Monday, October 31, 2011

Race for Relevance is a Negotiating Position

At the end of this year I will no longer be posting here at The Hourglass Blog. To see my reasons why click here.

To keep following me on my new blog, go here. A new post, "Race for Relevance is a Negotiating Position," has just gone up there.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Innovation is Hard

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Note: At the end of this year I will no longer be posting here at The Hourglass Blog. To see my reasons why click here. To keep following me on my new blog, go here.

A little over a month ago I attended WSAE's National Summit on Innovation for Associations. As chair of WSAE's Innovation Task Force, I was instrumental in helping to frame WSAE's annual conference around the subject of innovation, and was even recognized as the chair of the conference itself. We had more than a hundred association and related industry professionals attend (a fantastic turnout for WSAE) and, true to the implied promise of the conference title, we drew attendees in from across the national scene.

The first day of the summit was facilitated by Jeff De Cagna, and its focus was on building new capacities for innovation within the association community. We weren't talking directly about making your own association more innovative (that would get more attention on day two). We were instead talking about how association professionals, the associations they worked for, and the industry partners they collaborated with could pool their ideas and organizational resources together to create new competencies and structures that would facilitate innovation in our community.

Jeff did a great job. He adeptly focused our attention on forming new peer networks for innovation. We identified a handful of common areas as ripe for innovation, self-selected ourselves into smaller working groups around those areas, and spent some time talking about what we could do to help each other move forward.

The group I was in focused on co-creation of programs and participatory decision-making--essentially having staff work hand-in-hand and continuously with members throughout the process of identifying, developing and delivering new programs and services. I was attracted to the topic because I think it's one of the areas my own association needs to improve upon. I see it as key to engaging with the next generation of members and to keeping pace with a quickly changing environment.

There were seven of us around the table and we had a great discussion. At the end of it, we made the following commitment:

Each of us will commit to a specific objective in our own organization that increases our use of co-creation or participatory decision-making in program development of strategy setting. We will then:
1. Share those objectives with one another;
2. Communicate regularly with one another to report progress, share ideas, and hold each other accountable; and
3. Develop a report on our experiences to share with the broader association community.

I can't speak for the other participants, but I left the discussion fired up and ready to tackle a new challenge. I even announced to my staff upon my return from the summit that I had participated in such a discussion, had made such a commitment, and would be working with a peer group in the weeks and months ahead to bring new ideas and practices into our association.

Then, a month went by. We had a board meeting to prepare for, a conference to plan, a newsletter to get out, a website to redesign, staffing issues to deal with. And nothing even remotely related to the commitment I had made happened.

Fortunately, one of the other members of my peer group followed up on a specific commitment she had made: polling everyone and setting up a conference call so that we could all communicate to each other the specific objectives we had set for bringing more co-creation or participatory decision-making to our associations. Last week, that call took place. Only two people from the original group were on it. Me and her.

We bemoaned the fact that so many others had dropped away, but we honestly couldn't blame them. We had almost fallen away ourselves, succumbing instead to the very real and very pressing demands of the day-to-day. But we wanted to keep the spirit we had both felt at the summit alive. Even if it is just the two of us, there was value in stepping away from the deadlines that seem to control us and spend a few moments talking about what comes next--not for the projects we're working on, but for the frame within which those projects take place.

And in that one hour I spent on the phone with her--one hour out of a month crammed with staff meetings, conference calls, and project planning activities--I came up with three good ideas for ways to bring more co-creation and participatory decision-making to my association. I've started bouncing them of off members of my staff and the response has been positive. They can see the strategy behind the tactics, and they can see the value to them and the association to find ways to get them done.

This is what makes innovation so hard. It requires us to do something different. Something, initially, that has no support and no one has time for and which will never have any evidence that it will work. We have to step away from what we do at the day-to-day level, and we have to look and respond to the unrealized future we can't define but which we know is coming.

How are you going to do that? How are you going to get that done while keeping all the other balls you're juggling in the air? What if the answer was a one hour phone call every month with a peer who is juggling the same balls and who has the same desire to look beyond and change the way things are done? Would you be able to find time for that?

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Chief Detail Officer

Note: At the end of this year I will no longer be posting here at The Hourglass Blog. To see my reasons why click here. To keep following me on my new blog, go here.

Here's a TED talk worth watching. It's from April 2010, but the point it makes is timeless, even if the Tiger Woods jokes aren't.

Rory Sutherland persuasively makes the case that organizations don't spend enough time working on the small stuff. That, in fact, there is a bias in most organizations that big problems have to be met with big solutions--solutions that have to be conceptualized by powerful people and executed with lots and lots of money.

Sutherland doesn't claim that approach won't work in some situations, but he comes out stridently for a different approach, embodied by something he calls the Chief Detail Officer, the CDO. This isn't the person responsible for coordinating all the details. It is the person responsible for finding small things that cost little that have tremendous impact and making sure they are done right and consistently.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, jump to just after the ten-minute mark and listen to him talk through the four quadrant diagram he's created to illustrate his point. Here's my approximation of it:
There's a question mark in the lower right quadrant, the one representing the things that have a big impact but which don't cost a lot money, because, as Sutherland says, we don't currently have a word for those kinds of things. And if we did, he says, maybe we'd spend a little more time looking for them.

It really resonates with me, because I've seen these nameless things in action. Here's a quick story.

I've been in association management for 18 years now. I started as a meeting planner. I've coordinated educational sessions for 60 and city-wide conventions for 6,000. I've stuffed more cardstock name badges into plastic badge holders than I care to mention. And I've worn them for years, usually flapping around uselessly on the end of a lanyard.

The first conference I went to with my current association, the staff showed me a trick they've been doing for years. I'd never seen anything like it before. They printed their name badges on both sides of the piece of cardstock. Why? So that whichever way the darn thing flopped against someone, their name would be clear for everyone to see.

