions should adopt a public giving culture, and why some of the highest impact giving has nothing to do with money.

This is refreshing in light of the major publicity given this week to the laudable efforts of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to convince billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charitable causes in life or upon their death. If the wealth of the 40+ billionaires who have signed on holds true, that means a staggering flow of more than $200 billion into the nonprofit community--and the dynamic duo are far from done.

The pieces in Success had nothing to do with giving of such mind-boggling personal wealth. Indeed, Success publisher and CD moderator Darren Hardy lists 10 "non-monetary tithes" that business leaders could give, ranging from "knowledge tithing" and "mentoring tithing," to "ear tithing" (listening) and "space tithing" (donating the use of an office or meeting room to a nonprofit for events or a satellite office).

The list reminded me of the latest book from Loews Hotels CEO & Chairman Jonathan Tisch, Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World, in which Tisch urges everyone in every field at every level to become "citizen professionals." He defines that term as a professional in, say, architecture who also applies his or her work skills and knowledge to projects and organizations that better their community and beyond.

In my April interview, Tisch echoes Hardy in urging businesses and the organizations representing these trades and professions to talk more specifically about giving. "My hope is that the leaders of many, many associations are willing to have this conversation with their members, ... because the needs are out there, and the reality is that we have so many challenges as a society, if we could use the strength and vision that associations in our country possess--just the sheer horsepower of the men and women who belong to these associations--we could do a lot for this country."

Tisch went on to say that, like Buffett, people seem hungry to do something positive, and they're looking to their workplaces to meet that desire. "Over the years when I've been involved in so many associations," Tisch says, "I have seen people at conventions want to do more. I have seen them ask for more information [about what to do]. When you look back over the past 18 months--one of the most difficult financial periods our nation has ever been through--we've come out of it with a sense of the fragility of our economic system ..., but now that we're coming to a better place, we also have a greater understanding of what we need to do to preserve the pillars of our economy and to try to do more. People are expressing the need to have a roadmap to help them do more."

I'm hoping, like Hardy, Tisch, and likely Buffett, that association leaders are willing to "ask for directions" that let them create that giving roadmap with their boards, members, and customers. At the very least, consider GPSing your own giving route drawing on a full range of "tithing" options.

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June 29, 2010

Why Staying Mum on CEO Succession Is Dumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 10, 2010

Environmental scanning--Beyond the BP oil spill

It's hard to watch so many friends struggling right now.

The thousands of associations and nonprofits, as well as the millions of people, holding their breaths and praying that the April 22 oil spill by British Petroleum does not destroy their industries and livelihoods throughout the Gulf Coast. The friendly people working at in Nashville and at Opryland, who had to quickly evacuate hundreds of guests to a shelter and are watching CNN photos of brown water surrounding the popular meeting site.

Our colleagues in the airline and travel professions who are trying to conduct business despite the astonishing quantities of plane-choking volcanic ash being spewed in Iceland. The first-responder associations and their brave members who are on high alert after an attempted bombing in Times Square, New York.

All of these events came suddenly, nearly simultaneously, and certainly with high impact. It's enough to prompt another quick conversation not only about disaster readiness but about environmental scanning. Will the oil spill, volcano eruption, and severe weather patterns dramatically change debate about everything from climate change legislation that affects your members, to your Investment Committee's portfolio of both fossil fuel-driven companies and alternative energy upstarts?

Who on staff is responsible for monitoring and analyzing for relevancy such a broad range of important events? When numerous high-impact events occur in particular clusters, do you re-direct some staff temporarily to ensure a comprehensive scan? How is their information to reach the highest decision makers? How will the board be kept updated? Will staff at other levels be apprised of possible impacts that may inspire organizational changes?

I feel very sorry for the many professionals and organizations with first-hand involvement in the above events. I feel at least as sorry, though, for the rest of our community that do not take the opportunity to put themselves in the others' place--and then prepare accordingly.

