September 11, 2012

Big and niche

A few weeks ago, I watched the first 45 minutes or so of the movie 2012. My only takeaway from that experience is that it was really important to not ask questions about the science. The world was ending, and it didn't matter why. People just needed to run like hell.

Sometimes I feel the same way about the imminent doom of associations. The world is changing! Associations are doomed! Run!

I don't doubt the need to change. The world is indeed changing fast, and associations must follow suit. I feel that in my gut. But a lot of times I don't know exactly why or which way we should be running.

The threats to the traditional association model that we should be running away from (or toward) seem to be coming from multiple directions. Consider these two recent blog posts:

  • In early August, Maggie McGary highlighted the niche community at for big-brand social media pros. The concierge-level group costs $10,000 a year to join and promises a vendor-free environment, an exclusive online community, and VIP service for members. Maggie rightly suggests that this type of highly focused, premium-service community in any field could be a threat to traditional associations or at least an alternative model to consider.
  • Last week, Joshua Paul pointed out that associations are losing their claim to representing whole industries (if they ever really had it), citing a case of political talking heads dismissing the American Medical Association as not representing the whole physician community. Josh suggests that associations could broaden their membership base (and thus their lobbying clout) through virtual memberships that would appeal to rank-and-file industry members.

On their own, each of these posts makes a compelling argument for action, but taken together they raise a tough dilemma: Is the future of the association model more niche or more broad? Deeper or wider? Customized solutions for a few or scalable solutions for the masses? This is a case when I'm glad I'm just a guy who writes about this stuff rather than the executive who has to make the decision.

There are a lot of options. Associations could go big or go niche, they could aim for a happy medium, or they could try to encompass both ends of the spectrum with tiered levels of membership and service.

You might have strong opinions on which of these models would be most viable (which you should share in the comments below), but for any particular association, the decision likely depends on its own mission, strategic priorities, and market conditions. So, the most important steps may just be to get clarity on those before charting a course forward—to ask a lot of questions about the science that drives change for your association. That process might not make for a good movie, but it could be a good way to ward off impending doom.

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August 9, 2012

The End of Relevance

The following is a guest post from Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, and is adapted from Jeff's new e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future. Jeff kicks off our "new thinking" theme for posts on ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo by questioning the notion of "relevance."

Associations are in a fight for the future, a fight that is taking place both outside and inside the boundaries of our organizations and our community. Our external fight is with the powerful forces of cultural, demographic, economic, political, social, and, above all, technological shift that are relentlessly transforming both our society and the fundamental human experience of associating itself, right before our eyes. It is the internal struggle, however, that must be of greater and more immediate concern to all association leaders. It is the fight we are having with ourselves around the increasingly damaging effect of association management orthodoxy on our prospects for long-term sustainability and success.

Arguably the most troubling tenet of the association community's orthodox belief system is the persistent view that a commitment to greater "relevance" will lead our organizations toward new pathways of success in the 21st century. Throughout my 20-year association career, I have seen far too many organizations grapple unproductively with the supposed challenge of establishing their relevance, instead of exploring more insistent questions or tackling more wicked challenges. In the last few years, association leaders have been encouraged to run a "race for relevance," even as the world around them rapidly recalibrates in ways they do not yet fully understand. Despite the recent hype and its enduring appeal as a topic of strategic discourse, my perspective remains unchanged: relevance is a losing argument for associations.

In a time of relentless societal transformation, associations gain no strategic advantage by thinking about the future in terms of relevance, and may actually narrow their strategic options by doing so. After all, the more associations discuss the need to become relevant, the more they establish their irrelevance (and thus their unimportance) in the minds of their current and future stakeholders. Indeed, relevance is nothing more than a strategically null point of view that fails to consider the inherent complexity of the long-term business challenges associations must surmount to thrive over the next decade and beyond. The task for associations going forward is not to deliver more of the same kinds of value, improved with the magical ingredient of enhanced relevance. The task is for associations to reinvent their traditional ways of doing business from the ground up for a transformed world.

How can association leaders break free of the gravitational pull of relevance and other outmoded association orthodoxies? Put simply, associations must get unorthodox. Rather than remain beholden to the dogmas of the past, associations must begin defining a very different future. Getting unorthodox means surfacing questionable assumptions, challenging preconceived notions, and flipping conventional wisdom to surface new opportunities for radical value creation.

Association orthodoxy is the metaphorical "box" of which we frequently speak. It's time to do more than simply get outside of it. It's time to smash the box to pieces.

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August 6, 2012

Why membership is not killing associations

The following is a guest post from Rob Pitzer, founder and president of Pitzer Research & Analysis. Rob has 15 years experience in membership- and subscription-based organizations and is making his first foray into the association blogging community with a response to a recent series of blog posts from Jeff De Cagna.

I read Jeff De Cagna's three-part series, "Five reasons membership is killing association business models" (here, here, and here), with great interest. As always, Jeff is provocative, and thinking about the issues he raised forced me to drill down and examine some basic assumptions. Before I address his arguments, let's look at those assumptions:

In virtually every association, the membership has a strong say in the direction of the organization, and it exists primarily to serve the personal or professional needs of the membership. These are essentially the defining criteria of a membership organization.

Somewhat confusingly, virtually all associations also have membership programs, through which members are acquired, serviced, satisfied, and renewed. The expenses associated with those programs must be offset by the revenue they produce, or they might be subsidized by other activities within the organization.

Importantly, having a membership program does not make you a membership organization! In fact, at its core, an association's membership program is not fundamentally different than a magazine subscription, a Friends of the Arts program, or membership at a golf club—they all rely on acquiring, servicing, satisfying, and renewing the member within the constraining economics of the parent organization. Where they differ is in the motivation of the member, the goals of the organization, marketing messages, and the benefits they provide.

Turning to Jeff's specific arguments (summarized here for space):

1. Membership-centric business models organize all value around the membership relationship. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: 21st century association business models must focus on creating radical new value instead of on membership.

2. Membership-centric business models tend to focus on association outputs instead of stakeholder outcomes. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: In designing 21st century business models, association leaders must pay much closer attention to the kind of people their current and future stakeholders wish to become, and the things they wish to achieve in their lives.

These are valid concerns and are related to the difference between offerings and benefits. Over time, association outputs take on lives of their own and their original intent—satisfying the needs of members and providing value to attract new members—becomes obscured. It is critical to periodically review offerings to judge effectiveness and conduct research with current and prospective members to learn how needs are shifting.

However, there is nothing inherent in either membership organizations or membership programs to prevent this review and research from happening. In fact, to the degree that an association is unable to offer enough value to convince people to join, that association will most likely cease to exist.

3. Membership-centric business models often depend on cross-subsidies that create unintended consequences. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: The priority for associations, then, is to design business models that can generate meaningful revenue streams based on the creation of new value with transformative potential for their future stakeholders.

5. Membership-centric business models require a significant investment of human effort for an insufficient return. NEW DESIGN APPROACH:  The work of business model innovation offers associations an opportunity to reconsider the narrow focus on membership in favor of more open and inclusive approaches to new value creation.

These two items are related. In many associations, donor or industry support does in fact subsidize the membership program rather than the organization itself, and there are associations where the time and money spent on the membership program is not justified by the return. However, these are driven either by a failure to understand the economics of the association's membership program or by policy decisions to operate the membership program at a loss to serve some greater purpose. Unfortunately, in my experience, it's too often the former, with stakeholders focusing on the number of members rather than the financial results of the program over time.

Thus, it's critical that organizations understand how acquisition and servicing expenses interact with membership and other revenue, renewal rates, and the breakeven period so they can determine whether membership is net positive or negative financially. An association can decide in advance what level of return or required subsidy it expects from membership, but doing so does not require killing off or deemphasizing membership.

There's also nothing to prevent associations from offering no- or low-cost memberships and adopting a more inclusive, less formal view of membership in the event they are able to create the radical value Jeff suggests. After all, many associations currently subsidize the membership program as a policy decision.

4. Membership-centric business models ask members to make the most important decisions about new value creation. NEW DESIGN APPROACH: associations need a rapid learning approach to strategy-making, such as crowdsourcing.

Jeff accurately identifies a real problem in associations: Too often strategic decision-making is handled by an unrepresentative slice of the membership. But there's nothing about membership that prevents greater inclusiveness. Rather, crowdsourcing with both members and nonmembers is a great way to engage all stakeholders and can lead to strengthened relationships with both groups.

In summary, while I couldn't agree more with Jeff's diagnosis of some key problems in the association world, I disagree with his prescription that  membership is fundamentally flawed and needs to be re-imagined. It just needs to be done correctly.

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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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June 29, 2012

Aiming for the wrong goals

Here's a list of words that sound great but are extraneous to your mission: first, most, fastest, tallest, biggest, loudest, easiest.

These words can be distracting. You see them often on trophies and blue ribbons and press releases. But they're superficial, especially for a mission-driven organization.

Thursday around 10 a.m. eastern time, major media outlets were reporting the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act. They all wanted to be first. They wanted it bad. So much so that some of them even got it dead wrong. And they even nitpicked over who was first by mere seconds.

Later in the day, American Journalism Review's Rem Rieder asked the right question: Who cares?

"[T]here's no doubt the scoop is a time-honored tradition in journalism. Breaking a big story is a big deal. … But worrying about being first on reporting something that is handed to you and everyone else? By 24 seconds? To borrow the Gail Collinsism, I think I speak for everyone when I say, it's really not important. Worse than that, it's dangerous."

This is a prime example of forgetting what matters most. Or not noticing when what matters most changes. For media in the age of Twitter, chasing breaking news is a fool's errand; it's harder than ever to do, and the returns for doing it are less than ever. Time does not honor traditions forever.

Associations can heed an important lesson here. Don't get lost in the traditional metrics: more members, more attendees, more web visits, more ads, and so on. These can all be indicators of success, but they're not goals on their own. If your mission is to advance your profession or effect some specific social change, you have to decide first whether more members will help you reach that goal. In some cases, it might not. A relentless focus on more members or more attendees could lead to results that undermine your mission. Do you have the resources to support more members? Do all those new attendees have interests and needs different from what you're able to provide?

Focus first on what matters most: your mission. Then act in alignment with those goals. Most, first, and fastest won't always be what gets you there.

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June 8, 2012

Is Polling Still Worth It?

I feel like I've been buried in poll numbers even more than usual, from Wisconsin governor recall results to public confidence in the economy to American Idol. But are polls really trustworthy anymore, when you have one-third of the public living cell-phone-only and most of the rest using caller ID on land-lines to help them avoid any surveys, even when they support the cause or campaign (guilty as charged!)?

Because so many associations poll members and potential members on everything from dues raises to advocacy positions, I turned to the man who knows more than almost anyone about the veracity and challenges of accurate polling: Bill McInturff, co-founder & partner, Public Opinion Strategies.

Bill, who is speaking today as part of the "Decision 2012" General Session at the ASAE Financial and Business Operations Conference, leads--along with partner Peter D. Hart--the largest polling company in the country, Public Opinion Strategies. The firm handles polling for NBC News/Wall Street Journal and works closely on polling challenges with the two primary industry associations, the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASR) and American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

"You can believe poll results but still have dwindling confidence," he told me. "There's no question that with the glut of polling, credibility is a little lower, because people are hearing wider, more diverse results of what different polls are saying. And there's no question that the basic confidence they have in polling is very different than it was 20 to 40 years ago. They're certainly asking more questions about methodology.

Despite those troubles, "if it's done correctly, it's still broadly accurate," Bill says. "It's still the best way to collect customer and other information about public opinion, and people don't tire of needing that information."
It will cost them more, though, to get it. According to Bill, the price of polling has risen for three reasons: (1) "federal laws and mandates dictate that you cannot use auto-dialers for cell phone numbers--you have to call cell phones by hand; (2) cooperation rates are much lower, so you have to call more people to get a completed survey; and (3) you have to collect the data ... using increased labor costs."

To better ensure poll veracity, Bill--who was the lead pollster for John McCain during the latter's 2008 presidential bid--advises associations to "be good consumers and make sure you go through a discussion with the pollster about methodology," asking about compensation rates for cell-phone-only or other respondents, how the "convenience factor" of women answering the phone more than men is handled, and how the data have been weighted and by how much.

I'll be writing a second blog post shortly that shares Bill's responses on whether associations can trust that the viewpoints of respondents reflect those of non-respondents as well, the potential for social media to offer new surveying opportunities, and more. I invite comments about your own association's successes or challenges when polling. And maybe you can snag Bill after the session to get more of his input, too. Thanks, Bill, for sharing your insights so generously at this busy time!


June 5, 2012

Hack the Association

People in the association world are routinely exhorted to perform acts of violence upon their infrastructure. Smash silos! Kill programs! Slash committees! After a while, the idea of "sunsetting" feels downright sweet, even if what's getting sunsetted is a whole department.

I get it: Things move slowly in the association world, so it takes some strong language to get people to take notice of the threats moving in their direction. We use those words because we agree they have a certain power over how things get done. But I'd like to propose a better verb: I submit that we need less of a smash-kill-slash mentality when we discuss organizational change. We need more of a hack mentality.

This is the good kind of hack, the take-it-apart-and-make-it-better hack, not the break-into-the-AMS-and-steal-member-data hack. The term has been on my mind for about a week now, ever since I read "Hack the Cover," a sharp, magisterial essay by digital publishing expert Craig Mod about what it means to give a book a cover in the e-book era. Think about it: A cover for an e-book is a ridiculous thing. E-books require no protection from the weather or the degradations of everyday use, and e-reader screens are so small (and in the case of the Kindle, exclusively black and white) that cover art borders on pointless. Smash! Kill!

But covers don't need to be exterminated so much as rethought. "What do we now hunt when buying books?" Mod asks, and he boldfaces the answer: "Data." Once you acknowledge that people don't search Amazon for pretty covers, you can retool the cover to better deliver information about what's inside. That doesn't mean covers can't be pretty---Mod provides some spectacular examples of how the physical book can remain an art object---but elegance now needs to be matched with a growing need to emphasize what's inside the book itself.

It's not hard to see how to apply this thinking to associations: Perhaps decision-making processes become more sensible if they're thought of as opportunities to "hack" obsolete products and services instead of just killing them (or giving them a new coat of paint). I don't mean to suggest that associations unthinkingly smash-kill-slash things; heaven knows strategic processes abound. But how much more motivating do you think it is to tell staff they'll have the opportunity to hack what they do instead of telling them they need to blow it up?


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.


May 24, 2012

Guarding Your Message

I was listening to a communications specialist who was at ASAE's Membership, Marketing, and Communications Conference yesterday, and she was confiding a message-gone-wrong story at her association.

In her case, members had given immediate and highly vocal feedback that they believed a certain call for an advocacy action by the organization and its membership had strayed from or even "betrayed" its core mission, thus alienating and confusing important donors and leaders.

It reminded me of the Komen Foundation controversy regarding pulled funds for Planned Parenthood programs, as well as comments by political strategist James Carville, whom I had interviewed recently about the art of smart messaging. (Carville will be a General Session speaker with Republican strategist Karl Rove in August at ASAE's Annual Meeting & Expo, so look for interviews with him and Rove in an upcoming Associations Now spread.)

"That debacle was an enormous and, as far as I can tell, unanticipated glitch," Carville said as we wondered why organizations still make serious communication mistakes, even with high-priced PR firms advising them. "Their overall messaging and the pink ribbon were brilliant. That became so identifiable that they were about women's health, and ... they had a real positive outfit. But then they came across as if they were some kind of political advocacy group, and that was particularly damaging. That was a glitch where they did something that was inconsistent with their overall messaging."

Carville talked about the need to vehemently "protect your message with everything you do."

"That's why I always add the dynamic of culture," he said, adding that the key elements of your primary message must be deeply embedded across your organization and lived by everyone on staff 24/7. "Where Komen, as a good example, went off track was that women's health wasn't put first; politics or ideology was put first," or at least appeared that way. That clearly had donors and supporters feeling profoundly betrayed, and I personally wonder how long it might take for Komen to recover, if indeed it can rebuild the lost trust through believable messaging and actions.

I'm interested in whether other associations or nonprofits have opinions of why and when associations mess up their messaging and are forced to execute crisis communication interventions. Feel free to share here and to sanitize players as needed for the sake of discussion.


March 25, 2012

Open your beginner's mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 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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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]

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August 9, 2011

What is your association's story?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


When a takeover isn't really a takeover

How to be successful in acquisition or partnering?

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

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

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

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

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


August 8, 2011

To take a central role or not

Should associations try to position themselves as the hub of conversation for their profession, industry, or interest?

Is there anyone who would argue that the answer could possibly be anything other than yes? Well, I would.

There's a key word in that question: the. That key word implies that the association should see itself as the central location of important knowledge in a sector. The argument is one we've heard since Google made information freely and easily accessible more than a decade ago: Yes, there's tons of instant information available at your fingertips, but associations are vital because it's the trusted source that culls through and finds the important content for you.

My problem with this way of thinking is not about content curation - I absolutely believe associations should be content curators in their sectors. The problem is when associations strive to position themselves in a central position. They're the hub and all the meaningful spokes attach to it. I just don't think the world of collaboration and content works that way anymore. When you try to centralize, you lose. The social web ensures decentralization. Rather than try to develop strategies that make you the central hub, develop strategies that make you an important part of the conversations.

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June 21, 2011

Doom, gloom, and a dash of hope

Jeff Rubin is a man with a message. For 20 years he was chief economist and managing director for CIBC World Markets. He quit that job, though, to put full-time effort into spreading his message. And his message is somber, downright gloomy even. His message is that triple-digit oil prices are here to stay, and that for at least a generation we will have no viable alternative power options.

And Rubin delivers this message with a very cheery disposition. It's okay, his comments and mannerisms seem to radiate out while he talks, because we'll adapt. Yes, he says, gasoline will be $8 a gallon, but we'll adapt: we'll drive less in less powerful cars. We'll do so, he says cheerily, because we'll have no choice. Get ready to see more bicycles on our streets.

Another important part of his message: all that stuff we used to make but no longer make because it's cheaper to have it made in Asia and shipped back... it will no longer be cheaper to make the stuff there because it will cost too much to ship it back. Get ready manufacturing, there's going to be a new North American industrial boon. Human capital in manufacturing may not be as pricey as it had gotten before we started shifting manufacturing overseas, but it will be a lot more expensive here than there, meaning all those manufactured things we love will have significantly higher price tags. That's ok, Rubin says, we'll make do with less stuff, and like our parents (or grandparents for a lot of readers), we'll fix the things that break rather than throw them out and buy new.

One more thought to really pile on the gloom, because why not? Rubin is happy to share it--and here's a bone for all those who consider China the boogey man. There's a reason China has chosen to purchase so much U.S. debt. As Rubin says, "it's not out of benevolence." They are betting that in any foreseeable future the U.S. economy will still be the dominant economy. The financing of our debt acts as an oil insurance policy. You see, China knows that triple-digit oil is the single greatest threat to its continued economic rise. What Rubin predicts is that at some point in the future, China will allow its currency to float instead of being artificially pegged to the dollar. At nearly the same time, they will begin selling the U.S. Treasuries they own. The result will be a Chinese yuan that increases in value rapidly against the dollar, which will itself decrease in value. And this matters because... the price of oil on international markets is in U.S. dollars. The effect will be even bigger spikes in oil prices, and China will get a steep discount with the increased buying power of its yuan.

