Thursday, June 11, 2015

Critical Thinking Is Essential to Survival

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There is no doubt that population shifts, generational differences and rapid technology advancements have created a confusing market for trade and professional associations. The result has been much debate over membership growth with a lot of concern about changing organizations to attract “Millennials” as the future. There has also been great speculation about what Millennials want and need, but few examples exist of successful changes implemented.

The Internet has made us accustomed to a flood of information from social media “experts” (no one has heard of) telling us Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, YouTube, Vimeo and any of a dozen other Internet service sites are all you need to be rich and famous. Now there are marketing experts claiming “Millennials” have already changed the world and associations must snap them up or die.

Time has proven that social media is, at best, a tool for most organizations and a fortune only for the self appointed experts who charge for their highly prejudiced advice. And, we are still waiting for Millennials (currently ages 1-14) to change their socks—let alone the world.

The Internet has made critical thinking a lost art. Not disagreeable thinking, but the process of looking closely at what is said, by whom, with what authority, knowledge and practical experience to lend credence to the message. The self-anointed, self-appointed experts with their self-published Internet credentials simply cloud the issues. In this information age, there is a constant stream of new theories on this, and new thoughts on that, and before one is proven another jumps into the public eye before any of it is actually validated.

Unfortunately, organizations are sometimes distracted by a string of new concepts or theories. It is a process we call “bright and shiny objects syndrome.”  Because “new” items shine brightly for a while and are followed by something even more shiny and then another, they distract the organization to repeatedly pursue a different path without completing any, and eventually, nothing worth while is accomplished.

The best defense from bright and shiny objects is taking a critical look at the whole object, its credentials, expertise and practical experience and compare it to what you know is true in your own industry before jettisoning the current path for a new and yet-to-be-proven action by the organization.

Critical thinking requires you look at more than the first step in a new concept. You must project activities beyond to the 3rd and 6th and 8th step before an idea actually becomes a carefully considered plan of action. And if you cannot see where you should be beyond step 1 and 2, you have to question the wisdom of following a road that you don't know doesn't end just after the first bend.

It is always better to vet a source than to regret an action and that requires critical thinking.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


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Most associations, especially trade organizations, got their start by what I call chasing the dragon. Simply put, that means there is (or was) one major threat so challenging to the industry that competitors put aside their differences to come together to fight the great fight for their own preservation. Though dragons may take many forms, they generally emerge from legislative or regulatory issues that industry perceives as a common threat to all — and an association is born.

The benefit of chasing an industry dragon is that it provides a very unique identity for the organization and the 30-second elevator speech on who you are is simple and understandable like, “The Nut and Fastener Association is a group of manufacturers that joined together to keep from being screwed by unreasonable regulations on building, bridge and tower construction.” (See, only 12.5 seconds)

In reality, the issue probably started with a regulation of something that riled the entire industry. As an afterthought, the association broadened its perspective to all unreasonable regulations due to government’s innate inability to understand when they have solved the issue and should stop writing regulations before they cause more problems.

The association continues to develop as progress is made to study, stalk and corner the dragon. Its identity remains intact as long as the primary function that created it remains. As the association progresses in its clearly identified goal to slay the dragon, its membership and programs continue to grow, even as it begins branching out into program areas that do not conform to its original purpose. Over time, pet projects of officers and committee chairs begin to broaden the scope of organizational activities putting more and more stress on financial and human resources. But as long as the dragon remains in view, the purpose of the organization and its public identity remain intact.

While the hunt to slay the dragon has allowed the association to build its identity, stature and influence, one of 3 things must inevitably happen:

1.     The process takes so long that the industry becomes disillusioned with the organization’s efforts and support drains away, or
2.     The market or industry changes over time and the dragon becomes irrelevant in the new conditions, or
3.     The association actually slays the dragon, it is dead, and there is no new dragon to replace it.

Now all those little extra special projects that directors and committee chairs installed over time come home to roost. No affinity programs, purchasing discounts for minor services and similar little fiefdoms that typically garner support from fewer than 20 percent of the membership can generate enough glue to hold the whole organization together. In fact, their care and maintenance become an economic drain and organizational distraction from the life-saving task at hand: finding a new dragon everyone needs (or at least wants) to slay.

Without a new dragon, the organization’s identity of purpose quickly withers. The typical 80 percent of marginally involved members start slipping away. Prospective members don’t see a new purpose or valid identity and refuse to join. And while the Board of Directors desperately keeps trying to do better what it has always done, the ship of state sinks slowly into a sea of red ink and on to non-profit oblivion.

If there is no new dragon around which your industry can or should rally, then your useful time as an organization is passed and you may well be irrelevant — pack it in. But it is extremely rare that there are no new dragons so long as government regulations or unfair trade practices or other circumstances exist that will distort a fair market and prevent a level playing field.

The route to recovery is littered with organizations that were unable, or unwilling, to jettison all but their key programs and search out a new dragon around which they could build a new coalition of members willing to fight. Smart organizations look even harder to find more than one dragon of EQUAL importance.

If your organization is in the tall weeds looking at the ground for scraps to survive, look up at the horizon and the future. Real dragons have wings and they are not on the ground. You just have to know where to look.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Welcome To The Association Center

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2015 marks the 50th year of successful multiple association management and consulting for Executives Consultants Incorporated. Over the past half century, many aspects of nonprofit organization management have changed — some have not. 

We have certainly changed over the years as we have transitioned from first, to second and now into third generation management. In the process, we have observed changes in business, industry and society as they impact trade and professional associations. Perhaps the most significant changes have been:

    1. the speed of market shifts,
    2. the impact of technology, and
    3. changes in generational values.


Speed of Market Shifts:

The typical committee structure of associations is often too slow to respond to the ever increasing pace of business. To serve the needs of its industry, associations must become more proactive in preventing problems or restructure more like private industry for quick response teams to address industry issues.

Impact of Technology:

The Internet and other technology advancements offer great opportunities to improve communications, training and industry action. However, associations are notoriously slow to adopt new technologies and sometimes choose appearance over effectiveness. Another common problem is an association that uses a technologies that exceed the capabilities of their industry to utilize. Technology must be viewed in the full context of creation to utilization to properly serve the association and the industry.

Changes in Generational Values:

Many associations tend to maintain the same leadership systems from their inception that may no longer be appropriate in today's markets. Each generation of industry managers faces changes in education, market realities and personal work/social/family priorities that must be recognized in order to keep relavent for future members. Targeting the right group of decision makers' attitudes can be a significant challenge for existing leadership looking to assure the organization's future.

These are but a few of the common challenges associations face, and will continue to face, over the past (and next) 50 years. Some have dealt with change better than others.

Solutions to every challenge can be found if the basic purpose for the organization's creation still exists. It is simply a matter of realistically sorting the key functions the organization performs from the distractions that often build over time and then focusing on that key function as a path to the future.

Above all, it is essential to remind ourselves that trade associations are first, and always, a business subject to all the requirements for success that every business faces today. This blog is dedicated to helping organizations make the most of their future business opportunities and we invite our readers to follow along as we venture down the road for the future of nonprofit organizations.