(For leaders wanting to following the oil spill progress, visit the American Petroleum Institute (API) has created a dedicated Gulf Coast oil spill website, as does the Environmental Protection Agency with real-time environmental data and updates. Wikipedia is being updated almost daily with news/timeline of the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption.)

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April 9, 2010

Crowdsourcing without the crowd knowing about it

Professor and author Ian Ayres delivered the Friday morning keynote at Digital Now, urging associations to adopt more statistical regression and randomized testing to better inform their decisions. If you're not, he says, "you're screwing up."

Why? Because, even if you think you're an expert, humans simply aren't good at predicting outcomes in situations that involve multiple driving factors.

In fact, Ayres picked the title of his book, Super Crunchers, via a randomized test through Google AdWords. Some searchers saw an ad for "Super Crunchers," and some saw an ad for "The End of Intuition," (Ayres' personal choice). More people clicked on "Super Crunchers," and so that title won.

I've seen other authors who have openly crowdsourced the titles of their books. Ayres did it blindly. The crowd didn't know it was being measured.

Of course, associations have their own built-in crowds, and Ayres says associations should more actively test anything and everything. "You routinely get a 5 percent to 10 percent lift in whatever numbers you care about when you do randomized testing," he says.

Just a few measurements associations can test:

  • Member acquisition or renewal probabilities
  • Member lifetime value
  • Any and all marketing copy
  • Website design

Ayres says the web has made statistical testing much more accessible because making adjustments is easy and cheap, as is gaining a large sample size.

My key takeaway from Ayres' presentation is that associations should trust numbers more (and get their boards to trust them, as well). We often overreact to complaints from members or feedback from evaluations. Broader statistical analysis of how members behave, rather than what a few of them tell you, can let you know whether the ones who are speaking up are representative of the full membership or merely outliers.

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April 6, 2010

Where new ideas go to die

In honor of ASAE & The Center's Financial and Business Operations Symposium next month (it starts one month from today), we decided to give April a mini-theme: Money Month. It's "mini" because we've only got a few posts scheduled to cover the topic, but who knows, maybe by the time the month is over, it will be something bigger.

I'd rather start with something more upbeat or positive, but, well, when I was thinking about what to write, I kept falling back to an electronic mailing list discussion that took place a while ago. In it, someone asked how to account for unbudgeted spending when a need arises. CFO after CFO chimed in saying they don't, only their boards can approve new spending. It sounds to me like those are associations where new ideas go to die. So how do you balance the governance tenet of fiduciary responsibility and the need for an organization to be nimble and seize opportunity? Several ideas spring to mind:

I covered this idea before, but I think the whole notion of budgeting and accounting needs an overhaul. Rather than developing a 12-month budget 9 months before that budget starts, followed by financial reporting back based on that budget, make the whole process much more fluid. Choose shorter intervals, no less than quarterly, and use the financial reporting to create an entirely new budget that covers the next interval and projects two or four intervals into the future. Budget approval every single time.

Have a fund that is X% (2 or 4 maybe?) of your operating budget that the board earmarks for unbudgeted items to be used at the discretion of the CEO. The smart association will develop a system and culture for using this money and assessing the results. The catch: There should be a policy of some sort that says this money is not the first thing chopped if financials are below budget. Otherwise, it will just get chopped most years.

I'm sure there are plenty of other ideas about how an association can have the financial flexibility to pursue new ideas. Here's what not to do:

Don't use gimmicks or tricks or cheats. I know of examples where new ideas can find funding as long as an equal amount is taken away from something else. Even if you're transparent about it, you're taking the fiduciary responsibility away from the board.

Second, and this is the biggest sin to me, don't use the approved budget excuse to silence new ideas. If there's a reason the organization shouldn't do something, then use real reasons. No one wins, no one learns, when talk of a new idea that needs funding is stopped dead by saying it's not in the approved budget so we can't do it.