At the risk of being a commercial for an ASAE product, I'm going to say this is why I love the Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management, where Rubin spoke. What does any of this have to do with association management? Other than a few affected industries, not much directly. Indirectly? Everything.

Again, to quote Rubin: "There's not an airline operating today that's profitable with $100 oil." You know how you feel when you find a good airfare, say New York to Chicago for $150? What's it going to mean for your conferences, events, and even board or other volunteer group meetings that require travel when you're positively giddy at finding New York to Chicago for $650?

Another example: produce markets and supermarkets are byproducts of the industrial revolution. Still it was only 20 or 30 years ago that you started seeing fruit from halfway around the world showing up in February. Would you pay $10 for a single Chilean orange? Me neither, so we'll likely revert to the way it used to be just a generation ago: your fresh produce is going to mirror your local seasons. Not only did the price tag for getting there get ugly, the cost to feed meeting goers spikes, too. And as a special kick in the teeth, you'll have fewer options for the additional money.

Beyond meetings and capital T travel, it will affect how associations are staffed. Will the trend be more remote work or locating in high population density areas? (Probably both.)

And of course, there is how such changes will affect your members in their industries and professions.

According to Rubin we're facing a new economic reality. It's easy to see the logic. Supply is finite, and production is either topping off, or has already topped off. Demand is also increasing rapidly, and alternatives are expensive or need years of development. What can you do with this information? Admittedly, probably not much right now or in the planning for next year even. What can you do is be wary, keep an eye out, and spend some of whatever thinking time you have thinking about what triple-digit oil will mean for your association.

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June 10, 2011

Decisions: The cheapo or luxury bus line?

Rafi Mohammed wrote the book on pricing--literally, The Art of Pricing. His two main points are to price in terms of value to the customer and to give options for different value levels. As he spoke yesterday, he used the example of the city-to-city bus lines that run along the East Coast. For a little less than a thousand bucks, you get luxury seats, a full bar, and all the bells and whistles. For $25 or so, you can go from DC to New York City in a crowded, no frills ride that ranks in the bottom five percent of mass transportation safety.

Mohammed's point was that the bus line pricing options are not good or bad, they're priced for the value they provide. Here's where my mind wanders to one of my favorite topics: focus. I've talked about it plenty on Acronym, here's an example, and another. A lot of associations try to be all over the spectrum. In effect, they try to be the cheapo line and the luxury line. An organization trying to be both is just asking for disaster. This might fly in the face of Mohammed's options idea, but I don't think that's exactly what he had in mind. Think more like a premium than an option; a luxury service may differentiate itself (and Mohammed would add charge me) to pick you up at our door rather than a centralized location. To me there's an important nexus of pricing and focus: know your niche, and price and serve accordingly, no apologies for what you're not.

Another quick thought, most organizations aren't on the luxury side or the cheapo side. We're stuck in the messy middle. I think a good thought exercise for groups would be to explore the bus line question: if we aspired to be the cheapo line, that's where we can do the most good and grow the largest business, what would the organization look like? Now contrast that with the opposite: What would be different about your organization if your only focus was luxury and being the primo offering in the market.

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June 9, 2011


One of the most infuriating and enlightening one-word question that comes up at your organization's meetings: Why?

Jennifer Riel is the Associate Director at the University of Toronto's Desautels Centre and was a key researcher developing the ideas that lead to the book, Opposable Mind by Roger Martin. Her presentation this morning at ASAE's Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management in Toronto is the inspiration for this post. The comment that popped the idea was this: "If you have a fundamental assumption, question it."

Jennifer RIel Leads Discussion.jpg

It's a nice sound bite, one of many. And when I look at some of the others I thought were meaningful, they, too circle back to this simple little question: "Why?" Such as these:

"Surrounding ourselves with people not like us will help us make better decisions."

"The best decision makers add complexity early on in process."

"Someone who disagrees with you is a gift."

The question "Why?" is infuriating because we have a set course of action in mind. It's infuriating because it challenges us, our ideas, our authority, etc. It gets in the way and stalls things.

It's enlightening because it forces us to think about the reasons we have the assumptions we have. It opens doors to new thoughts and ideas. It gets in the way and helps us make things better.

So when somebody asks the question, you do have a choice of how to react, and likely as not, it's ingrained in your organization's culture. And if no one questions why, that too is likely part of your culture.


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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May 5, 2011

7 Ways to Strategically Align Your Leveraged Social Blog with Engagement Champions for Search Engine Success in the New Association World Order

Ha! You actually clicked on this link, did you? My apologies; sometimes I feel like we are all heading down a little bit of a silly road, flush with "5 ways to do this" and "10 ways to do that," with some awesome keywords that get clicks and sound so neat in the homogenized soup that is the mainstream social internet. Ugh.

Anyway, as you know from some of my past posts, I've been working on the rollout of a new website over the past year. We've learned a lot along the way, and below are some ideas I want to let you know about or that I am randomly pondering, and I want to hear from you on stuff you are doing or pondering related to the web these days, as well. (If you don't respond then I will maybe cry a little bit.)

  • We are learning at my association that an online community is hard work, and that what works is usually not even close to what we thought would work. For example, we have a great discussion forum that no one discusses on, but people love to post their own videos and pictures on the same site, and they love contests where they can win stuff or send in funny pictures.
  • We are finding out that a social media component to web advertising and sponsorship packages gets a lot of interest from agencies and people we are trying to sell to. It's a nice value add and helps seal the deal sometimes. And we are learning that selling comprehensive packages complete with in-person, print, email, web, and social components take longer to sell but are of more value to our core sponsors and advertisers.
  • SEO is so boring and yet so important, and I think we should all invest in someone to do strategic SEO for our associations if we can.
  • Web strategy is the equivalent of association strategy. The two must exist together and not in separate vacuums, and we should contextually frame much of our overall strategy with the web in mind, due to its influence and importance (e.g. "How do we leverage the web to achieve X or advocate for Y?")
  • Associations should be using the web and social media to innovate when it comes to committees and how they discuss, make decisions, and accomplish work. Is anyone doing this, because I'm not! Most of our committee meetings are via a conference call or, on special occasions, we'll use GoToMeeting.
  • ROI discussions on social media I think miss the point; do you calculate the ROI on a stapler or for your email account or for that cocktail party? I think we are all trying to measure things too much in order to justify our own existence; these tools should help free us from this measuring overkill and allow us to reconnect with people, which is what associations are all about in the first place, right?
  • Video is the way we should archive our association history, moving forward … like those old family videos!



May 4, 2011

Getting "Elders" to Engage in Community-building

I've been reviewing my notes and conversation from MMCC last week and ran into a good community-building example described by Joe Flowers, who has spent three years as community manager at the 5,000-member National Association of Dental Plans, a trade group.

I had asked Joe for suggestions about how to entice the most senior, most experienced members of an organization to actively participate in an association community when they might be feeling like they already have a strong enough professional network and often "don't learn much" from education sessions, publications, list servs, or conferences anymore.

Joe responded that NADP had tackled the dilemma by "educating our members that their entire staff could be part of any [association] conversation," rather than just one or two individuals. He learned that his older members were concerned about the quality of the professionals who would be leading their companies once they had retired or moved on.

Joe e-mailed volunteer groups with specific numerical goals aimed at boosting the community, asking volunteer members to send an association e-mail to 10-15 people at all levels of their workplace each month. The e-mails invited these individuals to share opinions, attend association events, and sample NADP content. They also included specific and easy sign-in instructions so they could try out what membership might feel like. Joe then "let it snowball from there."

It did, although NAPD "took a hit" when it switched to a better platform that not everyone immediately embraced. "They went back into their shell a bit, but now they're coming out again" because they miss what they gained as an active community member, Joe laughed.

His job has been particularly tricky because members are highly competitive. But by focusing community discussions on research studies, legislation, and committee work while avoiding product-oriented subjects, companies were not nervous about having lower-level staff involved and often found common ground.

When discussions lagged, Joe seeded the site with provocative data, restarted popular conversations from the past, asked for comments to a document, or collected suggested messages that members wanted the CEO to make in his next media interview.

As a result, "we've seen a steady increase [in the community's engagement], and we've pulled data showing about a 10% increase in website traffic each month, and even a 45% increase one month." The month before NAPD launched its community strategy, its site attracted 1,000 unique visitors, Joe noted. Five months later it's at 10,000 and has "a lot more engagement points now, too."

Those are impressive numbers. I wish Joe well in his new PR job, which starts tomorrow in California, but am sure that his oversight of NADP's community will be missed. Meanwhile, I'm going to look for similar good examples of inclusive communities that appear to excite members of all professional levels.


April 22, 2011

Earth Day: A Chance at Relevancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 15, 2011

Consensus bad, turbulence good

Just a quick thought based on a conversation I was part of a few weeks ago. In that conversation, there was a general consensus that the goal of a board meeting--the ultimate board meeting, if you will--is one that sails smoothly.

The people in the discussion had a lot more experience running boards than I do, but my position was: What's the point? Of course you don't want pandemonium. But I want my volunteers, the ones entrusted to chart the course for my organization, to wrestle with the hard issues. You can't struggle with difficult issues and expect smooth sailing. I don't want consensus. I want there to be various opinions, and I want those opinions debated out in the open, and I want people to have to vote on a course of action (or recommendation), and I don't expect that vote to be unanimous.

So my ideal board or volunteer meeting, then, isn't smooth sailing. It's one where tension is an integral part. It then becomes the role of the chair and/or staff to ensure that the tension is used creatively and constructively.

Smooth sailing? No thanks. Give me the choppy seas--you're doing more and having more fun, not to mention it's a choppy-sea world.

UPDATE: As was pointed out in the comments, Jamie Notter has an excellent recent post on consensus. I strongly encourage readers to check it out.

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April 5, 2011

Comparing apples and blueberries (Ode to Godin)

Seth Godin has a nice post this morning on his blog about the difference between apples and blueberries. If you produce apples, he says, the consumption model is such that a bad one here and there won't hurt too much as long as the good ones are really, really good. So your goal is to make the good ones the absolute very best. You want people to remember your great apples.

Contrast that with blueberries, which are eaten several at a time. One bad blueberry spoils it, so your production goal is consistent quality. You want to make blueberries that are consistently very good and have zero defects.

The point Godin makes is you need to know in which model your organization functions so you know where to put your emphasis. When I think about this in conjunction with associations, these are some of my thoughts:

Large meetings, with breakout sessions: It's counterintuitive, because it seems like people consume them in multiples like blueberries, but I would argue you should treat them like apples. If you can deliver a couple really big juicy ones that attendees love, they'll forgive the other mediocrity.

Online coursework: I could be swayed on this one, but I lean toward the counterintuitive blueberry. Yes, of course you want to be great, like apple production, but throwing together one that goes bad potentially ruins all of them. I think I'd put my emphasis on consistent quality here.

Articles & information: I think it depends. For the people who know you and like you, then I lean toward the consistent quality of blueberries. But if you want to attract the attention of those outside your group or on the fringe, then you want to wow them with the most delicious apple they've ever tasted.

Advocacy: This is a tough one. So tough, I have to change the rules. I think most groups are blueberries trying desperately to produce apples. I think the cacophony that bombards those you want to influence means they're not going to consume your blueberries or your apples. You need something entirely different. A Purple Cow maybe.


March 1, 2011

I'll stop the world

Leadership means many different things to many different people. Often, as volunteers, we think the more work product we churn out, the more leadership we exhibit. However, I'd like to present a competing perspective.

As chair of ASAE's Young Association Executives Committee (YAEC), I found myself doing exactly the opposite this year. Essentially, I decided to stop the world (a phrase we often use in my office when one project must take serious precedence over all others currently in progress). This deliberate time out would allow us to focus most fervently on strategic planning.

Since August, I've been significantly less concerned about overall work product and much more focused on structure, process, and long-term goal setting. After four years of this committee's colored existence, it was time to take a step back and evaluate the following:

1. What is our mission? What is our purpose and why do we exist?
2. What is our vision? What is our future and where are we going?
3. What are our values? What do we believe in and how will we demonstrate it?

Adoption of a simple strategic plan that clearly and honestly answered these questions then prompted us to set goals. Although ideas from each committee member were considered, not all were adopted. In total, 13 macro-level goals--each supporting our new mission, vision, and values statements--were divvied up among the various subcommittees.

Next on the to-do list: committee calls. During our in-person meeting in December, we restructured the agenda of our monthly committee calls. These meetings now begin with a five-minute ASAE staff spotlight, followed by a committee member check-in that's no more than one minute each. A full 20 minutes is then dedicated to a strategic discussion topic (examples include defining the committee's target audience and opportunities for engaging YAEs at the annual meeting).

With our remaining time, we entertain questions from the subcommittees; each subcommittee provides a brief status report (updates to measurable objectives only); we tackle new business; and we encourage YAE shout outs, opportunities for collaboration, kudos, and announcements.

Finally, we've spent considerable time these last seven months talking about leadership. On more than one occasion, industry expert Jamie Notter has challenged us to think about leadership not as an aspiration, but as an accessible skill set that can be obtained through connection, clarity, commitment, and learning. We will engage him one final time in July to evaluate our effectiveness both as a committee and as individual leaders.

So, my question to you is this: Do you recognize when it's more prudent to stop the world--either in your organization or in your volunteer commitments--than it is to churn out more work product? What would prevent you from putting on the brakes? How might you overcome these obstacles?

Aaron D. Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, is director of education and associate partnerships at the Health Care Association of Michigan in Lansing, Mich., a Diversity Executive Leadership Program scholar and chair of ASAE's Young Association Executives Committee.

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February 25, 2011

How Would an Oscar Affect Your Organization?

Almost anyone who goes to the movies has probably seen the Oscar-nominated The King's Speech. The remarkable film captures the lifelong battle of the future King George against the serious stuttering that threatens to weaken his leadership at a time when he is ascending the throne and speaking out against the rise of Hitler.

It also shone an unprecedented spotlight on a personal and professional challenge faced by millions of adults and children worldwide.

"We've waited a lifetime to get this kind of interest in stuttering, so it's thrilling for us," said Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation and vice president of the Association for Research into Stammering in Childhood, Michael Palin Centre, in London, when I gave her a call today for a pre-Oscars chat about the impact of the film on her organization.

"Our website hits have doubled," she added, noting that speech therapists across the country report a big jump in the number of inquiries from people who stutter and their families since the movie's Christmas Day 2010 release. "One of the therapists we refer to in Chicago said she had a 70-year-old man come in this week.... Across the board, that movie is so meaningful that anyone who has seen it will never laugh at stuttering again."

Maybe that's why one of the foundation's videos, Stuttering: For Kids, By Kids, has been viewed more than 50,000 times in the past week. The charity, which educates and refers stutters and specially trains speech therapists, also "whipped out a poster three weeks ago," Fraser laughs. "We designed ["Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment] Friday morning, and on Monday at 5, it came off the press. The printer had never done that before. Everyone at the print house was excited." She had no problem securing permission from the independent film company, The Weinstein Company, to use photos from the film in the poster, which also directs viewers to the foundation website.

What have been the biggest impacts of the film on her group? "The exciting thing about The King's Speech is that people realize they can become fluent," Fraser enthuses. "... It's obvious in the movie that speaking is a lot of work, but ... some of the methods you see in the movie [such as learning to speak in phrases rather than entire sentences] are techniques that have been used over the years."

It also focuses on the "beautiful therapist-patient alliance. The king got to the point where the therapist was his close friend. Like all therapeutic situations, there are ups and down, but the beautiful way this relationship unwound is important.... You must have that total trust between the professional and the patient." She thinks film viewers will better understand how that deep relationship works.

You can join Fraser and her staff in rooting for the foundation and The King's Speech Sunday night during the 83th Annual Oscars Ceremony. Watch a trailer and learn more about this Best Picture Nominee here.

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February 22, 2011

Book Blogging: Constructive advantage for associations

My last post explored the serious and irrevocable challenges our society faces and called for associations to adopt new beliefs in order to succeed in the decade ahead. In The New Capitalist Manifesto, author Umair Haque argues for a shift beyond 20th-century competitive advantage, toward the 21st-century framework he calls "constructive advantage." According to Umair, constructive advantage is built on five cornerstones (shown below in bold italics) and flows from five sources (shown below in bold):

  • Loss advantage stems from a value cycle that renews resources and makes waste useful. Example: Associations can create a technology-enabled value cycle that makes it possible for stakeholders to renew dated knowledge resources while situated in a meaningful social context without wasting time and energy.

  • Responsiveness is the result of fluid, on-going, many-sided value conversations. Example: Associations can nurture greater intimacy with their stakeholders by creating opportunities to discuss, deliberate, and express dissent through social networking platforms.

  • Resilience, an evolutionary edge, is achieved by competing with an enduring philosophy. Example: Associations can create thicker value by going beyond strategy to embrace principles of continuous experimentation and learning that drive radical innovation.

  • Creativity happens when companies strive to complete marketplaces, creating new arenas of competition. Example: Associations can design new business models that make it possible to serve underserved markets and segments previously considered impossible to serve.

  • Difference happens when companies seek meaningful payoffs that matter; when companies produce betters, they literally make a difference. Example: Associations can shift their focus from simply delivering outputs—i.e., products and services—to achieving better outcomes for their stakeholders.

The intention behind constructive advantage is not to outdo your existing rivals on the narrow terms of the current competitive landscape but, in Umair's words, to "build a disruptively better business," with long-term positive consequences for current and future stakeholders, as well as society as a whole. Associations adopting this new mindset will be better able to achieve "smart growth" through the creation of thicker, more enduring value.

Over the last year, the phrase "build to thrive" has emerged as a personal mantra, an urgent appeal to association leaders to take responsible and purposeful action to prepare their organizations for the profound uncertainties of the decade ahead. My final post in this series will share a set of critical questions on which staff and volunteer leaders can reflect to ascertain whether their intentions are focused on the future or stuck in the past.

Let's close this post with a question:

How is your association creating its "constructive advantage?"

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


February 15, 2011

Book Blogging: Hunter or captain of an ark?

In The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, author Umair Haque asks readers to imagine two worlds:

The first is a big world of abundant resources and raw materials, an empty world where demand is infrequent and easily satiated, and a stable world where disasters are infrequent and weak. The second is a tiny world, emptying of raw resources, a crowded world where demand is always hungry, and a fragile world, where contagion of every kind can flow across the globe in a matter of minutes, days, or weeks. [Emphasis in original]

Umair continues his allegory by comparing the big, empty, and stable world to an untouched game reserve, while the tiny, crowded, and fragile world is more like an ark. In Umair's view, the former description accurately depicts the world for which "industrial era" capitalism was built, and the latter captures the state of the world in these early years of the 21st century. The economics of the last century have used the rules of daily hunting on the game reserve: maximum efficiency in going after the biggest game. Unfortunately, these rules have also led society to consume, borrow, and use resources to the point of serious harm, placing our sustained prosperity in peril.

