Closing the Door to New Solutions & How to Open it

Blog_47.pngPartial excerpt from our forthcoming book (working title): Leading for Growth and Engagement: from Bureaucracy to Knowledge Age Entrepreneurship

“Insanity,” Albert Einstein said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

First, however, someone has to be able to identify and admit what it is they are repeating, right? This is hard to do when you are far from static and, in fact caught in a whirlwind of frenzied activity.  When you keep up with the latest thinking on management theory, have made significant investments in social media, created new types of positions, instilled high standards for customer service and announced a brand new strategic plan, you are not likely to see yourself as doing the same thing over and over again.  No doubt you have introduced many innovations and made progress toward modernizing your organization. Yet, like most associations, you may be in fact “doing the same thing” in that your basic footprint remains the same. One of the greatest hurdles to change for associations is denial or lack of recognition for where, how and to which degree they are stuck. 


The most vulnerable point is at the very start of a strategic action. Framing challenges from the same inward-oriented perspective and using the same assumptions and mechanisms for solutions dooms many efforts at change before they are even off-the ground.

See if any of the self-created obstacles to truly new solutions below echo any of the hurdles that may be unwittingly sabotaging your efforts. The first step to change is to establish an open and collaborative learning and discovery process, free from assumptions, habitual tools and practices; and anchored in the perspective of your customers. 

                     What do these two RFPs have in common?

 RFP from” Regional Southwest Tech Association”

Scope of Work

  1. Conduct 2 member focus groups
  2. Develop survey questions for review and discussion with staff
  3. Create survey (staff will distribute)
  4. Analyze results and share data with staff
  5. Work with staff to create final report
  6. Interview up to 15 donors (as identified by staff)
  7. Work with staff to suggest which existing programs to drop and which new programs to develop that suit members’ interests

 RFP from “Big Huge Association” for membership acquisition

 1. Develop a member-to-member approach to recruit members in 4 categories the association has determined.

  • Create campaign themes
  • Consider use of X marketing approaches that we have successfully used in the past
  • Write copy and take on brochure production from A to Z

2. Identify prospects in these 4 categories

  • Provide sources of potential prospects (e.g.  Lists, directories, social media sites etc.) Prospect identification and procurement i.e. lists, social media strategies, word of mouth.
  • Identify factors that may increase or decrease list response rates.

3. Develop a sales strategy

  • Provide a brand and messaging plan
  • Make recommendations for member incentives
  • Responsibilities for copywriting, printing and implementation.  

 These two RFPs are quite representative of how many associations typically frame their needs and look for solutions. Tech Association is a trade association experiencing attrition, waning interest in their programs and rapidly proliferating competition in their landscape. Big Huge is also experiencing attrition especially among its CEO members. What do their RFPs have in common?  Both seem to already have the answer and need someone to implement it. They expect the finalist to begin with the association’s conclusions for what is needed and how to get it, and deliver data and a final report that support those conclusions. Some new ideas within that framework would be considered. How new can these ideas be?

 Big Huge does not seem interested in identifying the root of the problem. Why is there attrition and why are executives increasingly determining that the association has no value for them?  Without understanding exactly the nature of the problem, from an intimate customer perspective, you simply cannot repair it. Based on a faulty assumption of the causes of attrition the association has determined to treat what is clearly an issue of value delivery as a marketing and communications problem. As if starting on the wrong path was not enough, this association is also detailing the marketing methodology, laying out a blueprint for an outdated, passive and provider-driven approach that they have used before.   

 SW Tech similarly details a conventional, passive and survey-based approach that would not likely provide the depth of understanding and relationship-development that such challenges usually require to get to the bottom of the underlying problems and identify a new basis for value propositions.  Neither organization asks for help to diagnose the nature of the problem and help shape a path to solutions. Neither allows for engaging customers and stakeholders in the process; for co-developing and testing and adapting—all of which represent entrepreneurial and customer-centric modes for discovery and development that are far more likely to produce programs and services that resonate with market needs and convert potential customers into stakeholders.  Both organizations have in essence laid out narrow tracks of implementation that they are familiar with and preclude different perspective and new solutions.   

 Over the years, we have had many stimulating, probing conversations with leaders of many types of knowledge organizations that produced breakthrough insights and major A ha! moments.  Yet these insights are rarely converted into action. There is always tremendous resistance to any change to the conventional formulas for planning: surveys, committees, product-based perspective and outdated assumptions.  There is especially reluctance to truly incorporating outside perspectives, especially those of their own customers.  The response is always: “we first need to figure out among ourselves what we need;”  “no point to involve members at this point. We are not ready.  There will be time to get some feedback in the end.”

 This impulse to retreat inside, engrained in the culture of bureaucratic organizations, is absurd for a service provider in a customer-focused market. In essence it closes the door to new partnership relationships with customers and new trajectories for growth and innovation. How can you determine internally “what you need” when the answers depend on how the “outside” perceives, and experiences your value and frames their most important challenges?  

 Customer responsive organizations begin with the outside. They establish open processes of learning of discovery with key stakeholders; look for outside perspectives to challenge their assumptions and bring different perspectives on the potential of their assets; engage customers and stakeholders in co-developing, testing and implementing.  The questioned you ask; the participants you engage; and the mechanisms you utilize at the very beginning of planning and development processes will determine the results. To look for new solutions you have to first open the door.

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