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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 (http://www.aists.org/sset) 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 http://www.vancouver2010.com/olympic-news/n/news/francophone-performers_272022Kq.html.

However, a summary of 12 of their major initiatives (http://www.vancouver2010.com/more-2010-information/sustainability/discover-sustainability) provides association meeting planners and

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

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September 1, 2008

Hurricane Gustav Prompts Businesses and Organizations to Launch Emergency Recovery Plans

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is urging businesses and organizations in the impact area of Hurricane Gustav to execute their emergency recovery plans, which should include the following (note: All associations and nonprofits across the U.S. would be well-served to include these in their own disaster plans.):

· Phone-calling trees and/or a phone recording for employees that keeps them informed during an emergency and provides clear direction for whom to speak with if they have problems.
· An out-of-town phone number that allows employees to leave a message telling organization leaders whether they are okay, where they are, and how they can be reached.
· A clear plan for employees with disabilities or special needs that was created with their input, so all needs are addressed during a disaster.
· Payroll continuity processes and communications.
· An evacuation plan for records, computers, and other stuff from your office to another location.
· Procedures for establishing the conditions under which the business/facility will close.
· Emergency warnings and evacuation plans and other disaster processes. Practice these if possible.
· Employee transportation plans, if appropriate.
· Plans for communicating with employees' families before and after a hurricane.
· Purchase of a NOAA weather radio that has battery backup and a warning alarm tone.
· A process for protecting any outside structures or equipment on your property. Windows, too, should be protected with plywood.
· Knowledge of whether your business phone system works even without electricity. If not, add a phone line that can do so.

You can find other disaster planning articles and information on ASAE & The Center’s Web site, but here are some to get you started:

Quick Tips Regarding Disaster Planning for Hosted Solutions

7 Helpful Disaster Planning Sites

What If? A Guide to Disaster Preparedness Planning

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January 31, 2008

Got a Technology Plan?

Hello all! Thanks to ASAE & the Center for inviting me to be a guest blogger here at the 2008 Association Technology Conference & Expo. I've never blogged before, so this will be interesting!!

Yesterday, the conference officially began with a Town Hall session. As we entered the room, everyone received a cool little clicker so that Reggie Henry could "ask the audience" about their perspectives on various technology issues. One question that really struck me was "Does your organization have a formal technology plan?" Almost 70% of the audience responded "No" but even though most folks didn't have a technology plan, the vibe I was getting from the room was "What is wrong with y'all? How can you NOT have one?" So I started wondering - when did technology become so strategic that it now deserves its own plan? When did it stop being a set of tools used to get a job done, a means to an end?

Perhaps one answer to this question is at the point that technology services (e-mail, internet, etc) became a commodity. One audience member likened technology to electricity where you flip a switch and expect your lights to come on; it has become an expectation that these services will be available 24x7. So now that the basic technology infrastructure is in place, we are challenged to think more deliberately about how else we can use technology to further our missions, support our strategic initiatives, and ultimately serve our members.

What do you all think?

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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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October 16, 2007

Crunching the Numbers

Especially since the 7 Measures book, the idea of being a data-driven association has gotten a lot of play. No doubt, there's been a growing fascination with numbers culturally (the extreme popularity of the TV show Numb3rs being a prime example). The new book, Microtrends (itself a book all about seeking insights from numbers) has as one of its micro trends the growth of "Number Junkies".

The Freakonomics endorsed Super Crunchers looks to be a fascinating read and it's next on my to-read list. Even the Freakonomics blog is still bustling with activity.

As a personal/practical example, a few years back at a board retreat, I was asked how many hours I worked per week and what my breakdown of tasks/areas were during that time. Sadly, I had no clue - I could only proffer a bunch of guesses (which, BTW, turned out to be way, way, off). This wasn't because they were trying nit pick at my work habits or justify my pay, or whatever. They just were really curious to know how my time was spent, and how that lined up against our organizational priorities (and staffing needs in other areas). Fair enough. (Well that, and also my estimates were being used by accounting to allocate/divvy my salary across different program areas.)