The realities of today's world, Umair argues, demand a new approach to creating meaningful value and achieving smarter growth. He writes:

To gain an intuitive feel for 21st century economics, put yourself at the helm of … an ark. You're the captain, and on board, every resource you've got isn't just valuable, but invaluable. Whether people, trees, animals, ideas, trust, creativity, or governance itself, you must safeguard all against damage, depletion, and exhaustion. Conversely, every resource you do decide to utilize must results in more tangible, meaningful, and enduring benefits than merely ephemeral "product" to be overconsumed.

Some association leaders continue to view the last few years of economic distress as nothing more than a cyclical occurrence that ultimately will ease into a so-called "new normal." But I share Umair's view that we are the midst of an irrevocable shift that will force us to reconsider all our fundamental beliefs. My next post will explore some of the new beliefs we will need to adopt to navigate our arks safely through the treacherous waters ahead.

Let's continue the dialogue. Please post your comments below in response to the following question:

Are you leading your association like a hunter or the captain of an ark?

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

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September 29, 2010

When I grow up, I want to write like Seth Godin

I write 802 words and craft a post on leading vs. serving that is fair to middling.

Godin takes 150 words to explain the concept a hundred times better. Ok, a thousand times.

The comments to my post focused mostly on the definitions of serve and lead. Godin changes the terms a little, in this case he differentiates between what someone needs (a product/program etc. that will help them be healthy) versus what they actually want (potato chips). Associations routinely provide the potato chip and never look for what the member/public actually needs. More than anything, that's the truth I was trying to find in my post.


September 8, 2010

Serve vs. lead

This is seemingly one of those age-old association debates isn't it? I know it's one I've had at every association I've worked, so I wanted to see how Acronym readers would talk about the issue... if you're willing to share your thoughts: Should an association be serving the members of its industry or profession, or should it be leading them?

I'll start with how I would define serving and leading, and then provide some brief thoughts I have.

Serve - this is helping members do their job right now. There is an apparent or an expressed need, and the association offers products, services, or solutions to meet it.

Lead - the two aspects of leading a profession or industry are (1) anticipating future events and needs and ensuring members are prepared for it--and by its nature, your anticipations and the work you do will be wrong or inadequate a bunch of the time; (2) pushing members into uncomfortable positions to accept realities that may be hard to accept or even to create realities that are less-than-ideal for their companies but achieve a greater good--for the profession or industry, or for society as a whole.

I think based on these definitions, most association executives would say that serving is relatively safe and leading is relatively risky. I, and many others, could easily argue the opposite though. Perhaps more consensus would emerge in talking about risk/reward. Serving is relatively low risk and low reward--low risk because it's relatively easy to figure out how to serve a member's needs well. It's low reward also because it's relatively easy. Leading would be high risk, high reward. High risk because you're going to be wrong some and only incompletely right a lot. Plus, getting people to pay you for making them uncomfortable is really hard. It's high reward because when you're right, you will be providing highly valuable products/information/etc. Also, because what emerges from those uncomfortable positions is usually a new and better way to approach things.

The fact is, associations do a mix of serving and leading. Here's where I like to do the money test--talk to the powerful in the organization and give them a figurative $100 and tell them they need to spend X amount serving and X amount on leading. Where should that money fall?

I'd have to say a $50 split is a terrible answer. You'll probably be ok at both of them--but what kind of organization strives to be ok? Better to have a focus and leave some people behind.

Even worse than $50/$50 is a $60/$40 or even $70/$30 split. With these splits, you're going to be good at one and ok or marginally ok at the other. Why is this worse? To answer that requires a quick aside.

I used to be an unabashed Jim Collins Good to Great supporter. I'm less so now, but only because it's the presentation I have issues with, specifically presenting the ideas as if they were the results of ironclad research. If I mattered to him, this is the part that would anger him: I think the research methods are much closer to anecdotal and qualitative than the objective, quantitative descriptions he gives them in the book. But I don't care, because I do think the points and conclusions he makes are important fodder for leaders to consider and act on. His most simplistic and elegant point: good is the enemy of great.

So why is $50/$50 better? At least at the $50/$50 level you're only ok--maybe slightly better or slightly worse--you have an easier path to great than an organization whose work is good. When things are good, there's an inertia at work against change, and that inertia stifles creativity and innovation.

So in my opinion, we're talking about the need to at least be $80/$20, but which side should get the $80? If you've read this far, you can probably guess where I'd put my $80, and I think it's where most associations should be, too. But every association is different, and it's not a slam dunk that it should be on leading. I think there absolutely are viable organization models that would spend $80 or more on serving. The key is knowing that and developing a staff and volunteer structure that will lead to products and services that solve members' work problems today. Maybe that looks like nothing but a team of consultants. Maybe it looks like nothing but research. But I think it is something that can have real value to people.

A final thought. Based on where I've worked and the conversations I've had the past 9 years, I'd guess that 98% of associations fall somewhere between the $50/$50 and $70/$30 splits--and that represents one heck of a wasted opportunity.

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July 1, 2010

Quick Clicks: Straight Up

Welcome to the latest edition of Quick Clicks--just in time for the holiday long weekend (for those of you who are in the States). Here's some great reading before you head out to your holiday celebration of choice:

- Welcome to new association blogger Dave Martin! Dave just recently launched the Dirty Martini blog, with the great tagline "Association Marketing Straight Up."

- Amith Nagarajan has written three posts on the Aptify CEO blog following up on his Leadership Inspiration post here on Acronym. He's written on encouraging debate at all costs, making decisions with imperfect information, and challenging your opinion continuously.

- The Connect blog shares 56 takeaways from ASAE's Membership and Marketing Conference and Association Media & Publishing's Annual Meeting.

- At face2face, Sue Pelletier considers a couple of perspectives on the question of whether or not association tradeshows are on their way out.

- At the SignatureI blog, Marsha Rhea considers what the next 50 years might hold for associations.

- The Nonprofit University blog shares a fascinating parable about Goldilocks and the three executive directors.

- Vinay Kumar wonders if we're asking the right questions as we try to improve our organizational performance. On a somewhat related note, Chris Bailey has some suggestions on how you can listen like an anthropologist to hear what isn't being said during important conversations.

- At the Insights From a Future Association Executive blog, Bruce Hammond has started an interesting discussion about the future of magazines.

- Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog shares some lessons learned from arranging a virtual career fair.

- Joe Sapp at the Moving Through the Association World blog (welcome back, Joe!) responds to Brian Birch's recent Acronym posts on building a new website with some advice of his own.

- Rebecca Rolfes suggests a new way for associations to think about growth.

- The AssociationRat blog wonders if the business world has anything equivalent to a walk-off in baseball.


May 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 7, 2010

A diverse idea

At a session on nondues revenue at ASAE & The Center's Financial & Business Operations Symposium, one of the suggestions offered by an attendee was to have younger staff purposefully engage members in dialog about the work that they do. They had done this at their association (they called them the Mod Squad), and, he said, you'd be amazed at how different the the young people's perceptions are, and how different the conversations they have with members are.

This shouldn't be surprising. Age is one component of diversity. My bet is, you can do the same thing with people of different experiences and backgrounds and the results would be just as amazing--and beneficial. This is the point of diversity--to examine issues, problems, opportunities, and experiences from a variety of perspectives yields a richer experience and more informed, better decisions..


Channeling Nemo

Here's a goofy analogy, but it's one that resonated well with me. And I'm not afraid to name the source; it's from Sacha Litman, managing director and founder of Measuring Success LLC who was on a panel discussing organizational dashboards at the Financial Business and Operations Symposium yesterday. Litman himself will tell you the analogy is a little goofy, but here it is...

Near the end of the movie Finding Nemo, Dory gets caught up in a fishing net with a large school of nondescript fish. All the fish panic and swim in panicky fashion this way and that, all the time slowly getting raised closer to the fishing boat. Nemo has the idea that if all the fish swim together in the same direction that they can stop the progress of the fishing boat. Of course as they convince the school to swim down, the fishing gear can't compete and busts, freeing everyone.

The point Litman was making, which is near to my heart, is that focus is what matters. What a dashboard can enable an organization to do is find focus, so that everyone is not panicked and swimming every which way. Frankly, I don't think a dashboard is a requirement for this; strong leadership, whether there is a dashboard or not, is what will enable everybody to swim in the same direction.

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May 6, 2010

Quick clicks: Thursdays with zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 24, 2010

Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

When faced with a threat or an environmental stressor, animals have been known to engage in a fight, flight, or freeze response. The human brain reacts similarly in a crisis situation, and because organizations are essentially people, our human instincts and reactions affect our associations.

My boss and I discussed the fight, flight, or freeze concept as it relates to association work during our "Making Lemonade Out of Lemons in a Sour Industry" presentation at the Great Ideas Conference earlier this month. We presented a situation analysis of our association and explored the decision-making process and the tactics we employed to survive one of the most tumultuous economic environments our members had ever experienced.

In early 2008, our leadership team presented our board with a market analysis that resulted in five core strategies, and when the recession set in later that year our board had to decide: fight, flight, or freeze?

In other words, do we run to safer ground by launching new initiatives and targeting new markets, even if they're outside the scope of our mission? Do we freeze in our tracks, hunker down with our members, and wait for the storm to blow over? Or do we focus on what's in front of us, continue with our strategies, and fight through it?

These all are natural responses and there is no right answer. Experience, instinct, collaboration, and leadership play a role in making the best decision for the association. When evaluating our own options, we challenged the board with three questions: what is our focus, who do we serve, and what's in it for them?

Having just developed a strong mission statement for the association, our board was able to answer those questions without hesitation: we are a credentialing organization, we serve advanced investment consulting and wealth management professionals, and the value we provide is world-class educational content.

Ultimately, the board's decision was to continue with what we already had set in motion. The board and staff were confident that the five core strategies were in alignment with our mission and that we had developed the resources and infrastructure needed to meet those strategic goals. And with the help of volunteer and staff discipline, the avoidance of mission-creep, conservative budgeting, and serendipitous timing, we were fortunate to experience growth (albeit small) and increased member satisfaction in 2008 and 2009.

So what is your focus, who do you serve, and what's in it for them? Those three questions seem so simple, but if you presented them to your board today would you receive clear, consistent answers? It can be a helpful exercise for simplifying what is often an overwhelming array of member types, benefits, and initiatives, and can help you determine your association's own path when it comes to fight, flight, or freeze moments.

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February 25, 2010

Quick Clicks: Home runs

Welcome to another edition of Quick Clicks. Thanks to all the association bloggers who give us so much great stuff to link to!

- On the SmartBlog Insights blog, Rebecca Leaman wonders whether it still makes sense for nonprofits to attempt to drive traffic back to a single website "home base." Her question started a great discussion in comments.

- Andy Sernovitz has some thought-provoking comments on how you can take advantage of changing customer expectations (even if they might seem threatening at first glace).

- Jeffrey Cufaude has started a new series of blog posts he's calling "Wednesday What Ifs?". So far, he's tackled paying for dues and other programs and services in multi-year increments, giving implicit rather than explicit permission, and focusing on consistent quality rather than on the big breakthrough.

- Cindy Butts responds to some recent Acronym posts with her thoughts on the pursuit of perfection.

- Kevin Whorton has a great post at the College of Association Marketing blog on the surprising disconnect between the words and actions of one focus group.

- Jeff Hurt has great advice for pumping up the networking potential of your face-to-face events.

- If you're an "emerging leader" and you've ever thought, "When do I just emerge already?" Rosetta Thurman has a post for you.

- Shelly Alcorn at the Association Subculture blog has launched an interesting series of posts applying the rubric from Jim Collins' new book "How the Mighty Fall" to associations.

- Six is apparently a big number this week: A guest post by Mack Collier on Lauren Fernandez's LAF blog shares six truths of building successful online communities, and Aimee Stern shares six great ideas she got at a recent Super Swap.

- The Nonprofit University blog has some thoughts on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and its implications for nonprofit organizations.

- David Patt has some interesting observations about behavorial differences he's seen with older and younger colleagues. What do you think?

- Jeff Cobb at the Hedgehog & Fox blog has four questions whose answers might predict your future success. (And at his other blog, Mission to Learn, he has a post I loved on learning lessons he's gleaned from watching his toddler.)

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February 13, 2010

Winter Olympics Organizers Offer Free Toolkit on Creating Sustainable Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 15, 2010

My half-baked bubble thought

I'm not even sure I agree with this post, but I'll throw it out there and see if it sticks.

When talking economics or markets, everyone thinks bubbles are bad. It's hard to argue that here on this side of the summer of 2008. But go back to early 2008 or 2007 when personal and organizational wealth was expanding, and the bubble doesn't look so bad (setting aside for a moment that we all foolishly didn't think we were in a bubble). I don't know the numbers, but let's say that 50% of those in subprime mortgages have not and are not in danger of defaulting—the bubble worked pretty good for them, enabling them to obtain a mortgage that they may not have been able to get without a bubble.

But I guess the general consensus is that a striaght line, rising slowly but steadily, would be much preferred to the up and down rough and tumble that actually exists.

So here's my half-baked theory: One overly simplistic definition of a bubble is an increase in mass consumption of risk that reaches a point where risk becomes too great, an event happens, and then there is widespread retreat from risk.

I think in general, associations try to run like that straight line--willing only to take the risks necessary for slow, steady growth. As a result, I think our organizations never realize the full benefits of a bubble. But when it pops, we feel just as much pain as the rest of the world.

If the rest of the world suddenly acted like that straight line, then maybe our measured approach to risk would be ok. But let's face it, when times are good, we always think we've found our straight line, but going back at least several hundred years, that hasn't been the case. As a result, I think, we need to take on more of a bubble mentality. We need to push risky endeavors. Some will fail, and it will hurt. Some will succeed, probably better than they should. And the rest will be somewhere in the middle. I understand it's a yo-yo that might be distasteful, and would require associations to be more flexible in organization and more efficient in decision making than they are. But if the bubble are going to come, then we've got to find a way to get more benefit out of them before they pop.

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December 10, 2009

Associations as value facilitators

Here's a Big Ideas Month blog post we received from Jeffrey Cufaude—thanks Jeffrey!

"The things you own end up owning you."
~ Tyler Durden character in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

What if associations shifted more of their efforts from being direct providers of member value to facilitators of members receiving value?

Associations have long prided themselves on delivering high-quality programs and resources for members, including certification, educational conferences, magazines, and journals. Most of these programs are done in-house and require a significant investment of resources. In essence, these are association-owned efforts. They create them; they pay for them; they deliver them. They are an essential part of the association’s stated benefits and identify with members.

Association staff and volunteers often express some of the not-so-positive consequences of this direct provider approach: You can’t ever kill a program around here. Once we start doing something we rarely stop doing it. We keep adding more to our plate without ever taking anything away. We try to do so much for so many that we don’t do very many things very well. By trying to be everything for everybody we end up being not much for anyone in particular.

So what’s the different between being a provider of value and being a facilitator of value being received? At its roots, the word facilitation means “actions taken to make it easier.” What is it that associations would be making easier? Members receiving the value they need in the form they want it, when they want it, and at an affordable price.

But wait you say, isn’t that what associations already see themselves as doing …? Providing programs and services that meet member needs? Well yes, but the key word there is providing. Associations see making things easier for members primarily through the lens of the association being the direct solution provider. But no association has unlimited resources or ability to meet all of the specific needs its members might have at any given time. Rather than try to do so, associations should incorporate a greater role facilitating members receiving the value they need. Doing so would complement the specific areas where it is in the association’s best interests to retain its role as being the actual provider of value.

Continue reading "Associations as value facilitators" »

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October 8, 2009

My Top 5 Things to Remember in 2010 as an Association Professional

As we move into a new decade, what are the most important things we can focus on in our profession? Here are my top five:

1) Priorities Over Majorities: Most people aren’t great at naturally prioritizing, and the majority of the people you know will focus on everything but the most important thing (because the important thing is always the hardest thing). We association professionals should get really good at prioritizing everything quickly, including emails, workload, educational programming, and volunteers. Oftentimes this will be challenging, as many will focus on things that aren’t that important long-term. For an example in educational programming prioritization, check out our Prioritized Educational Agenda.

2) Control Technology or It’ll Control You: When evaluating any new technology for your association, from a pencil to Twitter to a new website, always ask: Where will this be in 5 or 10 years? What part of our strategic plan or mission will this technology help us deliver? This exercise can help us navigate the increasingly complex balance between doing what is new and cool, and doing what makes the most sense for the organization and its members. In other words, don’t let technology drive your decisions; implement decisions with technology.

3) "It’s the Content, Stupid": Over and over, people have come to the realization that quality, accurate information and education always trumps flair--flair should support and entice, not serve as the foundation to our educational and event planning. Our world is becoming inundated with cookie-cutter speakers doing cookie-cutter presentations, and cookie-cutter websites and social networks. How do we develop better, more specific content and provide time for people to learn? Every person has the capacity to grow when they are challenged by someone they respect; how do we challenge our members while maintaining and increasing their respect for the association?

4) Partner to Prosper: In a global world, we must get better at sharing and partnering. Associations bring people together because there is strength in numbers; do we live by our own mantra? No association should see another association as a direct competitor.

5) This Social Network Will Self-Destruct: Over time, new things become old ... be prepared for social networking apathy. Some people are getting tired of Facebook or spending less time on such applications, and many people use social networking casually and aren’t that engaged in it. Most people still value in-person interaction and community, or associations would be long-gone by now. Don’t get me wrong, some social networks online are valuable and 2.0 technology is great, but I would argue that many social networks will lose value over time, unless they offer something more than just putting a hit out on your friends in Mafia Wars. Where will all of these networks be in 5 years? Check out this interesting article from Wired Times in 2004.

Please share your thoughts, or share your own Top 5 for 2010!

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September 30, 2009

Purpose-driven membership

If anyone out there thought that membership was no longer that important to associations, this month’s discussions on Acronym certainly disabused them of that idea. It’s been great to see the ongoing discussion and debate around the questions of what membership is and isn’t, and what it should and could be.

One association blogger who’s known for asking such big questions is Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC. Having recently heard him speak at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting (in part) on the question of “What is membership?”, I asked him to share some of his thoughts with us on Acronym.

So, what is membership?

In some ways, that’s kind of an existential question, and I feel like I’m maybe ill-equipped to be too much of a philosopher on that subject. But I think, fundamentally, it’s such an important part of the identity that associations have had over their long history, that they see themselves as membership organizations. That’s a very common phrase that we use all the time in our community. It’s almost impossible to separate out that idea of membership from what an association is.

But at the same time, even though it’s been such an important part of our identity for many years, it’s also one of the primary strategic challenges that associations are grappling with right now—trying to figure out how, in a web-enabled world, membership fits in. The traditional conception of membership fits in with what our organizations do; is there a new kind of concept of membership and new concept of the relationships that associations would have with their stakeholders that is required by the challenges of an environment in which membership feels like it’s increasingly a commodity? How do you enrich the notion of membership in a way where it’s something that associations can continue to offer, but perhaps not the centerpiece of the association experience? … I think we’re at a very interesting reflection point in trying to figure out where membership goes from here.