And at that first meeting one of the Board members told me a story about how that little technique had helped them secure a business deal because it spared them the embarrassment of having forgotten someone's name.

Sutherland may not have a name for these ideas, these things that cost next to nothing but have an impact all out of proportion with their expense, but if a name is what it takes to focus more on them, we ought to come up with one pretty soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Help the Customer Succeed

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Note: At the end of this year I will no longer be posting here at The Hourglass Blog. To see my reasons why click here. To keep following me on my new blog, go here.

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One of the best parts of my job is getting out and visiting my members where they live and work. We are a trade association, so my members own or manage businesses, and most of their businesses are manufacturing companies. And like a lot of manufacturing companies, they operate very close to the margin, using a variety of human and mechanical systems to strip inefficiencies and wasteful practices out of the process of making the product and shipping it to the customer.

I'm always impressed by the complexity of these operations. Just-in-time, Lean, Kaizen--these are all part and parcel of what my members do. But what I find even more fascinating is the role than human beings play in these systems, and the motivational tactics my members employ to focus all of their attention on the goal at hand.

When you take the factory tour, you'll see signs and posters hung in various places; snappy slogans to remind people where to focus their attention. Some are authoritarian, like "Keep this area clear." Others seem more benevolent, recognizing the primacy of the human over the machine, like "Safety is our first priority." Others are empowering, conveying a sense of authority and accountability, like "See something wrong? Fix it."

But the best one I've seen?

"Help the customer succeed."

If you were to boil innovation down to four simple words, I think this is about as close as you can get to getting it right. And I think what I find so appealing about it is that it only works in an environment where everyone, from the plant manager to the sales person to the line worker, knows who the customer is and what it is they're trying to achieve. I'm sure that's not an accurate description of every manufacturing operation, but it probably describes a good many of the most successful ones. I've had personal experiences, walking as a guest through a manufacturing facility, and stopping a person in the middle of some assembly function to hear them describe exactly what they are doing on how it benefits the customer.

Now, think about the world of associations. How many association staffers really know who their customers are and what they need to succeed in their environments? How many could accurately respond if you stopped them in the middle of one of their daily tasks and asked them how what they're doing is benefiting their members?

Over lunch with a colleague the other day I opined that most association professionals, assuming they don't come from the industry or profession their association represents, probably only understand about 10% of their members' environment. They understand their own environment, that of association programs and services, but how those programs and services can be best positioned to solve the challenges their members face--that takes an unusual amount of insight and a willingness to learn what those challenges actually are.

"Help the customer succeed" is more than just a slogan. It is a way of thinking about your association, your role in it, and the things with which you fill your time. Like most directives, simply hanging up a sign is going to change very little. But if you accept the underlying concept--that you must first understand what the member is trying to achieve before you can help them get there--then a great many changes may start happening.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Giant Hairball of Complexity

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Note: At the end of this year I will no longer be posting here at The Hourglass Blog. To see my reasons why click here. To keep following me on my new blog, go here.

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If you're like me, you're fascinated by all the coverage Netflix is getting lately. Normally when there's a kerfuffle at one of the anointed tech companies, I have a hard time paying attention. Latest iPhone prototype "accidently" left in a bar somewhere? Publicity stunt. Facebook changing everything again? Good. Maybe now it will start making sense to me.

But with Netflix it's different. I use Netflix. I love Netflix. I suppose Netflix is to me what Apple is to so many iPad and iTunes users, except with Netflix I've never felt like I was surreptitiousness playing with the cool kids' toys while they weren't looking. My Netflix Queue is mine, and through it I can be whatever I want to be.

So when Netflix raised its prices 60% and then decided to split its DVD delivery service off from its video streaming service, you would've thought I would have had a strong negative reaction. Like so many others. But I have to be honest. My reaction in both cases was: What? Oh, okay. I can handle that. I mean, I was way more upset when they took away the ability to manage multiple queues. Remember that?

What fascinates me about the latest Netflix controversy is not the rebellion it has created among Netflix users, or the company's efforts to better communicate with and placate its customers. What fascinates me is what it might be saying about vision and leadership.

I've read a lot of opinion pieces on the situation. But here's the best one so far, written by Adam Richardson of frog design. In it, he credits Netflix for quite obviously looking at an endgame 5-10 years into the future. He quotes Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as saying:

"For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dial-up or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly."

And to illustrate the point, Richardson includes a graphic he drew five years ago, a tongue-in-cheek "timeline" of pivot points for a frog design client in the TV business:

Richardson says:

Half-jokingly it made the point that there is a giant hairball of complexity, consolidation and confusion that the industry is going to have to go through, but if you can survive that, the obvious end state will be that any piece of media will be available whenever an individual wants, wherever they are, on any device they like.

Which leads me to my own thought-provoking questions about the organization I lead and the challenges I'm facing on a daily basis. How much of what I'm doing, I wonder, is focused on my own giant hairball of complexity, and how much is focused on the endgame that will inevitably present itself when all those kinks are worked out?

Pick your industry or profession. There are trends obvious for all to see. Generational change, social networking, for-profit competition--these are some of the changes that are impacting every association. There are others, and some are unique to individual environments, but whatever they are, right now they seem all tangled up into a giant hairball and, as a result, some of us are busy trying to pick that hairball apart and straighten out all the threads in a way that makes sense for our own organization.

Stop. Rather, keep your eyes on the far end of Richardson's chart--the endgame that is obvious to any intelligent person that looks at the situation. For Netflix, that endgame is "any video content in history available anytime, on any device," and that's what Reed Hastings is playing for. He needs to keep current subscribers happy, yes, but not at the expense of not being positioned for the subscribers of that future end state.

How is your organization any different?