So, for the past few years, I've been using "stop watch" style time tracker called TimePanic (though, there are many other similar style apps). For 2006, my time broke down like this (where 1 PD = a standard 8 hour work day, and average time worked per week was about 50 hours):

Activity Duration Percent
Conferences (other) 53 PD, 5 h, 28 min 18.09%
Email (random) 45 PD, 7 h, 3 min 15.46%
Admin 31 PD, 7 h, 2 min 10.74%
Trip/Travel 25 PD, 7 h, 7 min 8.72%
Board Relations 24 PD, 2 h, 34 min 8.19%
Surfing/News/Forums/etc 17 PD, 3 h, 18 min 5.87%
Annual Conference 16 PD, 3 h, 5 min 5.52%
Montreal Chapter 14 PD, 2 h, 40 min 4.83%
SIG Support 11 PD, 3 h, 40 min 3.86%
Awards 7 PD, 6 h, 11 min 2.62%
Consultation 7 PD, 3 h, 0 min 2.48%
Advocacy Work 6 PD, 2 h, 47 min 2.14%
Chapter Support 6 PD, 1 h, 34 min 2.09%
PR/Interview 6 PD, 0 h, 38 min 2.05%
Web Dev 5 PD, 6 h, 50 min 1.97%
Newsletter 5 PD, 2 h, 32 min 1.79%
Professional Development 4 PD, 2 h, 57 min 1.47%
Staff Meeting 3 PD, 7 h, 45 min 1.34%
Sales 1 PD, 5 h, 58 min 0.59%
"Member Care" 4 h, 8 min 0.17%

So, aside from now being able to give my board accurate data (and to keep accounting accurate as well), I am able to crunch these numbers in many different ways. From ensuring I don't overwork in a given week/month (!), to making sure I don't spend too much time surfing news sites on the web, to analyzing the impact of one activity from month to month, or year to year, etc. Doing more where needed. Less where not needed, and so on.

Anyway, I realize that when we talk about being data-driven, it is mostly in reference to finances, member numbers, product sales, etc. And sure, that's all important. But, don't ignore other ways to take advantage of crunching the numbers.

(Though, as an aside, I wonder how many other executive directors track their time precisely - or would even be willing to do it...)

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October 2, 2007

Contradictory impressions

During a recent training event I attended, we saw an interesting video presentation on customer service. The narrator told a number of great stories, including one about how the common practice at banks of attaching pens to chains was a terrible idea. The chains imply that the bank thinks the customer is a thief, he said; it would be wiser to provide unchained pens with the bank’s name on them, so that if the pens did wander off, they’d be advertising for the bank as they did so.

Makes sense to me. But the whole thing struck me as funny, given that the video started with 10 seconds of focus on a single dark screen with large red writing at the top: “Duplicating this video is STEALING!” Which undercut the narrator’s point somewhat.

I’m not here to argue for illegal DVD duplication, but to point out that it’s important to consider the impressions you make on members and customers. I’m sure the narrator of that video was sincere in his arguments; I’m also guessing that he never saw that “Duplication is STEALING!” screen, or, if he did, he didn’t think of it in connection with the story about pens at banks. It’s easy to do that when planning a big project—you can get very focused on details and not realize that Detail A contradicts Detail R, and that members or customers will be annoyed or even angered by that contradiction.

One example I’ve seen several times recently is that of advertising a conference as “paperless” after eliminating an on-site program or education session handouts, while not considering the amount of paper used elsewhere at the meeting. Once attendees have the expectation that the conference is paperless, they will notice every time you use paper throughout the event, and question it. You should too.

