Process Killed the Association Star

Jamie Notter recently recapped his notes from the MIX Mashup, an invitation-only conference on the future of work, or, to quote their website:

“What will it take to make our organizations highly adaptable, endlessly inventive, truly inspiring, and genuinely accountable?”

That’s a critical question for all of us to address. Jamie also asked the blogging community to think about the points raised at the conference and to write response posts. This is one.

One of his notes from a panel on “innovation all the time” was:

Genius isn’t hidden. It’s afraid of your processes.

Associations do this all the time. In far too many cases, our default answer is “no.” Why? Say it with me: “Because it’s against policy.” Our default mode is “slow.” Why? Because everything has to run through 3000 internal groups and committees, then it goes to a member committee that only meets twice a year, then it goes to the board, which also only meets twice a year, and before you know it, 18 months have elapsed and the original opportunity? It vanished.

New staff and new volunteers start working with our organizations. They’re full of ideas, energy and excitement. This is her new job! She’s ready to kick some ass, build on what her predecessor did, and take your association to the next level! This is his new volunteer assignment! He’s honored to have been chosen, and he’s now even more deeply invested in your association than he was when he decided to offer his name up as a volunteer, because he made the cut!

And then our reified processes kick in, and the cavalcade of “no” begins.

  • We tried that five years ago, and it didn’t work.
  • We can’t make that change, because we always do it this other way.
  • Our members won’t like it.
  • Our senior team won’t like it.
  • Our board won’t like it.
  • The committee won’t support it.
  • It’s a risk we’re unwilling to take.
  • We’re not comfortable trying it a different way.
  • I don’t have that skill (and I don’t want to learn it).
  • What if something goes wrong? What if it’s not perfect? What if it FAILS!?!?

And, inevitably, that new staff member gets beaten down. Maybe she stays, and she starts keeping her ideas to herself, and maybe she walks out the door and takes them with her. That new volunteer gets discouraged. He becomes the “show pony” committee member, when what he wanted to do was be the “work horse.” He becomes disillusioned, cynical and disengaged. If you’re lucky, he keeps that to himself. If you’re not? Hello, membership decline.

We need to shift our mindset from a default “no” to a default “yes,” even if it has to be a qualified yes.

How do we get there? I don’t have the complete answer, but I do have some suggestions:

  • ALWAYS let people spend some time researching their ideas to see if they’re viable.
  • Create a budget of time AND money, even if it has to be small, to try new things.
  • Quit being so afraid of criticism. If you’re not pissing someone off, you’re coasting.
  • Quit being so afraid of debate and disagreement. You’ll never get to the great idea if people can’t challenge the good enough idea.
  • Build REAL relationships with members and volunteers. The only way you get leeway to try stuff that might not work is by earning it.
  • Remember that the whole environment has changed, and what happened five years ago is not a predictor of what might happen tomorrow, with THIS team and THESE members in THIS situation.
  • Dump your 400 page policies and procedures manual. Follow Adobe’s example of a “fairly open philosophy” (not just about social media but about all your policies and procedures) governed by “guardrails” that keep your staff and organization legally protected while giving them as much freedom within those guardrails as possible.
  • Celebrate failure. Everyone says that, right? How do you do it? Offer a valuable prize (an extra week of vacation?) to the person or team that blew it, and then learned something major and valuable they shared with the rest of your staff.

What do you think? How do we get to “yes” in our organizations?

5 thoughts on “Process Killed the Association Star”

  • Great post. I'm trying to build real relationships with my members (your suggestion #5) and guess what? It takes time, money and focus–things all associations have in limited supply. Part of the challenge is redirecting those resources appropriately.

  • Eric, I've been thinking a lot recently about the concept of “limited resources.” I'm beginning to wonder if what's going on is that we're trying to devote equal amounts of resources (time, money, energy) to everything, rather than having frank conversations about what's really working and really important and throwing most of what we have at those members and programs.

    Put another way, why do we assume we have to have identical relationships with all of our various types of members? Why do the “mailbox members” (who aren't really members – they're subscribers) get the same attention as our most involved members, the people who really make our organizations go?

  • In my own case, it often comes down to doing too many things or trying to be everything to everybody. Fundamentally, I agree. Associations are better served by doing fewer things better.

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