You mentioned the contrast between the traditional notion of membership and an enriched form of membership. Could you describe what you see as the traditional view of membership and then what you see as this new form it could take?

Let me tackle that question in this way. I think there are really three aspects to the association that you have to take a look at: There’s the association as the endeavor, there’s the association as an enterprise, and then there’s the association as the extended network. Let’s talk about each of those in the context of your question.

Continue reading "Purpose-driven membership" »


August 18, 2009

What is not related to "social media"?

Here we are at the final day of ASAE 2009 in Toronto and one is overwhelmed with the amount of interest, and confusion, about social media and its impact on associations. The exhibit floor in the technology section is evidence not only of the intense interest in all things social media, but also the emergence of new solutions and companies in this sector.

A lot of the information on social media is aimed to help people understand the basics of what social media is and initial approaches. Other sessions have been able to go more into detail and share actionable information and resources.

However, one over-riding theme through all of the presentations and the discussions was just how important it is for organizations to develop a strategy for social media if they hope to really leverage the new tools and applications.

Another "elephant in the room" is about measurement and ROI. Sure, you might have thousands of "fans" on Facebook or hordes of "followers" on Twitter, but how are you managing your organizations brand message and reputation; how are you monetizing or measuring these platforms?

It is obvious that we are all at the front end of the social media revolution and that the initial strategies; i.e. using public social networks alone as the primary social media approach, are not going to deliver the kinds of sustainable results we need.

A solid strategy, use of multiple channels and the ability to manage your brand and quality of experience on a private social network while raising awareness in the public space seems to be where associations need to go to be more successful with social media.

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August 17, 2009

“Social is a way of being”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 16, 2009

Talent goes where it is welcome

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

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

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

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

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The wonderful, amazing capacity to change

Eric Saperston can tell an amazing story. That's no surprise, really. After all, he's an award-winning documentary director. In his packed Thought Leader session at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting, he told the story of traveling across country talking to as many great leaders as would talk to him about why some people are extraordinary and why others are, well, ordinary.

His story is his revelation, and you can catch the extreme cliffs notes version in the video I captured of him below.

But what struck me about the session was the way, right in the middle, he made a fundamental u-turn. He went from no focus whatsoever on himself and those traveling with him, to a focus that is entirely on the four-person (and then three-person) crew. For this to mean much, watch the clip available on this web page. Now imagine what the results of his trip would have been if he had stuck to his original purpose--I'm quite sure there would be no clip to show, and I suspect that there would be no website, and I wouldn't have heard him speak today.

And yet it was such a profound, fundamental difference in the plan he had mapped out. If I learned anything on this first day, it is to be more open to--in fact to actively search for--a direction that is completely different than what a plan lays out. Would I have been free enough from the plan to make the fundamental shift that Saperston made? I really don't think so, but I want to try.


August 11, 2009

What does Social Media have to do with "International"?

As we prepare to go to Toronoto for ASAE's annual meeting, you might want to ponder what Social Media has to do with "International"? In talking with associations these days, most are focused on learning how to leverage social media or at least to get started in using social media tools for their association.

At the same time, a good number of associations have recognized that international markets represent one of the best real opportunities for their association to develop and grow.

However, very few have recognized the connection between these two very different but highly complimentary topics.

By its nature, social media as an Internet based platform for open communication and networking, is ideally suited to be used for international outreach and connecting. It has several very distinct advantages:

1. It is extremely cost effective and relatively easy to put in place.

2. The benefit to the user is in the ability to connect and network therefore the social media network delivers the benefit from the user community to its members directly.

3. It allows you to aggregate a critical mass of members and prospects even if you are only able to attract a relatively small number per country but from many different countries.

4. More people are becoming familiar with and using social media tools every day so there is less of a learning curve to get people to join.

5. It is a great first step to offering online education and training, leading to in-person live events, leading to membership or other more meaningful engagement with your international audience.

Want to learn more? There will be a session at Toronto on "Using Social Networks for International Expansion" held in room 803AB held on Sunday, 16 August from 1:30 - 2:45. This will include information and examples of using social media for international growth that has relevance for anyone wanting to grow their association, home and abroad. Hope to see you there!


August 7, 2009

Quick clicks, part II: Electric boogaloo

Since there were so many good posts to choose from this week, I split "Quick Clicks" into two parts. Here's a roundup of some great non-Annual-Meeting-related posts:

- David Patt of the Association Executive Management blog argues provocatively against contested board elections: "Members should care about the quality and quantity of services. If they get what they've paid for, it should make no difference who holds office."

- In other governance-related discussions, the Nonprofit University blog has seven reasons why term limits are a must for nonprofit boards. And at the Off Stage blog, Judith Lindenau discusses some reasons why nonprofit boards should have no more than three committees.

- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. says the sky is not falling--and associations have a bright future ahead.

- At the Zen of Associations, Ann Oliveri wants to know why associations use so much "generic, homogenized association speak."

- Jamie Notter asks if the staff at your association are learning as they go about their work. Are you capitalizing on informal learning opportunities?

- Have you ever considered holding a meeting or conference in partnership with a related organization? At the Drake & Company blog (which has added several new bloggers lately), Steve Drake has some tips for managing a joint conference.

- Cindy Butts at AE on the Verge shares some interesting ideas for team building activities in a tough economy.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has some great dos and dont's for RFPs (a re-post of something she wrote a while back, but I hadn't seen it before and maybe you haven't either ...).

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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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July 8, 2009

Give em what they want or give em what they need?

Over the 4th of July weekend I went to a local casual dining restaurant that I hadn’t been to in a while. It tended to be a bit pricey for what they served but since they sent me a coupon and I was near on of their locations I decided to give it a shot. I was really surprised when I walked in and noticed that almost all of the items on the old menu had been replaced by mostly healthy items. I was very excited because I like to be able to go out and still eat healthy. I also immediately wondered how much longer they would be in business because from what I have seen the restaurants that promote themselves as healthy and then serve more or less only healthy food go out of business fast even though we all know that human beings should be eating at places like this instead of eating hamburgers and french fries at some of the other restaurants in the area.

While I was eating my white meat chicken, brown rice and mashed sweet potatoes and drinking my unsweetened ice tea I started thinking about our role as association professionals and how we best serve our members. Do we give our members what they need, those things that research and past results show will serve their needs best in the long term? Or do we give them what they want because it will provide short term satisfaction and probably a higher amount of immediate revenue? In my example the restaurant I went to decided that they are going to provide what customers need (healthy food) not what they may want (fried or salty or sugary food) and at least for now is willing to risk their business to do so.

What should an association do when they face this type of situation? Do we take the money and give members what they are yelling for yet may not truly need? Or do we go against their wishes and force them to take what we believe they need to have? Or is there a middle ground where we can accomplish both? I think this is a conundrum that most organizations and most association professionals will face, or have already faced. I would love to hear how you decide what you do to best serve your members, how you did it and then whether it worked or not. To me this would be valuable info for all association professionals to have access to especially in our current economic situation.

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July 6, 2009

The art of triangulation

Triangulation (from The location of an unknown point, as in navigation, by the formation of a triangle having the unknown point and two known points as the vertices.

This is my job. I take any number of known points, and I work on finding the unknown...not because I enjoy it, and not because I think about it very critically; but because I have to! And chances are, so do you.

If you are in association management, then triangulation can (or should) be your best friend. It can help you find innovative solutions to problems—even some problems you weren’t aware you had. So let’s take this powerful concept and try to break it down into a process.

Tips to help you find the unknown points:

- Have a system in place that tracks all major good ideas that come from committees—treat them like your reserve accounts, an investment in the future. Formalize this tracking system into your planning in the form of a Queue of ideas that committees/staff review annually. Kill the bad ideas (yes they do exist), don’t let them get in your queue, they will muck it up.

- Prioritize projects/ideas using board outcomes and strategic plans. Some things are more important and relevant than others. The hardest part of implementing a strategic plan is filling the gaps (the things it doesn’t tell you to do). Use your good ideas as glue for the gaps.

- Look for similarities, and don’t be afraid to partner with other committees/associations. Be ready to convince people that a hybrid of their idea with someone else’s idea is really the best way to go.

Real-life example that is (hopefully) working:

Conditions Before Triangulation
- SIMA is developing a Certified Snow Technician program, an idea from the Certification committee...committee is stuck, having a hard time figuring out how and what to deliver as a hands-on test for CST’s

- SIMA Education committee decides it wants to do training for safe operation of equipment

- Numerous SIMA exhibitors have recommended an outdoor demo area during the annual show

After Triangulation
At its next annual show, SIMA will conduct a Demo Day with 10 equipment providers, who will partner with volunteers to deliver a safety and efficiency training curriculum. That curriculum will be used for the basis of the CST program.

Maybe triangulation is the wrong word; maybe E pluribus unum is a better descriptor?


June 24, 2009

Is relevance enough?

Last week, Steve Worth posted about the thorny issue of relevance--how associations can achieve relevance and maintain it over time. His post sparked several interesting comments, but I wanted to highlight one in particular, from Jamie Notter:

"Of course I understand the concept behind the importance of relevance, and maybe I'm just word-smithing here, but the word "relevant" bugs me (and I've been hearing it a lot lately). It feels like we're setting the bar too low. As Maddie Grant has said, having the goal of relevance is like living your life with the goal of being "not dead." Maybe Rebecca's comment about future-focused is part of it. Is relevant really enough?"

What do you think? Is it enough for associations to be relevant? If there is a higher bar we should aspire to, how would you describe it?

If others have thoughts on Jamie's question or Steve's original post, I'd love to hear them! The discussion is here.

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June 23, 2009

Fact-based decision making

When I was a staffer on Capitol Hill I recall hearing two different stories told quite often during debates on the Senate floor.

One was: There are three types of lies in the world—simple lies; damn lies; and then there are statistics!

The other was: As the Bible says, “Come let us reason together.” We all have our points of view on which we differ, but we should at least be able to agree on the facts—they are what they are. Facts are stubborn things….

Both assertions are true of course. No one needs a course in statistics to know that the gathering and presentation of facts is a serious matter and that a lot of pseudo-science underlies a lot of the “facts” we see cited in advertising that bombards us every day. But it is also true that no rational debate can occur and no sound decision can be made that is not founded on the facts. This is true in all cases and particularly true in board of director meetings—those groups of leaders made up of “type A” personalities, all of whom are quite certain they know the way forward…..

As association managers, we have all had to herd cats on occasion, haven’t we? In this, facts have a way of focusing attention in the right direction. Lacking this compass, we are faced with rule by the most dominant personality, the loudest voice, or the one most skilled in Machiavellian intrigue.

But what are these facts on which your organization makes its decisions? Are they what is true for your board of directors, according to their experience?--your membership, according to their needs and perceptions?—or are they what is true for the market at large? When they differ, which set of facts weigh most heavily on the scales for your organization?

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June 16, 2009

Growing older…

Unfortunately, we all do it, it can’t be helped! But, if yours is a professional society or an association that has individual people as members (as opposed to organizational membership) and you have noticed that the average age of your members is going up, then this should be a wake up call that your nonprofit has gotten off track.

What is the secret of eternal life for individual membership associations?—relevancy, a simple concept but deceivingly difficult sometimes to achieve. It is difficult because relevancy is a moving target--one can be relevant one year and “old news” the next. Keeping your members is nice but not enough. Instead, your membership year-to-year should reflect the profile of the work force at large for the sector you serve--ideally a bell-shaped curve with a bulge over that age group that is in the prime of their careers. In a free market economy, such a membership profile is the best affirmation that your organization and the programs and services it offers have been judged by the marketplace to be relevant to its needs.

So, how does one achieve and keep relevancy? Anyone care to share?

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May 29, 2009

Quick clicks: Straight talk

Happy Friday! Here is your weekly roundup of interesting posts from the association blogging community and elsewhere.

Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog asks if you’re still the right person for your job.

In a guest post on the Socialfishing blog, Leslie White offers some straight talk about risk—specifically, the risk of lost opportunities, specifically relating to social media (although what she has to say can certainly be applied elsewhere).

The Signal to Noise blog has some equally straight talk about planning: “The only plan you should make is to plan on improvising.”

Wes Trochlil points out what I’m going to call the “office kitchen conundrum”: “That which no one owns, no one will care for.”

Tony Rossell continues to explore the question “What is one thing an association marketing team must do, if nothing else?”

The Challenge Management blog muses on the strange profession of association management (and hiring people who can be successful at it).

Kerry Stackpole at the Wired 4 Leadership blog has some thoughts on exclusivity, inclusivity, and social media.

Sherry Jennings at the Sound Governance blog has posted a case study on how a nonprofit can work to avoid a crisis if a major source of funding dries up.

At the Forum Effect blog, Doug Eadie shares some insights on the role of the CEO as chief board developer.

I love this: Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog has a great story about how a professor energized his class by lying to them (no, really). (She also recently posted a great roundup of resources on accessible learning.)


May 7, 2009

Shirky: Associations must be the broker of connections

Community is one of those words that an old journalism professor of mine told me to never use because it doesn't mean anything. Or, more to the point, it can mean about 100 different things depending on context, so you should always find a more specific word to use.

Well, Acronym is going to focus on community this month anyway, and we'll embrace it for all its different meanings.

First up is some keen insight from Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and a Thought Leader at the 2009 Annual Meeting & Expo this August. He spoke at the Digital Now conference in April, and I had the good fortune to pick his brain for about 30 minutes. He offered some great thoughts on how community is evolving for associations.

On gathering people around knowledge:

"With this forwarding and forwarding and forwarding possibility, the ability of organizations to use what they have and know as kind of bright, shiny objects to attract the population they'd like to be serving or addressing—whether it's their own members or potential members, or even just the sort of penumbra of interested people—means that anyplace you can get sharing to happen at low enough cost and high enough redistribution value, there's a model available now that didn't used to be available." 

On the survival of conferences and meetings:

"If I want information about a Cisco product, I'm so much better off getting it from Cisco's [web]site than I am going to a conference and hearing about it. The reason to go to a conference is to be around the other people. ... The conference business that struggled ... were the ones that assumed that a conference business was basically a way of broadcasting information to a passive audience. And the conference businesses that have done well are the ones that say, 'You're going to be in a room of people you'll be glad to be in a room with, and in the design of the conference we're going to respect that by carving out some space for you all to create value for each other.'"

On connecting your audience members to each other:

"When an association can broker introductions or can create a way that people can have conversations around shared interests ... you [the association] can benefit from that, but not if you imagine that you can control it or that you can decide whether or not [the converstation] is going to happen."

On member engagement:

"It's not clear that getting more of those mailbox members in should be a first-order goal. ... Wikipedia's ability to deliver value to people who have never and will never participate is a big part of the success of Wikipedia. ... So, the question isn't about 'How do we get everybody to participate?' You can, but what a nightmare that would be. The question is, 'How do we get enough people participating so that it ... raises the value of the organization for the whole group?'" 

With those wise words to set the stage, what does community mean to your association, and what will it mean in five, 10, or 20 years? Keep an eye out here on Acronym throughout the month of May for more thoughts on community.

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May 5, 2009

Be fine with members leaving the room

Was tuned to this Makin' Ads blog post about a captivating local musician from Seth Godin's blog, which I think is a good parable for what I've been preaching of late.

Here's the salient quote from the bottom of the Makin Ads' post:

"3) He got us to participate. He never said it, but there was no choice. You were going to participate, or you were going to leave the bar.

"4) He was fine with people leaving the bar. Didn’t bug him at all. And this is the most important thing. He was polarizing. But it was so much better to have a smaller group of people who were really into the act than a large group of half-interested folks. He just put himself out there. This is me. This is what I do. Jump on or jump out of the way."

Associations need to define what they do, then do it very, very well. You'll lose people by doing this, but that has to be ok. The end result may be an organization that is smaller, but it will most assuredly be better for those who stick around.

The alternative is to continue trying to be all things to all people, or a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, with the end result of losing everybody. Even the people who remain in the bar would be trying to ignore you.

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March 26, 2009

Change your bolts

During a discussion I helped to moderate earlier this week (the results of which will appear in the May issue of Associations Now--keep an eye out!), a CEO told a great story about a factory she knows of that makes bolts. Previously, the factory had focused on making bolts for yachts, but, clearly, the yacht market isn't what it was a few years ago. They're still a factory--they haven't gone into business as a call center or a hardware store--but they've changed their focus to start making bolts for another an industry that's growing rather than shrinking.

That led me to wonder: What are we doing in associations that's (essentially) building bolts for shrinking markets rather than growing ones? And how can we change our internal machinery to make it possible for us to build bolts for new, growing markets in addition to, or instead of, the shrinking ones?

A few thoughts occurred to me:

- Take a hard look at your programs and products for the next several fiscal years. Do you realistically expect growth (even after the downturn ends)? If, realistically, you expect flat or shrinking revenues, should you consider dropping or restructuring the program or product? After all, you can almost certainly expect expenses to rise over time rather than fall.

- Look at what slows your association down. Once, in a meeting, I made a comment about associations not typically being "blindingly fast." The other attendees laughed in agreement. But at the time I started to wonder, why can't associations be blindingly fast in our responses to the business environment? What's holding us back? Find ways to be more nimble, and your association will be able to aim for those new, growing markets quickly once they're identified.

- Create an early warning system. Social media offers some great opportunities in this area, but more traditional research could be helpful as well. What are your members and nonmember prospects spending money on (especially if they're not spending it with you)? What ideas does that give you for ways you could change your own offerings to better provide them value?

What other ideas do you have?

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January 17, 2009

The "It's Tech" Excuse

Finally catching up on some pre-holiday reading and enjoyed the Associations Now December cover story on crowdsourcing (though, I'd nitpic that it isn't just about amateurs).

What caught my attention was how Jeff Howe (focus of the story and author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business) is slated as the keynote for the ASAE's Tech Conference. I thought to myself, Why Tech?

As a techy myself, the tech of crowdsourcing - in fact, pretty much all tech in the social media/Web 2.0 sphere - is actually not interesting. I know this argument has been made before, but I'll reiterate that the tech is just one part of the puzzle (again, in many ways, the least interesting one), and that the social, psychological, economic, legal, etc, pieces are far more important.

Tossing thought leaders like Jeff Howe in with the techies, while (hopefully) appreciated by the techs, is not actually helpful to the association community at large. As another example, I saw an add for the DigitalNow conference with Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations) as the keynote. Lucky them, but Clay really needs to be getting in front of executive directors and association leaders at the Annual!

The further association leaders use the "oh, it's tech stuff, let IT handle it" to dismiss the overall relevance/significance of all this, the deeper they dig their graves. (Hmm, and, as a side note, probably the same could be said about a similar "it's just marketing" excuse, but I digress.)

Makes me think of a parallel case: A foundation's board was reviewing a game proposal for funding (side note: not a random action game for Xbox or whatever, but a "serious" game geared towards advancing the cause of the foundation - something serious like this).

The board, all non-techy and non-game types, were really getting held up on the technology. They feared that getting into games was this big scary and risky tech venture that was turning them off. I was called in to give some advice, and essentially said that the tech part was totally not an issue, that in fact the real challenge was the design and user experience elements of promoting a particular cause via gameplay.