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September 28, 2007

Planning vs. searching

I've just started reading "The White Man's Burden." No, not Rudyard Kipling's verse, the book by NYU economist William Easterly: The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

His main argument: that rich countries plan great interventions to wipe out poverty, but all of their grand plans are doomed to failure. He calls these people "Planners." He proposes that looking at a single problem--how to keep kids going to school in poverty-stricken rural Tanzania--leads to solutions that make a difference. He calls people finding these solutions "Searchers." Whether or not you buy his arguments about alleviating poverty, I wonder if you’ll see how the same argument applies to associations the way that I do. Consider some of the language he uses to describe "Planners" and "Seekers":

"Planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward."

"Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions."

"Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand."

"Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom."

"A Planner thinks he already knows the answers.... A Searcher admits he doesn't know the answers in advance."

I reflect back on the board meetings I've been a part of at three different associations. I always thought the ones where one committee report followed another followed another together with a string of unanimous votes were pretty much wastes of time. The ones I liked were the ones where board members rolled up their sleeves and talked about content and strategy--the ones usually called "retreats."

I still think the second kind is better, but having thought about it a little more, I'm less enamored with it. Too much ivory tower going on. Too much Easterly "Planning." Seems to me the real work of the board shouldn't happen in a board meeting at all. It should happen in prep for the retreats. Board members as well as staff leaders need to be out in front of all different types and levels of an organization's many constituents. Putting it in Easterly's context, I bet we'd come back with a lot more searchers--small workable ideas that really matter--and we'd produce fewer big plans that sit in 3-inch binders collecting dust.

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September 10, 2007

More on growth as strategy

There has been a lively discussion to my last post on questioning growth as a strategy.

One of the commenters mentioned that in her opinion as engagement goes up, so will the measurements of things like number of members, member retention, and product and program sales. I tried to respond in another comment, but the comment was getting too long, so I thought I'd write a quick post on this idea.

In general, I agree with her—that as more people get engaged, the numbers associations traditionally measure will go up. One important note is something Virgil pointed out in his comments, the relationship isn't as neat in the other direction—as the numbers go up, engagement is probably going up. Maybe, maybe not.

But I could easily see something else all together happening. I could see a relatively small, tight-knit group of engagers and a whole bunch of nonengagers on the outside. If the small group that is engaged is engaged on topics that mesh with the organization's mission, then I can see it being beneficial for the organization to focus energies on the small group.

One prerequisite is that the group must be inclusive—if it keeps people out then the organization should work to change that. But as long as the nonengagers can relatively easily choose to engage, I see an organization that most likely would be stronger by focusing on enhancing the experience for those that engage, rather than cast spend most of their energy casting a wider net to ensnare more nonengagers. In such a scenario, I could see number of members, retention, butts-in-seats, etc. all going down, though I would say the strength and relevancy of the organization is going up.

The reality is, it's not an entirely either-or discussion. My point is this, organizations that are actively trying to fulfill their mission should usually slide the needle on that continuum toward the side that serves those that are engaged.

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September 6, 2007

Why does growth always seem to be a strategy?

I'm back on my diatribe again about measurement. I'm actually going to try to write something about it in Associations Now, which is kind of a scary prospect for me. (I think it's scheduled for the Volunteer Leadership supplement, so it's something that has to be interesting and coherent not only to execs, but their boards as well.)

It's scary because I don't know exactly what or how to do it, but I've been increasingly presented with the notions that the metrics and strategies that just about every association uses are of tertiary interest at best. I've blogged previously on this topic, and it remains what I think is my best post to Acronym. The fact that Jason Della Rocca has agreed to continue guest blogging on Acronym for a while is significant because I loved his comments to my original post.

Wes Trochlil has a nice allegory on his EDM blog today illustrating the point.

One of the questions I want to explore is: why is growth so important? Why does your budget have to grow? Why does your membership need to grow?

There really is only one type of growth that seems important to me: participation growth. People have heard me rail against the "butts-in-seats" measurement—I begrudgingly admit that this is indeed one thing to look at when you're talking about participation. But it has to be much more than that. Going back to my earlier blog post, the best way to look at participation is to personalize it member by member, and then look at the aggregate—are people getting more engaged or less engaged? Is your association constantly trying to create new ways for people to engage? If so, is the only measure of whether or not such engagement opportunities are successful financial?

