Monday, June 27, 2011

Leaders Have a Different Job

The HBR blog is running a series on leadership lessons from the military. I’m not part of that culture—unless my fascination with Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign counts—but I was intrigued by the idea and have been following the posts pretty regularly.

One of the latest posts is a mini interview with Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker and a graduate of the United States Military Academy who spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. And here’s the exchange that most resonated with me.

Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.

When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn't going to be effective. And my job really wasn't to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.

So I learned that you're very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that's far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don't, they stay in combat.

I think that’s a common story in the association world—people promoted to positions of leadership because of demonstrated excellence in managing programs. Hicks was the best cannoneer before given command of an artillery battery, just like that CME Director was the best educational program manager or that Executive Director was the best membership services manager before getting their current jobs.

So I think Hicks makes a critical observation for association leaders and leaders-to-be. The job of the manager and the job of the leader are fundamentally different things, and success in the former won’t necessarily translate into success in the latter.

To help bridge that gulf, new association leaders can use their managerial excellence to train better managers, but they can no longer do that work themselves. To use Hicks’ example, your focus is no longer on firing one cannon really well. Your job is to create a team that consistently fires all the cannons as well or better than you once did.

That's a lot harder. But also a lot more fulfilling.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Join Your Customers on Their Journey

Here’s a great post from Adam Richardson of the global innovation firm frog design about something called a customer journey map. What is a customer journey map?

A customer journey map is a very simple idea: a diagram that illustrates the steps your customer(s) go through in engaging with your company, whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any combination.

There’s a couple of map examples in the post, including one that lists a bewildering array of questions a customer looking to purchase a home theater system might have.

“For HD and Blue Ray DVD HDMI audio I do not understand if any post processing is done on the 5.1 Lossless PCM channels from these players. Will DD PLIIx or THX 7.1 apply to these? What are the limitations?”

Yikes. But you know what? It reminds me of some association staff meetings I’ve been in where good intentioned people work to design a new product or service, without ever stepping around to the other side of the counter and looking at it from the customer’s point of view.

Who will this serve? I find that I’m beginning to ask in these situations.

The members.

Ah, yes. The ubiquitous members. But which members? And how? What will they do with it? How would they design it if we put them in charge?

Blank stares. Or maybe one or two raised eyebrows.

You’re not seriously suggesting we ask the members what they think about what we’re working on, are you?

Yeah, I guess I am.

But what if they don’t like it?

That’d be fine. Then we can stop working on this and start working on something they will like.

Looks of skepticism all around the table, but no more than looks. I am the boss, after all.

Well… I guess we could send out a survey.

Here’s a better idea. We know our members. Some of them work in the same town we do. Their offices are fifteen minutes away from where we are right now. Why don’t we take all the sketches and ideas over there and lay them out on one of their tables and ask them what they think?

Now everyone looks downright uncomfortable. Like I’m the dentist and I just told them they’re all going to need root canals.

Gosh, I don’t know. We’re pretty busy around here. And we’d hate to bother them with only half-formed ideas. Maybe we should flesh this out a little bit more? Develop some prototypes. Make sure the thing can actually work before getting their feedback. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.

This dialogue has never actually taken place in my association—at least not out loud. Maybe it has actually happened in yours. But if not, I bet the fear and avoidance that lays beneath it does exist in your association.

There is something embedded deeply into the culture of our industry that convinces us our members are too busy to be bothered, that we don’t have to ask them what they think, and that we can ignore negative comments that come back on our evaluation forms. Creating a customer journey map for your next new program may be one way to start changing that culture, especially if its leads you to the same conclusion it led me. We really don’t know how our members think, and there are forces at work that will keep us from finding out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had

This is the fourth and final part 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. In part three I tried to defend the value of face-to-face relationships in an increasingly digital world, and the inherent value those face-to-face connections will continue to have for associations.

Now, I want to talk about losing control. Jeff writes:

In a blog post last summer, Tim Leberecht, the chief marketing officer of frog design, riffed on “design for the loss of control,” a concept first articulated by J. P. Raganswami, chief scientist for Leberecht argues that organizations may find value in intentionally designing their work to narrow the extent of their control. As he writes, “A deliberately designed loss of control grants companies the only remaining and arguably most critical competitive advantage: access. As long as they enable and facilitate knowledge flows, ideas, passions, skills, and experiences, they have access to them. For most association leaders, this is a hugely radical, even dangerous, idea. And yet it is quite possibly the most important design principle for all new business-model concepts of associating. In very practical terms, business models designed for the loss of control may well deliver greater value while incurring lower costs. After all, among other problems, control is expensive. In strategic terms, business models observing this design principle can help energize stakeholders with a renewed sense of purpose. Among other opportunities, the loss of control encourages new self-organized forms of associating.

I’m a big advocate for the idea that control is a myth—especially in the world of successful associations. Jamie Notter has written about this on his blog as well (and he gets a surprising number of comments whenever he does). It’s my view that as an association executive, there is very much that I can shape, but there is very little that I can control. Nor should I seek to. Perhaps that’s why this sentence from Jeff’s article really jumped off the page at me.