I gave the analogy that if this was a proposal for a movie project to promote their cause, would the board be wrestling over the engineering details of the camera or the chemistry of film processing. No. The tech of movie making is a given, and they'd be debating the story, characters, etc, in relation to the cause and so on.

Long story short, once they realized they were irrationally concerned about the tech because that was the piece they didn't understand (even though others did) they approved funding for the project. And, have since dived in with enthusiasm and gusto on the cause related design elements of the project.

Sound familiar?

We need to stop using tech as our collective excuse to dismiss the change that is occurring all around us.

(Ah, the meta irony! Making the above argument on a blog isn't much better than having Jeff keynote at Tech ;)

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December 2, 2008

Resources for Thriving in a Down Economy has a list of nine helpful articles and sites to help nonprofit leaders weather the down economy. Registration (free) is required at some of them.


November 4, 2008

Not strategic planning again

I am often surprised by what generates reaction on the part of readers. There are some things you just know are going to get the words flying—most thoughtful arguments against social media on this or any of the other association blogs, for example.

And I admit to deliberate attempts (which sometimes work and sometimes don't) to fan the flames.

But I was surprised at the vehement reaction that "The Perils of Strategic Planning," an August Associations Now article, generated. It was so strong, we had to create a blog post about it to let people vent/converse. I was surprised by the reaction because, frankly, I didn't think what Jim Hollan wrote was particularly controversial. I thought the idea of strategic planning having lost its vitality and usefulness in favor of a more nimble, open planning process was pretty well set.

This is a long way of getting to the point of this post. I may not have given this a second thought, but when I ran across a video of the authors of Fast Strategy: How strategic agility will help you stay ahead of the game, it reminded me of that big debate. I have not read the book yet, so I can't give my thoughts on it, but their basic message seems to reinforce Hollan's point. This is from an article about the book in the Insead Knowledge newsletter:

Kosonen says he faced the challenges of strategic agility for years in his roles with the Finnish telecoms firm as head of strategy and chief information officer. At Nokia he became familiar with two dimensions of strategic agility, he says, namely strategic sensitivity – that is, the way in which an organisation views the world and whether it is ‘open-minded’ and attentive enough to sense new opportunities and discontinuities– and secondly, ‘resource fluidity’ which relates to whether companies can redeploy resources rapidly enough to quickly exploit emerging opportunities in a complex and fast-changing environment.

This says to me that a planning process that takes 9 months or a year or (gulp) spans multiple years to develop a plan is useless. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking about what the world will look like in 6 months or 12 months or even 36 months. But I do think that the further forward you look, the more you have to realize that it is highly unlikely that the world will actually turn out that way.

For associations, plans in the next 2 to 4 months can be pretty well set, with only major, unforeseeable events causing major changes. To me, that's really execution.

Plans for things 6 to 12 months away are where association leaders (and for large organizations at least, I mean staff and task force level volunteer levels) should be doing the bulk of their planning, and making changes to plans as the environment calls for.

More than 12 months should just be future plans, more ideas or outlines than plans really. And I think all leaders—board, task force, staff, other interested constituents—should be engaged in the development of those outlines.

And finally, more than 24 months — this is the realm of the big picture. It's where, for example, the Realtor organizations might contemplate the future of their profession given how online sources may change how people buy and sell homes. I think it's important to have these conversations, but I don't think they result in anything resembling a plan. Too much is going to change before any actions would matter—some changes will come faster than expected, other things may not change at all, and, no matter what, the change that does in fact come will have significant unpredictable components. But having the conversation can and should affect things in all the other planning time horizons.


October 17, 2008

Design and choice

As you may have seen in the October issue of Associations Now, I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with futurist Rohit Talwar about the trends and issues he sees that are (or soon will be) affecting the association sector.

Unfortunately, space constraints kept me from including everything he had to say in the print edition of Associations Now. In particular, I had to cut one of Rohit's answers that I found to be striking, especially now that we're all facing such unsettled economic times. I thought I'd share that answer with Acronym readers.

Here's what Rohit had to say when I asked him about the title of the new book he and his company collaborated with ASAE & The Center on, Designing Your Future:

Q: What do you think it means for an association to design its future?

Rohit Talwar: We deliberately chose the word “design,” because design is all about making a series of choices, about form, about functionality, and about how you assemble the components. That was very much what we wanted to get the associations thinking about--a design-led approach rather than a formula-led approach.

The nature of design is, you ask yourself a lot of questions on the journey, and you make a lot of choices. So, we wanted [association executives] to think about that and to recognize that this was all about making choices, asking yourselves tough questions about every aspect of what you do and then making choices about how you’re going to respond. That’s why we chose this notion of designing your future rather than implying there was simply a future to be chosen. You could create it, and you have the power to create it.

What choices can associations be making right now that will help put them in a great position to succeed over the next few years? For that matter, what choices can we be making as individual professionals to design the futures we want to have?

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October 9, 2008

Quick clicks: Member service and unspoken truths

Here are some links for your Thursday morning (assuming it's already not Thursday afternoon where you are):

- Please join me in welcoming Kerry Stackpole and the Wired 4 Leadership blog to the association blogging community! Kerry's sessions at the last two Annual Meetings were some of my favorites, and I'm really looking forward to seeing his upcoming blog posts.

- Kevin Holland is sharing a series of "unspoken truths of association management" that pack a lot into a single sentence. My favorite so far is this one, but I highly recommend checking them all out.

- Rosetta Thurman at the Perspectives From the Pipeline blog shares her thoughts on "We ARE Nonprofit Culture, or Diversity Is Everyone's Business."

- Lindy Dreyer has an interesting breakdown of the lifecycle of an online community member, to help associations with social networks support their members as they move from being "lonely explorers" to active participants in the community. (The Find and Convert blog has a related post from an online marketer's perspective.)

- Renato Sogueco shares his association's experience with using the book Wikinomics to change their approach to member engagement.

- David Patt has a challenging post on excuses your members should never hear. On a related note, Matt Baehr says that your member service should never be reminiscent of the DMV.

- Jeff Cobb has posted a three-part series on the keys to selling more e-learning on the Hedgehog & Fox blog.

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September 30, 2008

Quick clicks: Crisis communications

Here's a quick roundup of interesting blog posts for your Tuesday morning:

- Tom Peters has some timely advice for communicating during a crisis.

- Dana Theus at the Member-to-Member blog has two detailed posts about lessons in social media from the association sector.

- Speaking of social media, Caron Mason started an interesting discussion with a post about helping her association's volunteer bloggers (and the blog as a whole) to succeed. Ben Martin responded with some advice from his own experience.

- Tony Rossell delves into the differences between member satisfaction and member loyalty.

- Bruce Hammond saw the new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads and thought about associations.

- Feeling overloaded? Chris Bonney is doing a series of posts on how to better manage your e-mail. The most recent post tackles the question of how much your inbox reflects you.

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September 26, 2008

Ahhh, the human factor ...

Even when taking into account the power of money and the marvels of technology; when all is said and done it always comes back to people, doesn’t it?

When Warren Buffet, the world’s richest human being, was interviewed recently by Parade magazine and asked what constituted happiness, he replied that for him happiness was not found in the accumulation of vast sums of money or power but rather to have “lived life knowing that you are loved by those who matter to you.” From any other person such an observation might sound banal, but Buffet’s comment rang true.

Clearly, as we witness the meltdown of the capital markets of the world’s wealthiest nation we cannot help but be reminded of the limits of material wealth. And as overwhelming as our nation’s military power is, Bob Woodward’s most recent book reveals that the key to our success in Iraq is found in the network of human connections our intelligence services have woven within Iraqi society—not in any wiz-bang technology or our overwhelming armed forces per se.

So it appeared in the case study research we did for The Power of Partnership, the keys to success in association-driven partnerships were found in the “soft” factors—the human relationships that were strategically woven together—as opposed to the size and muscle power of any one entity.

Lee Iacocca, the famous automotive executive who engineered the turn around of Chrysler in the 1980s, observed in one of his earlier memoires that he was always leery of managers whose performance reports cited their brilliance but noted that they had problems with people. ‘What else is there,” Iacocca asked “that a manager should be concerned with except people?”

But the question remains, are the personal qualities that make certain people so skillful in managing human relationships innate, or are they acquired? Can these skills be learned?

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September 23, 2008

It's a fake world redux

I think Jim Gilmore makes an interesting case in his book, Authenticity, and in his first This Week in Associations video segment when he says that commerce -- all of commerce -- is essentially phony. It is one person trying to entice another person to perform an action. As long as a consumer has a choice, there will be some question in that consumer's mind about how genuine a product producer is in letting the consumer know about the product. Gilmore argues that the company that wins the genuine game wins the customer.

To me there is one big area where associations fail in their quest to be genuine to their members and customers. It's the same thing that has been said many, many times before--it's when we keep doing something over and over -- have the same education session, push the same certification, keep the same member benefits, etc. We try to find new ways to market it, new ways to describe it, and new ways to position, but the fact remains, it's the same old thing. A dog is a dog, no matter how it is marketed, and your members see that. If you want to be relevant, or, better yet, lead your industry or profession or sector, you need to experiment, to try new things, to learn from those trials, and to take leaps forward instead of plod along. For me, being authentic starts with what you do, not what you say.

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September 19, 2008

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

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

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

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September 18, 2008

Partnering as a driver of international trade and investment

One of the more interesting facts among international business trends is that every year since the late 1980s the greatest increases in international trade and investment are to be found not among the large multi-national corporations, but among small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). The largest share of international trade and investment is still held by the largest multi-national companies, but this position is being eroded and eventually will be overtaken by the SMEs.

To borrow a line from Ernest Hemmingway, “The curious thing is that [they—the SMEs] should be here at all!” Without teams of lawyers and thousands of professionals on the payrolls in bricks and mortar structures around the world these small and medium size companies have been able to indentify and exploit opportunities in foreign markets—in many cases, even before the corporate giants know what has happened!

In the early 1990s Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu did a study that examined this phenomenon. Bear in mind that this was the time when the Soviet Union imploded, Europe’s Iron Curtain came down and serious trade for the West was opening in China. What the Deloitte study found was that the largest companies had too many investments in established markets that bogged them down and made them too slow moving to take advantage of these new opportunities as rapidly as did the SMEs. But without any international infrastructure of their own, how did the SMEs do it? The Deloitte study found that SMEs essentially formed partnerships using networks of contacts available to them through the associations and chambers of commerce to which they belonged.

“The Power of Partnership” discusses this tangentially, but I think it could be the subject of its own book ...


September 17, 2008

Quick clicks: Chapters of the future

I feel very behind on my "Quick Click" posts! Here's a roundup of some of the interesting conversations going on around the association blogging world:

- Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some interesting thoughts on the "chapter of the future."

- David Patt shared some interesting things he heard at an Association Forum of Chicagoland event for small-staff CEOs focused on creating employee engagement. Jamie Notter was inspired by David's post to ask some questions of his own.

- Kevin Holland at the Association Inc. blog has some really interesting quick-hit thoughts on several topics, all in one post: time shifting, leadership legacies, "we bees," staff ownership in associations, and more.

- Stuart Meyer at the Association 2020 blog talks about how associations can help innovative ideas to succeed (despite the forces that might push against them).

- Mickie Rops and some great guest bloggers captured a lot of good information during the NOCA Credentialing Leadership Forum. If you have an interest in credentialing and certification trends, definitely check it out; the first post is here and the last is here.

- Bruce Hammond has a great post about how policies can be perceived by members who run afoul of them.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a thoughtful post on evaluating past experience, asking "What experience most matters?"

- If this election season is inspiring you to advocate, you should definitely read Stephanie Vance's series on "Forming an Advocacy Habit."

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September 10, 2008

A question of trust

I come back to the “trust” issue because it emerged as one of the common denominators of every successful partnership we studied for “The Power of Partnership,” yet it admittedly is a very “mushy” concept. What is the difference between the “trust me” uttered by a con artist and the relationship of trust that permeates every solid partnership? The book discusses two measures that managers should take.

When negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Soviet head of state Gorbachev, President Reagan was fond of quoting a Russian proverb to him: “Trust, but verify!” Certainly every successful partnership that we studied had defined goals and measurements in place to track progress against these goals so that all parties knew what they had to do and when they had to do them. So trust can be verified in a very business-like manner in this way.

But of course life doesn’t always proceed according to plan. When the unforeseen happens, as it sometimes does, solid partnerships can withstand some pretty severe shocks while the less solid ones fall apart with the slightest jolt. In this regard, the second key distinguishing characteristic of solid partnerships is found in the synergies or complementarity of their missions and strategic goals. The leaders of successful partnerships actively seek out other organizations whose core missions and strategic goals complement those of their own organization. This can lead to some interesting and unlikely combinations, not only between nonprofits and for-profits and nonprofits and governmental organizations, but also partnerships between very large and very small organizations as well as partnerships between organizations whose respective stakeholders might otherwise consider each other rivals.

Many partnerships we studied were between organizations headed by individuals who had known each other for many years; but we quickly found that partnerships that were well conceived could continue despite changes in the leadership of one or more of the partnering organizations.

However, personality is an issue in a way. Virtually everyone we interviewed agreed that successful partnering was difficult to impossible for people who insist on being the center of attention or for those who insist on personally being in control of every detail—large or small—of a project.

This concept of being comfortable in a teamwork environment is rather critical; but one of the things I would have liked to have explored more in “The Power of Partnership” was whether nonprofits that typically have “flatter” organizational structures, adapt to partnering better than for-profit organizations that typically have more pyramid-like and “command and control”-driven management structures and styles.

What do you think—is partnering an area of management science where associations have a competitive advantage over the for-profit sector?

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September 8, 2008

Partnering—a useful management tool for the association world?

Viewed in the larger perspective, it could be argued that partnering is not only a useful management tool that allows organizations to achieve more than they could on their own—it is a skill that should be part of the course requirements at all business schools, schools of diplomacy and public affairs…in fact every field of endeavor where people are required to work together efficiently and effectively. Yes? No?

As a teacher in a Masters of Business Administration program I regularly hear students complain about being forced to work in teams. It would be so much better, they say, to be able to work on their own schedule, without having to rely on “weak links”—to be responsible only for their own work. Indeed, wouldn’t this be nice? But Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business insists that we use the team approach in teaching because that is the way the “real world” works…or is it?

Over the years as a management consultant I have seen truly brilliant people in management positions going it alone, making checklists and ruthlessly driving their staff to do exactly what they should, when they should, according to their master plan. We all know this “superstar” management approach exists in the association world…in fact it might even be the way most associations are managed. But is this the best way to manage?

To a large extent partnering requires a personality that is able to “let go,” to be able to trust that others will want to do what they should because it is in their best interest as well as yours. But the fact that 50% of all partnerships fail is an indication that not everyone has the personality or skills set needed either to identify the right partners or to make their partnerships work.

So, here are two questions:

- Is partnering a necessary management tool for association managers? and
- Can anyone learn how to use it effectively, or does it require certain personality traits that you either have or you haven’t got?

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August 28, 2008

Strategic planning: Are you for or against?

The editors of Associations Now want to get our readers thinking--but every now and then an article gets an even stronger reaction than we had expected. In August, that article was "The Perils of Strategic Planning" by James Hollan. Here's how the story begins:

"Most strategic plans don't work. They involve too much paper, too much time, too many nodding heads, and far too many poorly informed so-called experts. I know that many association CEOs believe the same, but we exist in an environment where it is anathema to even question the validity of the strategic planning process. You might just as well stand up at the next board meeting and suggest everyone strip down to his or her underwear as question the usefulness of the strategic plan you have in place.

"It's all right to discuss ways to improve the plan or actualize the plan or even modify the plan. You can certainly pay consultants or facilitators to help set up a strategic plan or improve the one you already have in place, but the nonprofit sector currently has little room for questioning the usefulness of the strategic planning process itself. It's time to challenge that reality."

Since the August issue came out, we've heard some vehement (but thoughtful) reactions from strategic planning supporters. (One factor that probably increased interest was the fact than article on strategic planning also appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Association Leadership, which also came out in August: "The Development of Consensus Guidelines for Strategic Planning in Associations," by Michael Gallery and Susan Waters).

From what I've heard, it seems that there are two main camps responding to James Hollan's article:

1. Those who think strategic planning is a powerful and important tool; sometimes it is used poorly or improperly, but the fact that some groups use the tool incorrectly doesn't mean that it should be tossed out.

2. Those who think strategic planning is so misguided that using it at all is a mistake.

I'd be very interested in hearing from both camps here. Feel free to lay out your strongest arguments for or against strategic planning. Should strategic planning be part of our organizational toolboxes--or should we find a new tool to work with?

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August 16, 2008

Your favorite question

I had the opportunity to attend the Journal of Association Leadership's Editoral Advisory Board meeting today, and as the board members introduced themselves, a great theme popped up in the introductions: favorite questions. Here are a few of the questions they mentioned:

- "Why?"
- "How do you know?"
- "What if?"
- "Tell me more about that."

I thought each question was a great insight into the person who said it was their favorite--and together, they're the start of a great list of questions to ask at the start of a new initiative. (Or whenever you decide to continue an ongoing initiative). I'm trying to think of my favorite question ... certainly, if you look at it in terms of the number of times I've asked it, "Have you read [X book]?" is certainly a favorite of mine.

What is your favorite question?

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July 15, 2008

Let in some light

Okay, somewhat cheesy metaphor alert:

In my backyard, we have a Japanese maple (which just happens to be my favorite kind of tree, although it was already there when we moved in). In the years we've lived in our house, the maple has been somewhat stunted--it was overshadowed by two large pear trees and always had to struggle for sun. But a few weeks ago, a windstorm damaged the pear trees and we had to take them down, leaving the maple standing by itself. I swear to you, that maple is already standing a foot taller, just because it no longer has to reach sideways to get at the light.

Watching that tree stretch itself out after years of living in shadow made me think of some of the programs that I've managed in the past. There have been times when I've had far too much on my plate (as an association professional? never!), and I've shamefully neglected some of those programs just because I didn't have time to do anything with them. Every time I thought about them, I winced, because I knew they had potential that wasn't being realized.

But in some cases, I had the good fortune to hand those programs off to another staff person with interest and time. And it was amazing to watch the programs (and the staff person) take off running.

Are there anything on your to-do list that could use a little more support than you have time to give to it? Is there anyone else who could do more with its potential than you're currently able to? If you have twinges of "I really should do it myself" or guilt for delegating, ignore it. Just think about what those programs (or products or services) will look like once they've had a chance to get a little light.

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July 9, 2008

Mobile Web Site Aims to Serve Two Billion People

Although associations are notoriously reticent to take new risks, I’ve been collecting stories and examples of organizations and nonprofits that could be considered incubators or that have “Skunkworks” projects underway. The latest to join this pioneering group is the San Diego-based Autism Research Institute, which announced today that it has launched a mobile Internet Web site specifically for users of mobile devices and mobile phones.

According to a press release, the site emerged “in response to consumers’ desire for ‘practical’ mobile content” and is the first mobile Web site by a national autism nonprofit.

"There are almost two billion mobile Internet users today, and we're tailoring our organization's services to better serve those needs," says Director Steve Edelson. In addition, more people have mobile phones with Internet access than computers with online access, the group notes.

