After three years of research and countless conversations with association and other CEOs and members, we are writing the first chapters of our book, whose working title is: Leading for Growth and Engagement: from Bureaucracy to Knowledge Age Entrepreneurship. We will be posting excerpts as we go along to share thoughts and lessons learned and solicit your feedback and ideas.
I came across an old article by Jeff De Cagna the other day, that summarized the premise and starting point of our book:
In today’s world, relevance isn’t the endgame; it’s the price of admission. Let me put it another way. If we’re not already relevant, we’re toast.
What if your association is already toast? How late is too late to turn it around?
Relevance, it turns out, is a recurring topic of discussion and writing in the association sphere and an ideal to aspire to. Yet the very fact that associations eagerly seek relevance is an indication of their precarious hold on relevance, and their proximity to irrelevance. It’s like aspiring to be breathing. Let us put it another way. Market leading organizations that are re-shaping the future do not struggle for mere relevance or settle for constantly having to run to just catch up with their customers. They start from a position of relevance and aim their sights at growth and larger scale innovation. They run with and ahead of their customers, instead of after them, anticipating their needs before they are able to articulate them.
You will probably roll your eyes implying that of course you would choose the most advantageous position if you could and that the answer is self-evident, so why are we asking; or that, while you naturally always want to improve, you are already well-respected and admired in our field or industry, thank you very much. And this is just the point. Half-truths and temporary safety provide just enough comfort to keep you stuck in neutral. It is only by acknowledging that you are “toast,” or dangerously close to it, even if your association is comfortably surviving at the moment, that you have a springboard for decisive action out of the same-as-usual trajectory.
Decisive action in this book does not refer to new activities and initiatives. It means that you are challenging and re-building the “sacred cows”–the foundational building blocks of the association model—rather than playing on the surface. It means acknowledging that the conventional bureaucratic, product-driven and siloed association architecture, and its inside out orientation, are at odds with the fluid, fast, unpredictable and consumer-centric character of today’s markets. To thrive in today’s environment, leaders have to replace or re-orient the building blocks of this architecture, and shift their associations from inside-out to outside-in; from products and governance to demand– customers and relationships.
Behind the eight ball: assessing the indicators
Most of your colleagues acknowledge the need to change their basic business models and systems and question the future viability of associations as presently designed. Yet, how many dramatically new models have we seen? What has changed in the key discussions and ideas that influence the sector? True, we have seen the increased use of social technologies, for example, but have we leveraged their strategic business value to fuel the equivalent of a Facebook? This is because there is no sense of urgency to drive awareness into action and sustain it until change becomes habit.
The fact is that most association leaders haven’t yet accepted that their associations are in any real danger of irrelevance and that the choice before them is stark: adapt or die. After all, how real does “death” seem when thousands are joining, renewing, and buying your products; you are the pre-eminent association in your sector and/or you are the only certifier and gate-keeper to your profession? As a result, while many associations are watching membership, advertising revenue and conference attendance continuously and steadily stagnate or decline, they feel no sense of urgency, just a vague sense that something isn’t right.
This is, in part, because sadly a great many associations have accepted a “new normal” defined by fewer members, fewer products and services, fewer staff, lower revenues, and reduced influence.
Denial is also boosted by rationalization. Association professionals tend to find rational explanations for each occurrence separately—the bad economy; members’ failure to understand the association’s value proposition; poor marketing; decline in volunteerism; the rise of social media. Time after time, they reassure themselves that “normalcy” is just around the corner and that, by just staying the course, their association can hang on until the members return, like the swallows to Capistrano. They fail to see these declining trend lines for what they are: a warning that members and other customers are increasingly failing to see their associations’ membership, products, or services as sufficiently relevant to their needs to justify the expense.
The problem is that competitors are not waiting for associations to make up their minds. Unlike associations, they are not debating about how much change their mission or governance will accommodate. Lithe, fast, targeted for-profit service providers have jumped in to fill the vacuum; member companies have been competing with associations for training and education; and there has been an explosion of alternative, community-based, forms of learning and collaborating the Internet has enabled.
What will it take, I wonder, for the conversations about meaningful change to shift from the leisurely tone of 19th century drawing rooms to the sense of urgency that can convert them into action?