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.

Image source

Post title refers to this. Go watch it.


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