Among the content are reformatted major papers and studies from the group’s Web site, autism treatment information, advice for parents, and answers to frequently asked questions. The group is especially keen to promote its Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC) to parents and specialists. The tool helps “evaluate cognitive, communication, sensory, and social skills--as well as the physical health--of individuals on the autism spectrum” and can now be completed on a mobile phone and forwarded to a physician for review.

I’ll be interested to call back this group in a year to see what the uptake has been and whether the investment was worth it. If you know of other organizations that have deliberately developed incubator projects, please post them here or e-mail me offline at


July 3, 2008

Quick clicks: A crowd of crowds

Some reading material for your holiday weekend (at least, for folks who celebrate July 4 as a holiday):

- I've seen a lot of discussion about groups and crowds lately. Ben Martin has an interesting post on self-forming groups (and whether such things truly exist); Matt Baehr ponders why associations should continue to exist when the internet makes it so much easier for groups to form without intermediaries like associations; and Bob Wolfe notes that it takes more than just social networking technology to create a strong group. Elsewhere, the Read Write Web blog explains why crowds aren't always that wise (and how to help them be wiser) and the Wikinomics blog has an interesting post on changes in one of the most famous self-forming groups of all, the Wikipedia community.

- If you are planning for how the changing economy could affect your association, you may be interested in Tom Peters' 26 rules for recessions.

- Cindy Butts at the AE on the Verge blog has a must-read post on honestly communicating about mistakes.

- Jeremy Epstein points out the difference between saying that you want to create a strong, positive workplace culture, and actually creating one.

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June 24, 2008

Quick clicks: Program killers, campaign thinking

A few links for your Tuesday afternoon reading:

- The Association Marketing Springboard blog has been on fire lately--if you don't subscribe, you should! My favorite quote this week: "But in a realm where member evangelism is our highest goal, campaign thinking just doesn't cut it." Read the whole post here.

- Kevin Holland at the Association Inc. blog talks (in a very inspirational way) about how associations should be giving their members something to aspire to.

- Should the person in charge of your association's strategy also be in charge of killing things that don't work? David Gammel has some interesting thoughts on this.

- Association Meetings posted some stories from readers about wild and wacky requests from meeting attendees and speakers.

- Wes Trochlil is posting some intriguing case studies on association business intelligence efforts on the Effective Database Management blog. The latest one is here.

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June 20, 2008

Is "Un" the New "2.0"?

I've been seeing a lot of "un" things lately (and so has David Patt, who writes about it here). Unconferences are becoming more common, unsessions are in, and now KDPaine & Partners are proposing an "unstandard" for measuring success in the social media sphere.

So what does the "un" mean? It could just be excitement about something new--we're not just any old conference, we're an unconference! But I think there's something else there, too.

A lot of these "uns" involve taking something that used to be static or set by a single primary authority and making it participatory, crowdsourced, user-generated. (To use more buzzwords.) The unconference agenda is set by attendees; the unstandard recognizes that different organizations have different needs and may not wish to judge themselves by criteria that aren't important to them.

I'm wondering: Shouldn't we strive for that in regular programs, too? Can we look at the un-versions of things and be inspired by them to change the non-un-version? Maybe your 7,000 attendee meeting can't be as unstructured as an unconference. But there have to be ways you can tap into attendee input and be more nimble. (And while I still love Matt Baehr's idea of offering an unsession room at larger conferences, I think it's important to not let that be the end of the search for ways to get participants more involved. You don't want to wall that involvement off so that it's only taking place in that one room.)

What un-ideas can you implement to increase member and customer engagement in your already-existing programs?

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June 16, 2008

Quick clicks: Meeting ideas, customer service

Happy Monday!

- There have been some interesting meeting ideas up for grabs in the blogosphere lately. Matt Baehr suggests offering an "unsession" room at every meeting, while Nancy Wilson points out that reusing conference bags can be both green and a creative networking tool.

- Ben Martin ponders whether the process of becoming a board leader tends to squash productive dissent among those future leaders.

- Wes Trochlil has a great question for associations out there that are conducting surveys or other data-gathering projects.

- Bob Sutton shares a wonderful story that shows how a customer's problem can create an opportunity for even better customer service. On a related note, the 37signals blog reminds you that the customer just doesn't care whose fault it is.

- Jeremiah Owyang shows some really interesting examples of how to track a particular issue and how it's being discussed among bloggers, Twitterers, and on the web more generally. (Note that the issue in question relates to the Democratic nomination battle, but, setting politics aside, I'd think these same techniques could be useful to any association.)

- How often do you get to see association management presented as a dream job? (Admittedly, this article focuses more on the industries these trade associations represent than on the profession of association management, but still, it's nice to see some association professionals recognized in this way.)


May 28, 2008

Quick clicks: Stand ups, co-creation

A few links and recommendations for your Wednesday morning:

- Hugh McLeod of posted a valuable thought to his blog (originally something he posted on Twitter): "Word of mouth is not created, it is co-created. People will only spread your virus if there’s something in it for them."

- Jeff Cobb of the Mission to Learn blog has launched a second blog, focusing on business and marketing strategy: Hedgehog & Fox.

- Jeffrey Cufaude talks about the value of stand-up meetings. (I remember reading somewhere that the best way to have an effective meeting is to remove all of the chairs from the room ...)

- A bunch of other association bloggers have already linked to this, but I really feel like Acronym should as well: Seth Godin tells us that the bar has been raised for meetings and conferences. "And here's what a conference organizer owes the attendees: surprise, juxtaposition, drama, engagement, souvenirs and just possibly, excitement." Do your association's meetings deliver on those expectations?

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May 23, 2008

Start with the problem, not the solution

Here's a post that's been mulling around in my brain for a while: Why do people jump straight to the end of the decision process, rather than working through from the beginning?

As an association communicator, I've seen this play out more than once. Someone comes to me and says, "We need a brochure/new publication/book/website/blog." I ask why, and they give reasons ranging from sharing information with members to promoting a profession to the public, and many things in between. Unfortunately, then solution they've chosen isn't the best one, for whatever reason; perhaps it's more expensive than they realize, perhaps it's not the best vehicle to accomplish their goal. But when I try to explain this, the person angrily says that I'm just being a naysayer.

Wouldn't it work so much better if we started with the problem instead of the solution? Let's start with "We want to promote our profession to the public. No one knows what our members do, and their work is important. How do we raise awareness?" From there, there are a number of directions you can go--almost infinite options, depending on the budget and time available. But when you start with "We want a book" or "We need a blog," there are only two real answers--yes or no. And when the answer needs to be no, it can create bad feeling.

I'm thinking that the same rule can be applied outside the realm of communications, too. What if your board president comes to you and says, "We need to launch a new specialty conference in a resort location." There may be all sorts of reasons to say no, which can put you in an awkward position. But if your board had committed to starting with problems instead of solutions, you could start with "Our last member survey shows that Specialist Group X in our membership is dissatisfied with the options at our annual meeting, and I've spoken with several members in that specialty who are very interested in meeting with their peers in an exclusive location. What can we do to increase that group's satisfaction?" Then you look at your options--which may include a specialty conference.

Admittedly, you can still end up with a solution that won't please everyone (that happens no matter what), and you may still wind up saying "no." But going through the process gives everyone an opportunity to feel heard and to buy in to the eventual decision.

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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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Speed-dreaming a Better World

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

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

Use ASAE & The Center as "innovation incubators."

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

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

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

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

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


April 30, 2008

Stories as Influencers for Socially Responsible Behavior

Compelling stories have emerged as potent tools in forwarding discussions about what values members gain when their associations are involved in socially responsible practices, programs, and goals. At both my morning and afternoon tables at the Global Summit on Social Responsibility, association professionals barely took a breath between sharing and commenting on each other’s stories, whether they had to do with an organization’s actions or an individual’s choices. Frankly, it’s a challenge to capture every anecdote for later thought or follow up, but one colleague told me that he had taken almost 25 pages of notes in less than six hours!

I’m feeling especially attuned to the power of storytelling today because I’m halfway through the excellent book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which I thought would be good prep for the summit. Also, co-author Joseph Grenny—whose last best-seller, Crucial Conversations, was referenced several times at my table today-- is speaking August 19 at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting and Expo.

According to Influencer, “people will attempt to change their behavior if (1) they believe it will be worth it, and (2) they can do what is required.” Stories that guide people to those conclusions must contain both “a clear link between the current behaviors and existing (or possibly future) negative results” and “positive replacement behaviors that yield new and better results.”

Those of us at the summit today heard such “high-point stories” recounted on the stage, in the coffee line, and from attendees at some of the 14 connected sites across America. I liked the examples given by CEO Scott Steen of the American Ceramic Society. First, Scott described the rapid membership growth achieved by the National Association of Counties after it cleverly arranged a deal with a corporation that allowed the association to provide prescription discount cards to members for free distribution in every county in America.

Second, he cited the National Academy of Engineers’ inspiring work with members to identify 14 “grand challenges” such as making solar energy affordable and reverse-engineering the brain. The organization then spotlights research and grant money focused on those topics. “They’re saying to their members, ‘Here is where to go to make a difference as an engineer,” explained Scott, adding that the organization is using the initiative to “define their mission in the world and show how engineers and their industry are making huge differences.” I can’t wait to hear what comes out of Thursday’s “dream” process….


April 16, 2008

Quick clicks: Deep thoughts

There's some great thinking going on in the association blog community and elsewhere this week--plus some neat tools and ideas.

- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. proposes some new rules for association growth, and Tony Rossell at the Membership Marketing blog adds his thoughts.

- Jamie Notter of the Get Me Jamie Notter blog has some musings on the challenges of volunteer management, especially when some volunteers are more helpful than others.

- Lindy Dreyer at the Association Marketing Springboard blog talks about how associations can support members in transition.

- The Logic + Emotion blog shares some great examples of companies using social media to directly and imaginatively engage with their customers.

- Cindy Butts at the AE on the Verge blog has some great early results to share from a social media campaign her association is undertaking to promote home ownership in Maine.

- The Newseum's website has a cool tool: a map linked to the front pages of hundreds of newspapers from around the world.

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April 8, 2008

Quick clicks: Common sense

I've been saving a variety of links to share today:

- Tom Peters suggests that you run your ideas and proposals by an "ombudsman for common sense." I wonder how many bad ideas could have been turned into good ideas with a little common sense at the beginning of the project ...

- Speaking of good ideas, Rick Johnston at the CAE Weblog recently shared one: instead of a focus group, hold a "listening lab" guided by your customers or members and their concerns.

- Jeff Cobb at Mission to Learn learned five good presentation tips from a series of 60-second lectures.

- I'm pleased to note that Joan Eisenstodt now has a blog, Good Stuff From Joan Eisenstodt, at the Meetings Collective. Those of you who read the listservers where Joan participates or have heard her speak know how interesting it is to listen to what she has to say. (Thanks to Sue Pelletier for linking to Joan's blog first!)

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March 17, 2008

Next Traditions Discussion Thread


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

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

+What role does tradition play in your association?

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

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

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


March 4, 2008

Quick clicks: Free, annual meetings, volunteer management

Association bloggers have been putting up great posts lately:

- Mike Mason of Communicatio has been busy for a while, but he's back with some great lessons learned at his annual meeting (note that the links go to two separate posts).

- Several association bloggers have read the new article "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business", a preview of the upcoming book by Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail. (Based on what they have to say, I have to make time to read it myself.) Ann Oliveri reacts here, and Cindy Butts shares some notable points from the article as well.

- The Dear Association Leader blog shares some ideas for using good personnel management techniques to be a better volunteer manager.


February 7, 2008

A conversation not to be missed

There's some great debate going on around the association blogging community about risk, technology, and control in associations. Jeff De Cagna, Jamie Notter, and Maddie Grant have posted on the topic; Jamie's post in particular has a not-to-be-missed conversation going on in the comments. I'd love to see what other folks have to say as well!


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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January 29, 2008

Hard conversations that need to be had

I consider myself fortunate in that my job requires me to have hundreds of conversations with different associations, technology vendors and consultants each year. Increasingly, I’m struck by the conversations we are not having. It’s no secret that for most, if not all, associations the real contact with constituents happens on the web. But if you look at most associations technology strategies, they center on association managements systems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that AMSs aren’t important, clearly they are. But just what is an “association management system” anyway? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know I do know that how people “associate” has changed drastically in the last few years and the systems that manage our associations have remained pretty much the same for the last, uhh, a long, long time. It’s time to talk about that!

I recently had a conversation with the COO of a relatively large association that went something like this:

COO: We can’t seem to get a technology strategy that works for our organization.
Me: Tell me a little about your organization.
COO: Well, we have a staff of 160, our budget is just over 40 million and we have about 25,000 members.
Me: Who developed your existing strategy?
COO: Our IT manager.
Me: (Silence)
COO: Reggie? Reggie?
Me: Does the IT manager take part in senior staff meetings, attend board meetings, talk much with the CEO?
COO: No, the IT manager reports to the CFO who represents IT views and needs.

The rest of our conversation can’t be printed here. But here is my question. How can any organization of any size not have someone with an understanding of technology involved in the organization’s strategic conversations? We need to talk about that!

I was recently invited to participate in a board meeting of an association who was thinking about decreasing the emphasis of its website and particularly its wiki and blog areas. You see, the wiki and blogs were becoming more and more successful. Members were starting to spend more time there than reading the magazine, or visiting advertiser supported “traditional” web pages. Links were showing up in the blog that took people away from their site, to sites that sometimes didn’t necessarily reflect the association’s point of view. The wiki was fast becoming the place where members went for “relevant” information. Finally, one of the board members said “the problem is that these new technologies don’t fit the association’s business model”. The CEO leaned over and quietly asked me what my take was on the discussion. My answer to him and to all of us: “What’s wrong here, the successful blog and wiki, or the association business model?” We need to talk about that!

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January 8, 2008

National Pro Bono Week: A Model?

A Northern Ireland professional association, Business in the Community, has developed for the UK what could be a great model for professional organizations worldwide: National Pro Bono Week, which has been held each November for the past four years. As part of the initiative, the association has reached out to other professional groups and companies to invite them to give “free support to the community and voluntary sector” for a week or even a day.

Response has grown quickly, with more than 1,100 hours of professional and technical assistance donated in 2006. Included were financial, information technology, and architectural assistance, as well as mentoring, media consulting, and leadership coaching.

What’s different about this give-back effort is that it crosses into many professional fields, uniting the entire sector for a week of positive community involvement and support. It also allows each profession to decide for itself how and where it will focus its pro bono efforts for maximum impact.

While the U.S. already has designated volunteer and philanthropic days in which some organizations participate, we have not looked outside of our silos to see if it makes sense to join forces with other professionals eager to benefit their communities. Maybe that’s a resolution worth considering in 2008.


December 17, 2007

When a bad idea gets going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dave explains it all

Dave Sabol of the Associated Knowledge blog has a great post up about advice for start-up companies and how it can apply to the association world. There's tons of food for thought--head over there to check it out!


November 13, 2007

Should you be serving or leading your members?

We interrupt this social media month with an off-topic post...

Should your association provide what your members want or what they need? Others may disagree, but I think this is essentially the same question as does your association serve its members or lead them?

The copout answer to both questions is that associations need to do both. It’s a copout because I believe an organization can only be focused on one or the other (or, I guess neither, but that’s a different matter). There’s obviously some gray area and one side likely always spills into the other, but I think if an organization doesn’t focus on one or the other then the best it can hope for is mediocrity at both.

I’m pretty passionate about where I think associations should be: They should be on the lead/need side, not the want/serve side. To oversimplify why I think that way, I’m going to pull from my communications experience. An article that finishes a sentence that starts with “How to…” is the want/serve side, whereas an article that finishes a question that starts “What if…” is the lead/need side.

I’m not belittling the how-to articles. I just think that in the past associations were absolutely necessary to answer the how-to questions. I think it’s less important now because the online universe will almost always have more information and be a more efficient source either to find or, in the case of social media and online collaboration, to create the how-to answers.


Boards, committees, task forces, ad hoc groups, special industry group leaders—collectively all the leaders of an organization should be asking “what if” questions and working on “what if” answers.

An organization’s paid staff should be more than administrators; they should be participants in these discussions. Too many associations build a wall between the thinking and the doing.

Guess what paid staff? This is no cakewalk. You become obligated to develop more than passing interest in or marginal knowledge of what your members do. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t really break down so neatly into how tos and what ifs. As staff, you need to have some kind of radar that will help you distinguish between the two and push volunteers to work on the latter.

You know one of the seven measures (similar to one of the ways Collins says “great” companies distinguish themselves from “good” ones) is to be data driven. I love the principle but I hate how it’s described in 7 Measures and what it means to most people. Don’t use data to figure out what members want or how to serve them; use it as part of the discussion about what they need and how the organization can lead the profession/industry/interest forward.

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November 1, 2007

3 Reasons Why We Don’t Stop Doing Anything

In homage to Scott’s post from a few days ago, here are some reasons why associations can be so bad at dropping projects or programs, even long past their expiration date:

1. Even the smallest program can have deeply invested boosters. A particular program or committee may only matter to 10 people out of your membership. But it’s a problem when they’re 10 people who know how to work the board—or, in some cases, people with significant tenure in the association. It’s very difficult to upset a member when said member is Past President Smith, who wrote the book on your industry and whose word carries enormous clout.

2. You hear from people who are upset, not people who don’t care. Your small program may not have many boosters, but chances are that members who aren’t boosters aren’t angry so much as indifferent (or even ignorant of its existence). So you’ll only get irate phone calls when you cancel the program. And, unfortunately, the new program you could create with the resources freed up by ending the old one doesn’t yet have any devoted constituents.

3. Organizational inertia overcomes you. A big money-loser tends to get noticed, of course. But many unsuccessful programs aren’t unsuccessful in a very noticeable way—they just go about their business, not being particularly valuable. It’s only when you think of what could have been done with that $5,000 or $10,000 multiplied over the last three to five years that you realize the opportunity costs that mediocre program has incurred.

As Scott noted in his post, we have to try to do new things. One way to do that is to clear the decks to create some space, time, and resources for new projects and programs. Try looking around and seeing what could be cleared from your association’s plate—and see how you can get the small group that’s devoted to the dying program excited about helping to launch the new program.

If you can’t, be sure that you (and your board) are prepared to stick to your guns when the angry phone calls come in—because it’s incredibly disheartening to go through the process of cutting a program only to bring it back again under pressure.

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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 18, 2007

Be cautious when crunching

David Gammel has posted a note of caution about data crunching on We Have Always Done It That Way. It's a useful counterpoint to some of the data-crunchy posts Jason and I have made lately ...

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October 11, 2007

Strategy at Amazon

In line with Virgil’s post on strategy yesterday, I’d like to recommend an article that appears in the October issue of Harvard Business Review—an extended Q&A with CEO Jeff Bezos. (Full disclosure: I spend way too much time adding books to my Amazon wish list.)

