Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Digital vs. In-Person Relationships

This is part three of my reaction to Jeff De Cagna's excellent article on business model innovation for associations in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now. In part one I talked about how the primary challenge for associations in innovating is a cultural one, and how organizational priorities need to move away from established structures and towards whatever mechanisms help the organization deliver better value for its members. In part two I talked about one of the ways of doing that—tearing down the walls that get put up between association staffers and members and allowing them to honestly interact with each other as human equals.

Now, I want to toss out a cautionary flag in response to another one of Jeff’s core ideas—that the social layer of our society is becoming increasingly digital and that associations must embrace this platform in order to maintain their “ownership” over member interaction.

For as long as there have been associations, the social layer has existed almost entirely in the physical dimension. Throughout our history, creating sustained relationships required regular face-to-face contact among participants at association events. Today, relationships flourish in a fully digital form, a medium that makes them always accessible, highly portable, easily shared, and thus more valuable. It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this paradigm shift on membership-centric business models that put pay-to-play access to relationships at the heart of their value proposition.

The social layer of our society IS becoming increasingly digital—there’s no denying that. This shift in our society IS having and WILL CONTINUE to have a significant impact on membership-based associations. I see that as clearly as you do. But I would caution association leaders—especially those of associations who put pay-to-play access to relationships at the heart of their value proposition—to not lose sight of the value face-to-face relationships have and will continue to have in the future.

Two quick anecdotes. First, my own association is doubling down on face-to-face relationships. In a marketplace increasingly dominated by LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (and even given the fact that we’re dabbling in all those areas) our leadership has correctly positioned the human interaction that goes on at our conferences as an intrinsic piece of our membership value proposition. In our world, there are still subjects that will not be discussed over a social network, and there still is knowledge that a peer will share with another, but not if they have to log into the network in order to do so.

Do digital relationships of their own creation assist my members in performing their jobs? You bet they do. Are those interactions always accessible, highly portable and easily shared—in a way my association would be hard-pressed to match or provide? Absolutely. But does that make them more valuable than the face-to-face interactions members can only access by being members of my association? Not by a long shot. Digital relationships are valuable. But I don’t think anyone has yet made the case that they are more valuable than in-person human interaction. In the association of the future, I predict, both kinds of relationships will play a critical role.

What’s my second anecdote? It’s a short one and maybe you can relate. I’m really torn on whether to attend the ASAE Annual Meeting this year. It’s closer to home for me than last year in L.A., and that makes it more convenient, but there are so many demands on my time, and it’s scheduled during a less than ideal week in my calendar. But here’s a fact. With all due respect to any ASAE staff person or volunteer who may be reading this, if I do go to St. Louis it won’t be because of the general sessions or learning labs or evening receptions they have so diligently planned. If I decide to go it will only be because of the people who will be there and with whom I gain so much value out of meeting with face-to-face. The chance to connect, to share stories, the learn from their experiences, and to plan things together for the future—that kind of interaction is worth a few days out of my busy schedule.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't Wall Yourself Off From Your Community

This is part two of my reaction to Jeff De Cagna's excellent article on business model innovation for associations in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now. In part one I talked about how the primary challenge for associations in innovating is a cultural one, and how organizational priorities need to move away from established structures and towards whatever mechanisms help the organization deliver better value for its members. Now, I want to focus on one of the ways to do that.

Here's the relevant quote from Jeff's article:

Associations must learn who their stakeholders are and what moves them as people, not just where they work or what products and services they buy.

The WSAE white paper on innovation calls this understanding the mind of your community. In the for-profit case studies our innovation task force studied, those organizations were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn’t want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods these companies used for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used continually throughout their innovation processes and served as a constant guide for their successful decision‐making.

Associations should be really good at this. Unlike the for‐profit companies we studied, whose community is generally comprised of customers external to the organization, and association's community is made up of its members—and members typically comprise a number of established networks internal to the organization. Boards of Directors, committees, task forces—even supplier networks and, sometimes, staff departments—they all provide associations with a direct connection to their community that for‐profit corporations committed to innovation would envy.

Associations should be good at understanding who their stakeholders are and what moves them as people, but many of them don't. Many of them have had walls put up between their staff people and their members, preventing the staff from really getting to know the members as people and understanding what their true motivations are. In most cases, these walls didn't get built on purpose. They just sprang up naturally. Like weeds in the garden, no one has to tend them and help them grow. And like those weeds, purposeful action is only necessary if you want to keep them away.

Perhaps you've heard of these walls? They go by a variety of names. One of the tallest is called fear. Specifically, fear that you'll look foolish or unprofessional in front of your members. Another one goes by the name of pretending—pretending that we never make mistakes and know exactly what we're doing at all times. If you're leading your association under either one of these premises, you'll never understand the mind of your community, and without that understanding you'll never develop the innovative products and services you'll need to keep your association strong and robust in our uncertain future.

Here are the ground rules: We're all people. None of us is so smart that we can't be taught something new. We all work hard and do the best that we can, but we're going to make mistakes, and that's okay. When they happen, we'll own up and try to learn something useful. We're all in this together, and the only way we're going to succeed is by helping each other.