For most association leaders, this is a hugely radical, even dangerous, idea.

Is it really? Jeff’s not specific, but when he says “leaders,” I assume he’s referring primarily to staff executives. And some of them probably do fear losing the control they have built up over their long years of service. We all know execs like this. They control the agenda, the discussion at their Board table, and, to a certain extent, their Board members themselves. But ask the volunteer leaders in those associations about this thing Jeff is describing as “loss of control” and I suspect you’ll get a much different answer.

I’m an association executive. But I’m also an association member, and recently I became and association Board member. These alternate perspectives have helped me tremendously, both in doing my own job and in helping my Board members do theirs. And more than anything else they have helped me see how stifling the pursuit of control can be.

Speaking as a volunteer Board member, I know that we have boundless passion for the industry or profession we represent. Way more, I think, than we should expect any staff executive to ever have. We want to do something to make a difference, to advance ourselves, our profession, and our organization. And one thing we’re really good at is determining whether the Boards we’ve found ourselves on are vehicles or impediments for fulfilling that desire.

As an association executive, I shouldn’t try to control that enthusiasm. I’ll be tempted to sometimes. Sometimes I’ll think they’ve gone off the tracks and they’re trying to take the association with them. But in those cases I need to shape, not control. Because control by the staff executive makes Board members check out, simply ride out their terms, and, to the detriment of what I’m trying to achieve, go looking for other places to invest their energy. Control is counterproductive.

I know. I’ve seen it from both sides.

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Post title refers to this. Go watch it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Real-World Innovation for Associations

I had a fantastic opportunity this past Friday—an opportunity to take the principles and ideas about innovation that are being developed through my work with the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives, and apply them in a real-world situation with a real-world organization. I accepted an invitation from a national professional society to present the information we have developed on innovation in associations at their Board retreat, and help them determine how it applied to them and what specific steps they should take.

To help set-up the conversation, I asked each individual Board member to complete the innovation assessment we have posted on the Hub for Association Innovation, and then I presented their aggregated responses back to them. In some cases the results surprised them. In other cases they didn’t. But I think everyone would agree that it created a lot of great dialogue on where they needed to focus in order to become a more innovative organization.

From my perspective, this organization has pretty much already adopted a culture of innovation among their top leadership. The Board has recently culminated a process in which a new organizational mission and vision have been identified, and are now contemplating a name change in order to better reflect the changes in their environment and how the association is repositioning itself to expand and better serve its membership base. Unlike a lot of other organizations facing similar issues, this one has bravely identified that change is necessary, and its leaders are ready to drive cultural change within the organization appropriately.

In order to perpetuate that change, however, one key area they identified for themselves was leadership development. Having arrived at that place where the current batch of leaders were willing to drive for necessary change, what guarantee did any of them have that the next batch, or even the current leadership one layer down in their organization, would similarly embrace what they were trying to do? We talked about tackling the problem from both the process side of the coin—an immediate need to engage with existing leaders throughout the organization and incorporate their thoughts and ideas in the work of reinvention—as well as from the culture side of the coin—a longer-term plan in which the individuals in their organization with the appropriately innovative approach to leadership were identified and groomed for future involvement.

There was a thoughtful pause in our discussion when one Board member reminded everyone that (probably like a lot of other organizations, I thought), given their existing leadership criteria, those individuals with the appropriate mindset and leadership skills, may not currently be “electable” to leadership positions. It was one of those moments when you can see by the look on people’s faces that everyone together is wrapping their heads around the true scope of what they’re dealing with. It was intimidating and invigorating at the same time.

I think another big issue for them will be nimbleness, and a willingness to experiment in front of the members. Again, like a lot of other associations, it seemed like their processes for launching new programs are being hampered by the overly complex nature of their organizational structure. There are perceived risks that need to be managed—financial risks, yes, in launching programs that haven’t been properly vetted or embraced by their potential customers—but more pressingly reputation risks, the idea that the association must protect its reputation by never allowing unsuccessful or half-formed programs out of the gate.

We spent a lot of time talking about the need to design an innovation process—and build an innovation culture—that operated on the exactly opposite principle. That lots of half-formed programs were going to be launched, not to embarrass the organization, but to engage directly with their members in helping to decide which ones were worthy of additional support and development, and which ones should be allowed to suffer an early demise.

Some Board members got really hung up on the issue of failure—a word I deliberately threw out on the table and wanted them to talk about. They thought we were talking about encouraging people to fail. It was great when one of the Board members themselves helped to clarify. No, we’re not encouraging people to fail. We’re encouraging them not to be afraid of failure. Well said.

It was a remarkable experience—one I hope to repeat for other organizations as we continue to define our evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. If there are any Hourglass readers that would like to share their experiences in trying to adopt the principles of innovation, I’d be happy to have the dialogue.

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