It’s an interesting interview all the way around, but I was particularly drawn to what Bezos says about the methods Amazon uses to develop its corporate strategy:

- “We have a group called the S Team—‘S’ means senior—that stays abreast of what the company is working on and delves into strategy issues. It meets for about four hours every Tuesday. Once or twice a year the S Team also gets together in a two-day meeting where different ideas are explored …”

- “We are willing to plant seeds and wait a long time for them to turn into trees … when we plant a seed, it tends to take five to seven years before it has a meaningful impact on the economics of the company.”

Both of those quotes demonstrate a key virtue, at least to me: patience. Could your association plant small seeds now and have the patience to wait five to seven years to see them succeed? Bezos wasn’t talking about betting the reserves on a single new idea, but about making multiple small investments based on trends you think are developing and committing to nurture those small investments over time. Can your association make that commitment? (If you’re wondering how to come up with ideas for those seeds in the first place, there was a good related discussion on Acronym earlier this year).


October 10, 2007

Strategy Redux

OK strategy buffs—and you know who you are—here’s a very interesting take on the subject by guru Richard Rumelt in this month’s The McKinsey Quarterly. See

Here’s a typical quote: “Most corporate strategic plans have little to do with strategy. They are simply three-year or five-year rolling resource budgets and some sort of market share projection. Calling this strategic planning creates false expectations that the exercise will somehow produce a coherent strategy.”

Want more? “Now, lots of people think the solution to the strategic-planning problem is to inject more strategy into the annual process. But I disagree. I think the annual rolling resource budget should be separate from strategy work. So my basic recommendation is to do two things: avoid the label “strategic plan”—call those budgets “long-term resource plans”—and start a separate, nonannual, opportunity-driven process for strategy work.” I think the key thought here may be that strategy is an on-going, episodic or opportunity-driven process that ebbs and flows, but never ceases. What do you think? Is this what your association does?

The McKinsey Quarterly is a free email newsletter, which can be obtained here:
Happy strategizing

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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 21, 2007

Another potshot at marketing

So when I touched on marketing earlier this week it was so popular (see Lisa's comment about the people taking me to task for it) I thought I'd try again.

On the Membership Marketing Blog, Tony even had the nerve to point out an annoying habit I have of introducing topics with "I'm not such a big believer in..." whatever it is. (Just kidding, Tony -- thanks for keeping me on my toes.)

In that spirit, I offer this: I'm not such a big believer in associations marketing at all.

It's actually the use of the word "marketing" that sticks at me. I may be getting too wrapped up in semantics, but I've been thinking recently that I'd rather inform members than market to them. I'd rather let them know of something great that I think they'd find valuable, rather than try to motivate them to action. I like to think of an association model where people are linking together to accomplish something and to participate in something that would be impossible to do alone. I don't like to think of an association as a captive member-market for products that an organization produces. To whittle it down even further: I like to think of all members as creators (or potential creators) rather than consumers. Getting back to marketing, it's not so much that you're marketing a product or program as you are informing members of opportunities to participate.

With that approach, does the work of what is currently called the marketing department change? Or perhaps it goes back further in the process than that--the types of things that the organization works on and develops may change.

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September 14, 2007

Even more on growth

It’s all Scott’s fault, really. He started it with a post on “why does growth always have to a strategy?” A vigorous discussion broke out in comments, leading to a follow-up post.

Now, other bloggers are getting into the act with thoughtful posts of their own:

- Jamie Notter discusses why “if you want growth, you have to do the real work of strategy” at the Association Renewal blog.
- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. argues for metrics that value both the members who are in it for the connections and the members who are in it for the magazine (aka mailboxers).
- Kevin also shares what he considers to be the real problem with growth.

ETA: Ben Martin at Certified Association Executive has also responded to Scott's post: "To exceed, meet the need."

(Did I miss anybody? If I did, please drop a note in the comments!)


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 14, 2007

Live blogging: Data driven learning lab

So for my last learning lab of the conference I decided to go to one where I tend to disagree with the basic premise of the title of the session: “Data-driven Strategies: How Remarkable Associations Make Information Work for Them.” Leave it to Reggie Henry and fellow presenter Alan Browning to disappoint me.

The title brings forth the data-driven strategy chapter in 7 Measures of Success. I’m on record—and I think one of the few—who think this chapter needs to be treated gingerly. I’m in favor of data, I just don’t see it as a problem in associations. I think a far more insidious problem in associations is overreliance on data to make decisions.

I’m going to have to go back and re-read that chapter, because I remember it being about all the traditional association data sets: butts in seats, retention, membership growth, advertising sales, member satisfaction surveys, etc. I remember the book saying remarkable associations use these things to make decisions. It’s part of decision making, and should only be part of it. If the data says do one thing but your heart says do another… well, I’d try to figure out why, but my guess is that going with the heart will give a better chance for wild success.

So how did Reggie disappoint me?

Well, he talked about all the traditional measures, but he said we’re not thinking about recording and quantifying and using nontraditional transactions: blog posts, discussion participation, wiki posts, “other web wanderings,” etc. These things measure community involvement. As Reggie notes, recent research notes that younger generations are just as apt to join organizations as preceding generations, but their expectations are different. They expect a membership experience that is centered around community involvement. “What we need to get good at measuring is less and less about money, and more and more about engagement.”

I’m becoming a bigger and bigger believer in the necessity for associations to build an engagement index and then make that the central point of every activity they do, from how they attract new members to how they serve each member.


July 26, 2007

Distortions & Deceptions in Strategic Decisions

Readers of this and other association-related blogs are likely familiar with electronic discussions about the pros and cons of strategic planning, thinking and related practices. These discussions serve a useful (and often entertaining) purpose, by sharing views, experiences and even provocative ideas about associations and strategy. Such discussions provide an important opportunity to exchange views on “what matters most” when it comes to association's forward-looking activities.

A recent study, published in the McKinsey Quarterly, is titled “Distortions & deceptions in Strategic Decisions.” The subheading under the title reads, “Companies are vulnerable to misconceptions, biases, and other plain old lies. But not hopelessly vulnerable”. Interested? Click on

For those who are fed up with strategic planning, the Quarterly has something for you. It’s “Tired of Strategic Planning?” whose subtitle is: “Many companies get little value from their annual strategic planning process. It should be redesigned to support real-time strategy making and to encourage ‘creative accidents’ “. Click on

Happy strategy!

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July 12, 2007

Posts you shouldn’t miss

The association/nonprofit blog community has been posting some great stuff lately—perhaps summer is recharging our batteries! I thought I’d pass along a few links to posts I found particularly interesting.

• Jamie Notter argues for the importance of healthy conflict on a senior staff team and, as a bonus, gives five tips on how to handle it productively.
• Ben Martin provides some analysis the current status of online social networking and why associations should be getting on board this train now.
• For the membership folks out there, two complimentary posts: Joe Grant discusses some important steps to take to determine if you’re solving your members’ problems, and Tony Rossell provides a helpful template for a dashboard to capture key information about your membership program.
• On the Bamboo Project blog, Michele Martin has some great ideas on how to build a better conference.

What good stuff have you been reading lately? Feel free to add your two cents in comments!

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April 23, 2007

Three questions

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

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

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


April 10, 2007

Cybermobbing just got easier

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

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

I know what you're thinking: So what?

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

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

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


    March 12, 2007

    Wisdom from Wozniak

    Guy Kawasaki has posted a review of an interesting new book, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. I don’t know that I normally would plan to read a book on startup companies, but Guy’s enthusiasm certainly has me sold.

    Guy’s review cites one quote in particular that inspired me:

    “All the best things I did at Apple came from (a) not having money, and (b) not having done it before, ever.”—Steve Wozniak, Apple

    Think about all of the discussions we have in the association community about either not having enough resources or not having enough information to implement Great Idea X. What if we looked at our lack of resources as a strength instead of a weakness? Could we come up with ideas as great as some of the things that have come out of Apple (I ask, while protectively clutching my iPod)?

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    February 20, 2007

    Creating an Ideastorm

    Via Shel Holtz’s blog, I came across something new Dell has launched that has great applicability to the association world.

    Dell’s new Ideastorm site allows users to propose ideas for new products (or tweaks to existing products), vote for ideas they like with just the click of a “Promote” icon, and discuss ideas that are in play.

    The best part (I think) is labeled “Ideas in Action”—where Dell intends to report how they are using the proposed ideas. Since Ideastorm is less than a week old, they don’t have anything in that space yet—but I think it will be critical in terms of keeping users involved. Compare this with a typical feedback cycle where a member or customer fills out a survey and possibly, months later, sees a newsletter article summarizing the survey results and a few sentences on how the results will be applied.

    Could your members come up with a storm of ideas this way?

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    February 13, 2007

    One year

    Today is my daughter’s first birthday. (Cue the balloons and confetti!) I look back, and it’s amazing that only one year ago, she couldn’t even focus her eyes. In 12 months, she’s developed gross and fine motor skills—from picking up small objects to walking. She’s learned to understand the concept of speech, to speak a couple of words and understand a lot more. She can eat solid food, stack blocks and knock them over, and annoy her older brother. All important skills for the future.

    I’m bringing this up not to get all nostalgic on you, but to demonstrate how much can be accomplished in a year. If a baby can go from being, basically, a blob to being a walking, babbling toddler in 12 months, how much can you and your association’s staff and volunteers accomplish?

    I have seen so many business plans that amount to “we’ll do pretty much what we did last year, with a few tweaks.” Heck, I’ve written a few. And of course you need some stability in your association’s products and services from year to year.

    But what if you tried setting a significant stretch goal for your department or association—ideally combined with the elimination of your least-strategic activity? Something that you think, if you all work together, you just might be able to accomplish. Something that’s the equivalent of learning to walk in 12 months. What would the impact be on your association?

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    January 27, 2007


    Do you dream of an annual event that sells out the following year before staging the current year’s program? Impossible? Not if that conference is TED.

    Hatched by Ricky Saul Wurman in 1984, the architect who morphed into the first information architect, TED was an event that embodied the merger of technology, entertainment, design into a high tech, high touch experience—an idea we now take for granted.

    And now, that unique cultural experience and gold standard of meetings, TED, is morphing into a membership organization. Rather than charge a $4,000 registration fee, participants will pay 50% more for a year-round experience. Owned by the 501( c)(3) Sapling Foundation, Donor Members paying $100,000 will qualify for an extraordinary collection of privileges. The membership options are tiered by the level of access to the people who are attached to TED.

    Over the years, this extraordinary event expanded to include: “…scientists, philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, environmentalists and many others. Those who have spoken at TED include Bill Gates, Frank Gehry, Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, Herbie Hancock, Murray Gell-Mann, Larry Ellison. Yet often the real stars have been the unexpected: Li Lu, a key organizer of the Tiananmen Square student protest, Aimee Mullins, a Paralympics competitor who tried out a new pair of artificial legs on-stage, or Nathan Myrrhvold speaking not about Microsoft platforms, but about dinosaur sex.”

    So, is your organization an association with an annual event or are you really an event with a year-round membership?


    January 11, 2007

    Response to 'Is fast the new right?'

    One of the perks of having interviewed Jim Collins is that his email is still near at hand. The chance may be remote, but I asked him if he would comment on Ben's post and subsequent comments.

    My take is this — I don't think you'll find many people arguing with this point:

    I assert that the failure to make decisions in a timely manner is just as bad as (and possibly worse than) the failure to make the quote-unquote right decisions.

    "Timely manner," of course, is a highly subjective term. But before we dig too much deeper, let's make this assumption: We're talking about big decisions here. It's not should we close the exhibit hall for the last day of the annual meeting, but rather, should we replace the annual meeting with something else?

    I liked Fred Simmons' comment (although I confess to not knowing what ROFL means -- oh, and if it's not rated G or PG, don't tell me) — not too many associations will be accused of making major decisions quickly. I'm not sure we've ever met an issue that setting up a committee or task force couldn't slow down.

    But back to Ben's point. You could stop on Collins' point and compare it to, say, Tom Peters' commitment to the principle of "Ready. Fire. Aim" and think the two are in opposition. I choose to think they're not necessarily that different. And at the risk of dropping too many names and sounding all swarmingly intellectual, I think of a section of the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell when I reconcile these approaches. The masterfully prosaic title of the chapter is "Paul van Riper's Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity." Collins = structure, Peters = spontaneity.

    The whole chapter informs this idea pretty well, but one part talks about how Cook County Hospital revolutionized emergency room procedures. It's too complex a story to get a real flavor for it, but the two-sentence synopsis is that diagnosing chest pain was a major headache and rife with inaccuracies until Brendan Reilly collapsed the battery of symptoms and risk factors into just four or five. Costs plummeted and accuracy skyrocketed. The point is, there is a need for quick decisive action, but it needs to be informed.

    Another assumption I make is that you cannot know whether or not your decision is the "right" decision before you make it. I also agree with Ben that right and wrong is too simplistic a way to think about decisions, because one decision only leads to needing to make more decisions and then more decisions, etc. I call that execution. There are a couple of dangers here. First, if things turn out badly, you never know which of the decisions is the culprit. The Peters' philosophy would be better described as "Ready. Fire. Aim. Fire. Aim. Fire. Aim..." You constantly need to assess the situation and aim again. Second, no amount of data will ever ensure that a decision is the best one.

    Being successful means making smart decisions. Data can be very paralyzing. It is almost always true that for complex issues data does not give an answer. It informs opinions. Speed is another component and no less important. Smart decisions are made when you gather only the data you need, and you make that decision so you can move on to the next one.

    I agree with Ben in that everyone should question whether or not they are making decisions fast enough to remain relevent. But I disagree that fast necessarily equals right (though I could see the argument for the opposite being true, that slow is definitely wrong). You do have to make fast decisions. And they do have to be right. Sounds hard, but I think by definition success is not easy (or does that statement call for another blog post?).

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    January 10, 2007

    Is fast the new right?

    Small is the new big. Seth Godin taught us that. I have a hypothesis: Fast is the new right.

    I've been thinking through this theory for the past couple of months. It all started with this passage from Scott Briscoe's interview with Jim Collins in the November 2006 issue of Associations Now. It struck a nerve with me the moment I read it. It continually bugged me. Stuck with me. And it wouldn't let go:

    Briscoe: What is your take on the importance of speed in decision making?

    Collins: In the Good to Great research, it is very clear that undisciplined, fast decisions correlate with mediocrity. The critical question is not how fast or slow you make big decisions but whether or not you are right. If you can reach a point where you decide quickly, that's great, but making a big decision fast and getting it wrong is dangerous.

    If you look over economic history, the history of business exchange, and you look at great versus good, rarely are big decisions taken fast. Mediocre companies tend to make big decisions fast...

    But here's the rub: We operate in a completely different environment than we did when Good to Great was printed (2001), a decade has passed since the beginning of the Good to Great study (began in 1996), and the data that was compiled for Good to Great is in some cases far older than that. It is a study of the past.

    History doesn't change, but our playing field certainly has since the compilation of the Good to Great data.

    I would submit to you that fast is, in fact, quickly becoming the new right. In the past, being fast was not a necessary success factor. Today, it is becoming far more important. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, would certainly agree (see Flattener #10, The Steroids). In this era, I assert that the failure to make decisions in a timely manner is just as bad as (and possibly worse than) the failure to make the quote-unquote right decisions.

    Of course, there is ample evidence to refute this theory. Take for example the iconic iPod. The iPod was not the first digital audio player (DAP) on the market. In fact, it was a relative late-comer, arriving some six years after the first DAPs. But today, about two-thirds of all DAPs sold in the U.S. are iPods.

    Nevertheless, take your history with a grain of salt. It has a way of lulling us to sleep. Sometimes it makes us believe that "past results are necessarily indicative of future results."

    As Einstein said, "The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

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    December 1, 2006

    Competition? What competition?

    Moises Naim, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote an interesting entry in's PostGlobal blog yesterday. The premise is nothing new: The new guard is pushing out the old guard increasingly fast. But his message made me pause for a couple of reasons. First, I liked his quoted research (though I have not tried to find the source to ensure he is portraying it accurately or to assess how sound I think the research is):

    "According to professors Diego Comin and Thomas Philippon of New York University, a company in the top 20 percent of its industry in 1980 faced only a 10 percent chance of no longer being an industry leader five years later. By 1998, that risk had more than doubled. In fact, 39 of the top Fortune 100 companies in the United States were not on that list last year."

    I also think Naim convincingly ties other sectors into his arguments, including elections/politics and religion. And now my realization: I would consider most associations the old guard. Are your eyes open enough to see a new guard emerging? Are you exploring or embracing "new guard" tactics yourself?


    November 20, 2006

    My answers to three questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    November 8, 2006

    7 Measures and small associations

    I have been traveling across the country recently presenting the results of ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s recently completed major research project: 7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t. It was my honor to chair that project.

    One of the questions I continue to receive from audiences is “How do the findings of the study apply to small associations? All the associations in the study were large organizations.”

    We note in the book that our findings are very consistent with the literature on systems and learning organizations. Most of the organizations with which I work in my consulting practice have budgets of $3,000,000 or less. My experience with such associations and my understanding of systems research tells me that the principles that make large organizations remarkable holds true for smaller organizations.

    Why didn’t we include smaller organizations in our study? The reasons relate to practical considerations. First, we used a jurying process to identify remarkable associations. Larger associations are more likely to be widely known than smaller ones. It would be very difficult for most association CEOs to identify five outstanding small associations–not because such organizations are non-existent–but because they are not widely known.

    The other challenge in including smaller associations involves time. We asked each participating organization to provide us with 15 years of data on a whole host of issues including finances, strategic plans, products and serves, board minutes, etc. The process generated over 100 boxes of materials from 18 organizations. Few small associations could afford the staff time to generate such a large amount of data.

    As I discuss the question further with those who raise it, I find that they agree that the principles we uncovered apply to their situation as well. What they really are seeking are examples of how associations with their staff size and budget can put these principles into practice.

    I welcome – in fact – I encourage all of you to share your experiences with assessing and implementing the 7 principles. All of us would benefit greatly.

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    November 7, 2006

    The failure challenge

    On the Association Renewal blog, Jamie Notter pulls Peter O'Neil's recent Acronym post into an ongoing minidiscussion from several different bloggers on taking action and taking risks.

    A short history of the discussion follows: Jeff De Cagna questions the language used in an Associations Now article. Ben Martin and I clarify/defend the language that Jeff questions. Jamie weighs in (and again), and I leave a comment on his blog.

    Finally, Jamie nicely pulls in Peter's post on lessons he saw in a Cirque du Soleil show, specifically latching on to "risky moves, when flubbed, were always celebrated," boiling it down to "celebrating failure."

    Let me give a brief scenario: An organization plans an education session and budgets for 150 to participate. A grand total of 15 sign up. The organization had planned to make $5,000 and instead loses $10,000. Why in the world would you celebrate that failure?

    I think most organizations would do one of two things. The dysfunctional organization is immediately going to start pointing fingers. "Marketing didn't reach the right people," or "The program topic wasn't worth marketing," or "The meetings folks booked a terrible venue." I call it the blame game, and it's a culture I've been in before and let me tell you, everybody gets bloody.

    Most associations would probably call the failed education session a "learning opportunity." They learned something about the market, the place, the marketing tactics, the topic, etc. That's probably true, but I'd label this the approach of the mediocre organization.