Now start tearing down those walls.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Innovation Problem for Associations

Jeff De Cagna had another great article in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now that I just got around to reading on one of my recent plane rides. “Six Design Principles for Business-Model Innovation” provides association executives with his usual thought-provoking push into territories we should really be spending more of our time in—but often don’t. It’s definitely worth your attention.

It also reminds me of the online discussion Jeff and I had a few months back on our two blogs about innovation for associations and the work of the WSAE Innovation Task Force I chair. In the spirit of that discussion, I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts and reactions to Jeff’s article.

I’ll start with something I suspect Jeff and I agree on.

Our thinking about future business models needs to focus on maximizing the value of better outcomes for our stakeholders, not preserving the traditional structures and inputs we often regard as most important.

This is about as clear as any statement I’ve read about the fundamental challenge facing associations when it comes to embracing innovation. The work of the WSAE task force is predicated on the idea that innovation is a process—one that relies and people and creativity—but a process nonetheless, and like any process it needs to be clearly defined, resourced and continually improved in order to work. In this regard innovation can be viewed as another association business practice—like program management or marketing—something that all organizations can do, albeit with varying levels of expertise and success.

But that’s not the problem. The innovation problem for associations is not about process. It’s about culture. It’s not just changing what we do, it’s changing how we do things. It’s putting a new objective in front of us and retooling the organization itself so it can get serious about pursuing it. And that objective, as Jeff says, is maximizing the value of better outcomes for our stakeholders.

I know what you’re saying. That’s already our objective, Eric. Look at our mission statement and our fifteen-page strategic plan. They’re all about maximizing value for our members.

And they are. At this point in our history, the association world has strategic planning down pat. But what are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve those finely wordsmithed objectives? How about the organization itself? Or at least the mental image of the organization that exists in our minds and the minds of our members?

It’s a great question to ask. Or maybe just run it in your mind as a thought experiment. If your mission could be achieved by changing what is perceived as the foundation (or core service, or value proposition) of your organization, would you do it? Would your Board chair? Are you sure? Here’s a provocative idea. If your answer is no, it means only two things. One: you won’t achieve those objectives about maximizing value for your members. And two: those objectives aren’t aiming high enough anyway.

We put an innovation readiness assessment up on the WSAE Hub of Association Innovation. It’s really just a short survey to help association professionals determine non-scientifically where their organizations are when it comes to embracing innovation, and which areas they may want to start working on if they wish to change things. There are four questions that relate to the leadership culture of your organization, but I think the most critical one is this:

Is your leadership willing to drive cultural change in your organization if that is what is needed to achieve your goals?

Start there. You won’t be able to innovate until you can honestly answer yes.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Brand Humility

There's a reason why people follow Seth Godin's blog. Normally I would just retweet something of his I find especially compelling, but given my last blog post of approaching innovation as an exercise in brand strategy, I thought I'd expound a little more on something I read on Seth's blog this week.

The title is "Brand Exceptionalism." When promoting that brand of yours, Seth cautions you not to think too highly of it, not to convince yourself that its means to everyone the excellence it may mean to you. That's a trap.

The problem with brand exceptionalism is that once you believe it, it's almost impossible to innovate. Innovation involves failure, which an exceptional brand shouldn't do, and the only reason to endure failure is to get ahead, which you don't need to do. Because you're exceptional.

The solution is what Seth calls "brand humility."

The humble brand understands that it needs to re-earn attention, re-earn loyalty and reconnect with its audience as if every day is the first day.

And that's exactly what associations must do when it comes to innovation. You can actually just substitute the right words and it makes just as much sense. The innovative association understands that it needs to re-earn attention, re-earn loyalty and reconnect with its members as if every day is the first day. See what I mean?

At my association we're talking about revamping an exitsing program with new features and benefits. We've got a couple of good ideas from a couple of our members, but so far the effort has largely been staff-driven. I'm pushing for more connection and transparency with the members throughout the development process, but as the project moves forward I'm discovering something very similar to brand exceptionalism infiltrating our thinking.

How can we launch something that's only half done and not working properly? What will the members think of our capabilities? We have a reputation for quality to protect.

I'll bet you've heard the same words said in your organization from time to time. In our particular case, Seth has helped me see that we should be less focused on our reputation and more focused on re-earning the attention and loyalty of our members by engaging them in a process that develops programs better suited to their needs.

We have an exceptional brand. And being humble about it is how we'll keep it that way.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Association Innovation as Brand Strategy

Here's a post from the usually lucid Michael Schrage that I'm not sure I buy. In it, he advocates an approach to innovation that focuses not on meeting the expressed needs of customers, but on pushing customers to become something they're not.

All authentic innovations ask you — want you — to become a different dimension of yourself. The best and most enduring innovations make you someone else.