I just don't believe it proves an organization is more successful if its membership goes from 30,000 to 40,000 or if its annual meeting attendance goes from 1,000 to 2,000. That sounds to me like a very corporate mindset—selling more is better. One of the takeaways from my favorite session at the Annual Meeting in Chicago was when Douglas Rushkoff said if associations are trying to run their organizations like a for-profit, they're trying to emulate a broken model. He notes that forward-thinking companies are trying to model the building of community around their products.

The goal shouldn't be 10,000 more members or 1,000 more attendees. If you have those, great, but the more important measurement is how much you mean to anybody who shows up. If you make them a better person, a better professional, or you make an organization more successful—these are the things that really matter. The distinction is this: I think too many associations get caught up in designing products and services for the purpose of attracting people. It would be better to design those products and services so that they provide meaningful experiences for people. It's a subtle difference, but I think an important one. And pretty much by design, planning and budgeting guarantee the former approach, because inevitably the goals include revenue growth--more people joining, more people buying a book, more people certifying—these are the things we measure. How would a book or a program or any product or service look different if instead of revenue growth it was measured by participant value growth?

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August 21, 2007

Raising your game

I don’t follow basketball regularly—I’m more of a football person myself—but I’ve been following the news about the NBA referee cheating investigation in Sports Illustrated. For those of you who haven’t been, here’s the short version: the FBI is investigating whether a former NBA referee manipulated point totals through suspect calls and conspired with gamblers who had ties to organized crime. This is not something you want to have happen in your professional sports league, to put it mildly.

This week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted in another Sports Illustrated column as saying to his officiating department, in reaction to the problems the NBA is facing: “Let’s be thankful it wasn’t us. But let’s react like it was.”

What a great statement. When a competitor (or even a noncompetitive organization) faces a major crisis, it can be easy to bask in the schadenfreude and think, “That won’t happen to us.” Instead, we should all see situations like that as opportunities to raise our own game. What should that other organization have done to avoid or mitigate the problems they’re dealing with? If we’re not already doing those things, how soon can we start?

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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?

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August 29, 2006

Seth Godin on Associations (and Missions Without You)

Last year, I led a book group discussion of Seth Godin's All Marketers are Liars for ASAE's Emerging Leaders online group. I sent an e-mail to Seth telling him that I recommended his book to the group and asking him to answer a few questions for the group so I could relate the basic concept directly to associations. I, of course, never expected to hear back from the popular Mr. Godin. I was shocked when I received a reply back within 30 minutes.

The point of my questions to Mr. Godin was to get the group to realize that some of the things that associations have historically prided themselves on doing well - advocacy, grassroots mobilization, education, information - are threatened and can now be done by a small group of people with a lot of time on their hands. (Similar to David's take-away lesson from ASAE's Boston meeting.)

Have you ever joined an association?
once or twice

Professional, personal or trade? professional

If so, what stirred you to join? fear of being left out, desire to be part of the in crowd

Do you feel that the rise of self-made online communities and networks is a threat to the traditional association model? totally. I belong to hundreds of online interactions and zero associations

If small is the new big, what can associations do to make their big feel small? make promises and keep them, figure out how to create value outside of the traditional association promise, take intellectual risks, don't follow

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July 21, 2006

The Four-Month Planning Cycle

I want to build on Betty's comment to my planning post from a couple days ago. But before I do, permit me to voice a concern. As we were gearing up to start this blog, I wondered how often I would say something that would probably damage any future prospects I have in the association profession. This is probably one of those posts.

You see, I hate the annual budget cycle, which, let's face it, is the planning cycle. It strangles innovation, it leads to bizarrely bad decisions, and it's way too arbitrary. I could go on, and I will... Let's start with the budget document itself. About three months into the fiscal year, the budget is meaningless. The numbers themselves -- and the assumptions that went into them are already at least nine months old, if not older. The world kept spinning during those nine months and there are inevitably discrepancies from where you are and where you thought you'd be.