    I like Jamie's post a lot. Celebrating wrong is very difficult, but exceptional organizations will do it anyway. What is there to celebrate about the failed education session? Maybe the 15 members who came left with a new outlook that makes them and their organizations stronger. Maybe it was an edgy topic that was just a little bit too edgy, but it was worth a shot. Maybe it was a new format or approach that was worth a shot. The chances are, if you can't come up with reason to celebrate the failure, then you probably do work for a mediocre organization—or at least it had a very mediocre moment.

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    November 1, 2006

    Airplanes and hospitals

    It's ingenous when you think about it. I was sucked in by the headline: "What Pilots Can Teach Hospitals About Patient Safety." It's a New York Times article from yesterday and it talks about how the same strategies that keep planes from slamming into each other as they land, take off, and taxi to and from gates can save lives in the similarly chaotic environment of a large hospital.

    So what connections are you missing when you keep your nose buried in the profession or trade that your association serves? Conversely, what lessons from outside your core audience have you shared with your membership recently? I'd love to hear about it.

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    October 26, 2006

    The baby bottle measure

    ASAE & The Center recently published 138 pages that started to define what being a remarkable association is (7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don't).

    If you think his schtick is insightful—which I do much more often than not—then you'd have to agree that Seth Godin is a remarkability maestro. His Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (my edition is 142 pages) should be at the top of the list for anybody aspiring to be anything other than mediocre.

    In case you don't have time to read those 280 pages, check out this 33-word post on Seth's blog, "What it means to be remarkable." He left of off eight words: "If not, then why do you do it?"

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    September 28, 2006

    Research vs. intuition

    Based on Andy's excellent comment to my post on my likes and dislikes of 7 Measures, I wanted to clarify that I am not antiresearch. Far from it actually.

    Andy makes the point that the ideal scenario is a blending of research and intuition to make decisions. I think that's what I was trying to say, though I think perhaps not well enough. I think the relationship between the two is that research—things like membership surveys, reader surveys, and benchmarking surveys—should absolutely be performed and does provide valuable information, which, in turn, helps people form intuition. Many, many other things help form intuition, too. Some of the important things that come to mind are having conversations with members and other constituents (and then using those conversations to start more conversations with your staff or volunteers to see if they're hearing the same things); looking at the trends in the world around you, staying informed not just of the local, national, and international news (and please, go beyond U.S.-based sources for your international news), but of trends in marketing, technology, diversity and generational issues, economics, and yes (one of my personal weaknesses), even pop culture; and noticing how other organizations are changing.

    Having said all that, I don't back down from my assertion that research should not directly inform decision making. Rather, research should be one factor considered in making decisions.

    Andy also brings up the notion that research is now faster, more efficient, and less expensive than it used to be, all of which is true—kind of. The other side to that coin is that it is harder than ever to perform classic research that has statistical meaning. The scholarship on research is still coming to terms with the tools that are faster, more efficient, and less expensive. Do the tools introduce a bias into the results based on who is willing to use them? And if so, what is that bias and can you account for it? One small example that most people are familiar with is that phone surveying had been considered a pretty strong method of research assuming the rest of the research design was good. Now, with more and more people giving up landlines and going completely mobile and the prevalence of caller ID systems, there are starting to be questions about what biases are being introduced. These are things I geekily admit to being interested in (at the expense of pop culture). I don't know how it will evolve, but for right now, I treat fast & cheap research with about the same deference as focus groups. It can be a good source to help inform opinions, but as a statistical measure, I'd be skeptical.

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    September 21, 2006

    7 Measures Likes and Dislikes

    I'm not really qualified—yet—to enter the conversation about whether 7 Measures of Success should be required CAE reading. I do try to keep up on my reading, however, and I can say that it's a book anyone who considers themself an association executive should read.

    Like most important books, there are parts I agree with, and parts I don't. So here's one thing I love and one thing I hate in 7 Measures:

    Love—Organizational adaptability is one of the seven measures. What it boils down to is a continuous process of assessing the environment in which your association operates and making changes based on it. It's about being decisive. It's about learning from failure. But more than anything, it's about having the courage to stop doing things that no longer work and the discipline to improve the things that do. Associations Now excerpted this part of the book in August.

    Hate—There's a list of behaviors in the book that "remarkable" associations do and a list of counterparts to those behaviors. One of the behaviors of remarkable associations is that they "do their homework, through surveys, assessments, and evaluations, before launching or discontinuing a product or service." The counterpart: "rely more on intuition, assumptions, and chance to guide product development and improvement."

    I believe surveys, assessments, and the like do provide valuable information, but the way that is written, it sounds like the advice is to not take an action until you've studied it extensively. No, no, no. That takes too long. And it leads to bad decisions. It's a minor part of the article, buried deep in this Washington Post article is the notion that advertising got severly dumbed down and uncreative thanks to prescreening in front of an audience. I'm a proponent of Tom Peters' advice, "Ready, fire, aim." Far from being a liability, intuition is how you spell success. Intuition and assumption (despite the cliche that assuming makes a you-know-what out of you know who) should not be equated with chance. Do your surveys and assessments, not to discover the answer to a specific question, but to better understand your constituents. If you study and know that data, your intuition will be better. As you gain experience in both knowing your members beyond how they rank something on a 5-point scale and in what your association is capable of doing, your intution will improve. And as you add to your network of peers and advisors, your intuition will improve.

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    August 22, 2006

    Mission Without You

    I'm at ASAE & the Center's annual meeting this week. I've been having lots of conversations with friends and colleagues around topics that could all generally be filed under the Web 2.0 banner (since it's such a mushy definition). The conversations and environment of the meeting have clarified something for me about the potential impact of empowering individuals and small groups to have much greater impact via the Web.

    In short: people can now pursue the mission of an association, with or without them, by connecting, organizing and acting via the Web. The national association is no longer a pre-requisite for pursuit of the mission.

    To highly web-savvy people this probably sounds like a bit of a non-sequitor but it creates a fundamental identity crisis for associations. What is the role of the association if your members can pursue your mission without you and do so just as effectively, if not more so, in some cases?

    I do not believe this spells the end of associations. Too many people have been burned on predicting that one. :) But I do believe it provides new opportunities to facilitate the mission and purpose of your association in a much broader context than simply through the direct operations of the association.

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    August 13, 2006

    The No Fly Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    August 3, 2006

    Long Tail wagging the dog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Collaboration as a Member Benefit

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the role associations might play in helping our members work collaboratively. My thought is this: what if we could instantly connect members who are working on similar projects or that have similar needs or interests, and then provide an environment and a set of tools for them to collaborate on finding solutions?

    Today, the corporate sector is using collaboration among employees, customers, and partners to drive innovation and to enhance speed to market. Web 2.0, which moves the web from a communications medium to a collaborative environment, is one of the most talked about trends in technology today. Companies are exploring new ways to let employees build on and collaborated with each other’s discoveries. And more and more products and services are being co-created with customers, leading to a practice that calls “customer made.”

    At the same time, many of the technologies that have opened up new possibilities for collaborative work (such as wikis, blogs, folksonomies, social bookmarking, and instant messaging), are easy to use and widely available. While most started as consumer applications on the web, they have migrated into the corporate world and are increasing becoming business tools in the same way that Excel and Word are.Already, these technologies are changing the ways in which many companies do work.

    These ideas and technologies haven’t seemed to have much of an effect on associations yet, but they should. I think they open up a great opportunity for us to provide real value to our members.

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    August 1, 2006

    The Long Tail: Embracing Subtle Shades of Gray

    Alerted by reader Lenora G. Knapp, Ph.D., from Knapp & Associates, of a Wall Street Journal article critical of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail -- a new book that has been favorably mentioned on this site, I asked Jeff De Cagna, who coauthored "Associations in the Age of the Long Tail" in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now to craft a response. Here's what Jeff had to say:

    "In a recent WSJ article, Lee Gomes offers a strong critique of The Long Tail, the influential new book written by WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson explaining the emergence of a marketplace of niches that is undermining the economics of a hits-driven media and entertainment culture. According to Anderson, the Long Tail phenomenon recognizes that not everyone is interested only in the top-selling books, movies or music. There is a considerable diversity of interests in the modern-day reading, listening and viewing audience, not to mention many enterprising content creators who use more powerful tools and technologies to develop the kind of genuine content variety that they and others want. (Just take a look at what’s happening at YouTube if you’re not sure this is true!) Google and other search engines, as well as peer recommendations and other filtering tools, simplify the process of finding such niche content, making it more economical and, quite possibly, more profitable to serve these very small markets. and Netflix, among other businesses, have benefited from the Long Tail effect and Chris Anderson’s original article, blog and book have become fodder for new thinking about content-based business models in the early 21st century

    "We’re delighted to leave the detailed response to the Gomes article to Chris, who has already posted to his blog on this topic. We strongly encourage you to read what he has written. But in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now, Jamie Notter and I published an article about the implications of the Long Tail concept for associations, and we think this is an important moment to share a few words of concern about the state of our profession’s approach to new ideas, as well as some encouragement to association innovators who are as intrigued by Long Tail possibilities as we are.

    "Our primary worry is that a handful of critical articles about the Long Tail will be enough to forever ruin any possibility for genuine discourse around this very powerful idea in the association community. The backlash may be inevitable but the response of association leaders is not. From our vantage point, however, association executives appear to be more interested than ever before in getting the absolute right answers to highly complex business problems. Tried-and-true solutions and so-called “best practices” seem to dominate every conversation, and the window for exploring promising or untested concepts seems to be narrowing with each passing day. You might say that something of a “short tail” has developed in the intellectual evolution of our profession. Indeed, we may operate today as a hits-driven marketplace interested only in proven ideas that are sure to work, even though such certainty is nothing more than an illusion in today’s operating environment. We no longer live in a world with very many black and white answers. All of us need to do more to get comfortable with many subtle shades of gray.

    "So instead of ignoring or withdrawing from the debate about the deeper meaning of the Long Tail for associations, we challenge all association leaders to actively engage in it. We strongly believe that the Long Tail offers associations the chance to realize their full potential both strategically and financially. We don’t pretend to have all of the answers about how to tap into that potential, but we’re certain that great ideas to do that will emerge from the kind of rich and thoughtful dialogue to which we know the association community has traditionally aspired. And to our kindred spirits, the association innovators, who share our fascination with what the Long Tail can teach us, we urge you to sustain your personal commitment to pushing new ideas by internalizing the words of Albert Einstein, who we quote in the article, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” It is certainly one of our mantras for genuine association leadership today and going forward, and it should be one of yours as well."

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    July 24, 2006

    Beltway bias

    Those of you who know me know that I started my career in the association mecca of the world: Alexandria, Virginia. I cut my teeth in a couple of international associations – one trade association, and one professional society. Like many association executives in the DC marketplace, I developed an inside the beltway bias about the face of the association industry. One of the ways this manifested itself was in my opinions about components. For me and many of my colleagues in the DC area, state affiliates, chapters or allied organizations were disrespectfully viewed as nuisances and distractions.

    A little over three years ago, looking for a change of scenery and relief from the traffic, I left DC to work for a statewide association in Richmond, just 100 miles south of Alexandria. In the time that I’ve been here, this association has grown to be the biggest I’ve ever worked for both in terms of staff and budget. I’ve also gotten to know association executives at other state associations around the country and have been consistently impressed with their capabilities. Furthermore, I’ve come across some local associations with programs that absolutely knock my socks off.

    My colleagues at national and international associations are always shocked when I tell them the size of our membership. Still, I’m continually asked by my peers when will I be moving back to DC, or when will I be getting back to a national or international association. No time in the immediate future, I tell them; I’m very happy where I am.

    In the years since I left DC, I’ve noticed that the savviest association executives are the ones that treat their affiliates and chapters with the utmost respect. They acknowledge that they’re partners in some ways and competitors in others. But there’s a genuine modesty and conscientious decorum in their relationships with chapters and affiliates. Although we’re not connected in any official way, I’ve always been pleased by the way I’ve been treated by the national association with whom my employers is aligned. Because of this positive relationship, I’m happy to carry the national association’s message to our membership and prospects. The results of this respect are played out in other areas as well.

    Truly respecting your components may require giving up some control over programs. Opening yourself up to competition from chapters in some program areas may be necessary, too. Completely turning some things over entirely to components might be a demonstration of good faith.

    Do you respect your components? Or do you overtly block them in some areas? Would they be offended if they overheard your staff’s indiscriminate comments about them?

    As someone who has worked on both sides of the fence, I have learned: The beltway bias is unfounded and counterproductive.

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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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    July 11, 2006

    Death of the Anonymous Web?

    According to Hitwise, social networking site has laid claim to new bragging rights: Most Visited Site on the Web.

    If you're not sure what MySpace is, read this.

    Conventional wisdom states that the Internet is, among many other things, an outlet for anonymous communication, even though we all know that our every click and data transmission can be (and is) recorded by the computers that handle our data. Admit it: You’ve typed and sent things that you would never have said in conversation. Internet users want privacy, right?

    That's why, on the surface, MySpace seems like such an anomaly. If the Internet is a place where users can be anonymous, then why are millions of people divulging personal, identifiable details about themselves to millions of other people? A plausible explanation is that there are some other factors at play, and this phenomenon cannot be attributed entirely to adolescent carelessness.

    Is it possible that anonymity is not all it's cracked up to be? In previous posts to Acronym, on our blogs, and during a session at a recent conference, David Gammel and I have discussed the economics of attention, and how attention can be viewed as currency. If the attention of our peers and people in general is a form of currency, could it be that people are actually trying to attract attention, using blogs, podcasts and other social media outlets to get it? If this is true, what are the implications for associations?

    Most associations recognize members in one form or another, bestowing attention on them. We have awards for star volunteers. A profile of a member with an interesting hobby in the magazine. Periodic lists of new members. But if members are truly eager for attention, is this enough?

    How can associations give members the attention they crave? This is an interesting new dynamic of member relations that needs to be explored.

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    June 29, 2006

    Simplicity as Strategy

    The hot new feature in product and service design seems to be simplicity. Matthew Glotzbach of Google showed a slide at a recent presentation that illustrated this perfectly. On one side of the slide were an IPod and the Google search homepage. On the other side of the slide was a screen capture from a typical enterprise management system (picture your association management system). Guess which products people like better?

    Life in the 21st Century is enormously complex (I bet you didn’t know that). I have six phone numbers and three email accounts. Walking down an aisle in a supermarket recently, I counted 14 different types of Coke—not Coca Cola products, but actual varieties of Coke. Linda Stone, former director of the Virtual Worlds Group at Microsoft calls this “the tyranny of endless choices.”

    To make things worse, many companies have continually added new features to products and services as a differentiation strategy, but the result of this approach is often a degree of complexity that makes the product less instead of more desirable. Many of us are now asking, do I really need all of these features?

    Which may explain why companies like Apple and Google are having such great success and being so widely copied. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design and the genius behind the IPod and the beautiful iMac, is a fanatic about eliminating the extraneous. Like Ive, Linda Stone believes that the key to differentiation may lie with less, not more. She says that for every feature we add to a product or service, we should be asking: does this improve quality of life? Does it fulfill a real need? Does it help people filter out the extraneous as they define it?

    Sounds like good advice.

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    June 27, 2006

    Attention Economy Unsession Reports

    Ben Martin and I facilitated an unsession today on attention economics at the Marketing & Membership conference in Bethesda, MD. We had about 25 people in the room after lunch, yet it was a lively group! We have created this post as a place for attendees to add their notes and comments on what they took away from the session. Ben and I will also add our thoughts as the comment thread grows.

    If you would like to learn more about unconferences (the model we used for the session) or attention economics (what we talked about), follow the links.

    Update: Ben has posted some pics from the unsession on Flickr. Also, Jeff De Cagna has added some links in the comments to his notes from the discussion we had. Keep 'em coming folks!

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    Please Speak Like a Human

    I'm at the Marketing & Membership conference this week, whose theme is buzz marketing. I heard in each and every session yesterday that you must talk and listen like a human when marketing to your members. Sounds pretty basic but it would not be repeated as much if everyone were already doing it. This all goes back to the Cluetrain Manifesto which posits that markets are conversations. So are associations, in my opinion!

    Drop the press release speak and hyperbole and engage in the conversations your members are already having about you.

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    Creating a Network Effect of Member Value

    I spoke last week to the Board and senior staff of a large association about Web 2.0 and what these technologies mean for associations. I was asked by the moderator to boil down the single greatest value of Web 2.0 for associations. For me, one of the greatest lessons is the idea of creating network effect businesses where the product or service is more valuable to each person the more people use or purchase it.

    Associations must create a network effect of member value in everything we do. In fact, I believe that associations are better positioned to create a network effect than most other businesses and organizations. We start as informal networks! But I think we move away from this over time as organizations mature and build up a bureaucratic middle.

    Imagine how much value your association could create for your members if a network effect of value is built into your services and products. The path to doing so, I believe, is to pay attention to what is going on with the Web these days around participation and social networks and develop ideas for how to create the same dynamics with your members. As you plan events, products or services, simply ask "How can we design this so that each person who joins/buys adds value to all the others who do so as well?"


    June 20, 2006

    Focus, man, focus!

    I am running a bit of a learning marathon right now. Last week, I attended The Center for Association Leadership board meeting in Halifax, followed by the Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management. This week I am in Boston at a non-association community conference on collaborative technologies. Needless to say, my brain is boiling over with blog-worthy material.

    Let’s start with the board meeting. The board took part in an exercise based on Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s excellent book, Blue Ocean Strategy. Chan and Mauborgne say that the way to thrive in today’s hyper-competitive environment is to create new market space, partly by breaking the trade off between producing something that is different from other stuff out there and producing something affordably.

    Our board was asked to do two things—first, draft a strategy canvas describing our current state and second, explore what we would eliminate, reduce, raise, and create to change the game (Blue Ocean’s “Four Action Framework”).

    Chan and Mauborgne believe that a great strategy (1) focuses on just a few things, (2) is differentiated from the rest of what’s out there, and (3) is simple enough to reduce to a catchy tagline. The key is to get rid of things that you and your competitors always assumed were important to success (but really aren’t) in favor of things that can help you achieve focus and differentiation. For example, Southwest Airlines tossed overboard seating classes, lounges, complex pricing structures, and hub connectivity to focus on friendly service, speed, and point to point departures. Cirque du Soleil kicked animal acts, name performers, and the three rings out of the tent, and added themes, artistic music and dance, and a unique environment. Neither of these were obvious choices and both required a good deal of courage to break with the norm.

    So can you guess which part of the four action framework our board had the hardest time with? It was pretty easy to figure out what we could do more of and the board came up with some incredible new possibilities in the create category. The problem, of course, came on the “reduce and eliminate” side of the grid.

    Cutting is hard, because you ultimately cut things people like. When Southwest decided not to have lounges and first class, they knew they would be taking away a part of the market that really liked those things. Cirque du Soleil’s creators must have known that they were going to loose a lot of kids when they cut out the lions and the clown car. But as long as associations continue to pursue an “all-things-to-all-members” strategy, we are not going to have the focus and simplicity legs of a great strategy. And without those legs, will we have the time and resources to be great at something that might really change the value equation for our members?

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