On the surface, that sounds good. As recently discussed on the Innovation Hub for Associations, innovation is fundamentally about change, and Schrage is asking us to consider not the change we would make within our own organizations to be more innovative, but the change we can create in our marketplaces to better accept our innovative products. But his examples, at least for me, fall flat.

What does Wal-Mart's innovation ask? The Bentonville behemoth wants you to become someone who gets the brands they desire at the best possible price every day. What's Target's innovation ask? The Minneapolis merchant wants you to become someone who appreciates the value and appeal of great design at a great price; you're as much a connoisseur as a consumer.

These examples are less about innovation and more about marketing--the kind of brand marketing that's becoming more and more popular, especially in the retail space. Retailers today don't just market their products, they heavily market their brands, creating a story and a culture around their brands that attracts customers because they want to be affiliated with it. They want to embody the principles that the brand represents.

This may be less obvious with brands like Wal-Mart and Target, but what about Apple, Starbucks and REI? They all sell products, sure, but more than that they are selling a brand--a set of ideals that represent what their customers want to see in themselves. When someone sees you tapping away on your iPad, drinking your Starbucks coffee, or wearing your REI gear, they have an impression of the kind of person you are that is closely associated with those brands. That mental brand image is really what those companies are selling.

So how does that connect to innovation for associations? Maybe instead of Schrage's question (What does your innovation want your customer to become?) association professionals should ask: Why do members want to be associated with us? What's our brand image and what does it communicate to people in our marketplace? And if we don't like the answers, what can we do to start changing them?

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Extended Lifespans Are a Design Problem

Here's a great HBR Ideacast with Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, that's well worth the 13 minutes it takes to listen to it. A lot of thought-provoking points are raised, but here's the one that really got me thinking:

So much of our society and culture is built around the idea that people live roughly to about 70. Get your education while you're young, build a successful and progressively impactful career, retire, and relax for your few remaining golden years. As lifespans continue to grow (more than 50% of children born today will live to see their 100th birthday) how should this life progression be redesigned so those twenty and someday thirty or forty years in retirement don't become a "balloon payment of disengagement?"

Here's an idea: No more front-loading education.

We already know that education needs to go on throughout life. So why do we spend so much time and money while we're in our teens and twenties to build up so much of it? As life spans get longer and people seek to reinvent themselves multiple times to stay engaged and impactful, what about a structure that allows people to get degrees in multiple areas, not one right after the other, but at ten-year intervals? Existing pressures associated with developing a career, raising a family and saving for retirement make going back to school a risky endeavor during midlife. But what if instead of viewing life as a single circuit we viewed it as multiple circuits, each loop requiring periods of exploration, concentrated study, growing responsibility, leadership, and returning wisdom back to the community? How would we need to redesign our cultures of higher education, family, success, and investments to make that possible? And how richer would we and our society be if we did?

At one point in the Ideacast, Freedman talks about how Baby Boomers are the first generation to face the challenges associated with active living beyond the traditional retirement age, but of course they won't be the last. As the first, however, the Boomers find themselves in the position to set some precedents and define some parameters. In redefining what it means to be retired I think they are doing some great things for Xers and the generations that follow, but they are obviously approaching the problem from the perspective of the newly retired. It will probably be up to the younger generations to redefine the problem around the entirety of our lifespans.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Commander's Intent

Back in November, the HBR blog ran a series of posts on "Leadership Lessons from the Military." I already commented on one of them. Here's another. They both mention something called Commander's Intent--a description and definition of what a successful mission will look like.

Commander's Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. The role of Commander's Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander's Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander's Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.

Now that sounds like a powerful tool. If you were to consciously use Commander's Intent for a specific situation in your association, what would it be? And what Intent would you communicate to your subordinates?

I'll tell you what I did, but first a little backstory.

I started in this business as a meeting planner. My first thing I remember being taught how to do at my first association job was filling out the form the accounting department needed in order to cash the checks coming in for exhibit space. Since then I've planned meetings for eight people and for eight thousand, with exhibits and without, with big budgets and small budgets--and I know that something happens to meeting planners over time. They start measuring their success by their numbers and not by the objectives of the association hosting the meeting. As you hone your organizational skills, it starts being less about the mission of your organization and starts being more about sleeping rooms, banquet event orders and LCD projectors. You can't always help it. That's the world you live in.

So when it was time to set performance goals for the meeting planner working for my current association, I wanted to take a different tack. I wanted to spell something out very clearly, and make sure she knew what team she was on from the very beginning. When she found herself in situations--as I knew she would--where she would need to show initiative, improvisation and adaptation in our chaotic, demanding and dynamic environment, I wanted her to remember what the overall objective was and act accordingly. When it comes to planning meetings for this association, I told her, your objective (i.e., my Commander's Intent) is to:

Organize events that engage members with the association and with each other.

That's it, I told her. That's the objective. That's how we're going to define a successful meeting. Not by how much money we make or how many people attend, not even by how good the speakers are or which numbers people circle on their evaluation forms. My Commander's Intent when it comes to our conferences is to make sure our members are interacting with each other and with the association. Period.

It might be crazy, but I know that the rest of our success will follow from there.

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