We adjust. And we do this, usually, with the forecast. The forecast is essentially a new budget, but in terms of the planning, we don't treat it that way. We're not actively seeking new opportunities and questioning what we're doing. Flashback to the development of the annual budget. Sadly, it is a time when people gear up to defend their programs. We defend, we justify -- we desperately search for data to bolster our claim for the need of new staff or to keep doing what we're doing. And, unfortunately, we win a whole lot of the time. We made it. Our program is in the budget. We don't have to defend it like that again until next year. There are a number of problems there, the biggest being a cultural problem. But the annual cycle helps perpetuate that culture.

There's also the stupid decisions that an arbitrary end-of-year date leads to. One association I worked for put off the printing of a major book until the next fiscal year because of the way it would make the balance sheet look at the end of the current fiscal. The big problem was that by everyone's admission, the book would sell best at the annual meeting, which was in the current fiscal. There was no doubt that the total net revenue from the project would be better if the book were printed early and sold at the meeting. But because it meant the difference between black and red ink at the end of the current fiscal, they put it off. (It wasn't a cashflow issue, the organization had the cash to pay for it.)

The problem in microcosm: I myself just fell prey to this very thing over a STINKING $500. We needed a new camera to photograph something since the company digital was state-of-the-art in, oh, about 2000. I had put the money for a new camera in the next fiscal's budget. I made the boneheaded decision not to blow the line item in the current fiscal, causing us to scramble around to find a digital to use.

I know there are complications with doing away with the annual budget. How would it work -- or could it work -- with finance committees and financial audits? I think you do need to have short-term and long-term time horizons for projects, I just think it's a little insane to measure every project as if their time horizons were the same. Goodness knows I think cashflow is king and that you need some way to periodically measure the financial health of your organization. But read what Betty said about the freedom and energy it created when her organization focused on a four-month plan. I may not have a workable answer, but I have seen how annual budgets slow things down or even squash things. In fairness to Betty, this is my rant, she wasn't advocating anything about budgeting. But that's the connection I made when I read her words: "By emphasizing what this small group of volunteers had to 'do,' rather than focusing on what they 'planned' to do in the future, they were able to be re-energized and excited about taking the work on."

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July 18, 2006

Planning to fail

I’m just finishing a book that’s a couple years old now, but still worth a look: Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction & Economics by UK economist Paul Ormerod. Think of Omerod as the precursor to Stephen Levitt of wildly successful Freakonomics fame; he's as accessible if not quite as colorful.

Why Things Fail goes on at some length on game theory as a learning experience and draws perhaps my favorite conclusion in the book: “Plan, predict, and control fails as a strategy, even [when] we have full and complete information.”

I draw a link from this conclusion to Tom Peters’ classic description of how to lead a business: “Ready. Fire! Aim.” The linkage is a little ironic because Ormerod cites Peters’ In Search of Excellence as an example of how people get things wrong, noting that several of the companies Peters holds up as “excellent” have since fallen from grace (a common, but unfair, criticism in my estimation, as Peters’ Excellence logic remains sage, but companies that hit it previously can also stray from it).

Organizations will never have “full and complete information,” but that doesn’t stop us from trying to get as full and as complete as we can. And plan, predict, and control sounds an awful lot like much of the strategic planning I’ve been a part of and heard about. The same conclusion leads Peters to scream “ACT!” Do something, then adjust if necessary or do something else entirely, but don’t plan perfectly because you won’t ever get there. In fact, to draw another link, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink tells us that not only are we unlikely to get to the perfect plan, we are likely to foul things up even worse in our search to become “as full and as complete” as we can be.

I don’t hate plans and planning, but there comes a time when the planning gets in the way, keeping us from the much more important work of doing.

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