Your Choice: Change or Irrelevance

organizational changesOne of my favorite quotes was when Eric Shinseki, then the Army Chief of Staff, now Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, said “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

I love that.

But boy, is it tough for a lot of associations to heed this advice.  Many organizations are well on their way to irrelevance.

If you’re a leader of an organization that feels like it is headed that way, here are a few ideas:

  1. Revamp your Board.   This means dropping the dead wood and looking for some people who will come on the Board and shake things up.  If your Board isn’t future looking, the organization won’t be either.
  2. Look outside your space.   As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane heading to the TED conference.  I went last year, thinking I’d be excited to hear the technologists and organizational gurus.  But here I learned the most was from poets and gardeners.  Sometimes lessons come from unlikely places—open your experiences.
  3. Stop doing something.  You’ll never get to the items on your “to do” list unless you have a “to don’t” list.  Spend some time at your next Board meeting talking about what you can stop.  You make discover it leads to a new beginning.

Missed Connections

Missed connectionsI’m still pretty young (by my own standards).  But I can remember the days of pink “while you were out” slips, calling in for messages from pay phones and (gasp) not having email at work.

And every innovation carries with it the same promise—it will keep us more connected.   In many ways, this is true.   When I sit in a far away hotel room talking to my kids over Facetime (when they actually answer), it’s a remarkable display of the promise of the connected society.

But just like the characters in the recent movie Her (great premise, but too long), the technology that brings us together can also be isolating.  I’m struck by how infrequently the phone rings in my office these days—but I’ll look down at it and find 20-30 text messages.   Of course, that implies that I’ve put it down at all.  Too often my phone is my companion in meetings, conferences or at the dinner table.

So what does any of this have to do with associations?  A lot.   At their essence, associations are about connectedness.  Whether its connecting people or companies, associations are about creating the fabric that weaves people together.  And the same technology that enables our doing so in ways we never imagined can also make us more isolated.

Here are three ideas to prevent this.

First, never forget to talk with—or better yet, meet with—your members.    Nearly twenty years ago, at the Massachusetts Hospital Association, I oversaw the “CEO Visit” program.  Put simply, we made sure our VPs visited every CEO in our membership once per year, in that CEOs office.   It was a simple way to stay connected.  Whether it’s just picking up the phone to talk to someone or making an effort to see them at a conference, it’s well worth it.

Second, adopt “in flight” rules.   When I facilitate a Board meeting, I adopt what I call the “in flight” policy—that is, all Board members must put away and stow all portable electronic devices prior to meeting takeoff.   It’s a sign of respect for those in the room to truly be in the room.  We take breaks, and all rush to our electronics, but while we’re talking, we’re really talking.  It’s remarkable how much you can get done with this simple rule.

Finally, go old school.   I get several hundred emails a day.  And more and more, I get tons of texts from our clients.  But I can count the number of letters I get per month on one hand.  I still get them—and read them—but no one sends them.  Sometimes going old school is the way to reach someone.  I still appreciate a handwritten thank you.  I still write tons of birthday cards.  Don’t forget that connecting with your members may be the cost of a stamp away.

Technology Councils InnovationIn the 1960s, researcher Everett Rogers published a work called
Diffusion of Innovations that aimed to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. Nearly half a century later, his research is still the guiding rule across various industries—including the technology space—for predicting and driving technology adoption strategy. Since standard-setting organizations and technology-focused consortia are largely in the business of developing and promoting the adoption of new technologies, Rogers’ work has some very strong relevance.

At the core of Rogers’ theory is a bell curve, which illustrates the different stages of innovation adoption. The ideology behind that curve is two-fold:

First, it highlights the very real influence that different types of audiences or customers have on one another. For instance, early adopters want to get their hands on new inventions quite soon after they are introduced. They do not, however, want to be first, and thus rely on the so-called “innovators” to take the proverbial test drive and work out some initial kinks. This progression of influencer-to-influenced behavior flows through the curve.

Second, the curve demonstrates that a successful innovation should progress through the entire curve and not get stuck at any particular stage. In other words, a technology that does not diffuse through all of the stages is most likely one that will die.

There is much scholarship that points to a particular place in the curve where innovations tend to hit the greatest point of resistance—the intersection between “early adopters” and the “early majority.” That is, if the “early adopters” haven’t convinced the “early majority” that the technology is worth adopting, it simply won’t diffuse further through the curve. This inflection point is often known as the “innovation cliff” or the “tipping point.”

This cliff, then, is exactly what technical consortia and standards- setting organizations should focus on in their strategic planning. How is the organization going to make sure that its specifications/ technology diffuses through the entire target ecosystem? Here are some points to consider in answering that question:

  • Know the players.  Which players inside or outside the organization are the “innovators” or “early adopters? Don’t just identify them; figure out a way to get them deeply embedded into your organization and its work.
  • Set the cadence.  How long do you have to get over the cliff or the tipping point? You may have the right parties involved to get past the cliff, but you may have the wrong level of urgency behind your work and deliverables.
  • Consider backward design.   What might help the “late adopters” or the “laggards” consider your work sooner? By doing advanced planning for the later stages of diffusion you can avoid having to create solutions in real-time when you get at or near the tipping point.
  • Get feedback early and often. Learning what the “innovators” and “early adopters” like and don’t like can help ensure you make critical adjustments before the “early majority” gets turned away. Also ensure your organization stays nimble enough to implement change against such feedback.
  • Be data-driven. Data and metrics can (and should) tell you where you are within the diffusion model. These metrics should be something the organization studies often. The alternative, of course, is to have no such metrics only to realize too late that your organization is already hanging on the edge of the proverbial cliff.

I’m sitting at 35,000 feet and watching DirectTV typing this while connected to the in-flight email.  There’s a number of minor tech miracles embedded in that sentence. But what inspired me to fire up the blog was a story I saw on NBC news—that today is the 5th anniversary of the App store.

I’m kind of amazed that the ubiquity of apps has come to pass in only five years (and how many pigs I’ve killed with birds in that time).  It inspired me to look up an article to see what we thought the future held back in 2003.   I found a great one on CNN/MoneyWhat’s Hot for 2003 As usual, the tech life is getting better, faster, cheaper–and more confusing.     

If you haven’t yet clicked away and you’re still reading, a few items of note. The article predicts things like wireless home networking doubling to nearly 12 million homes by the end of 2003, and notes the challenge with online web and email use being “Do you really want to be composing e-mail with a numeric keypad or surfing the Web on a tiny screen?”

It’s a reminder of how quickly the market can change. And, of course, this isn’t the first time in history when there has been a short period of rapid change—consider the 1870s, with the advent of the transcontinental railroad, telephone and electricity.

So why does any of this matter to associations?  It underscores how important it is for associations to constantly look the environment to see what’s changing out there. It’s very easy for Board meetings to become focused on the challenge of the day, but every Board needs to take some time to look at what’s changing in the broader environment.

And if you don’t believe me, just look around your Board table at how many people are sitting there typing emails on tiny keypads and tiny screens.  Bottom line:  The world is full of change.  Don’t let your association be surprised.