Monday, December 15, 2014

They'll Remember That You Let Them Down

Everyone should read this great post from Seth Godin, The Tragedy of the Last 10%. In it, Seth describes how increasing market share and profitability can come when a company lowers the price of its product by 10%. Sometimes, the same thing happens when the company can re-engineer its cost structure so it can subsequently lower its price by a second, or even third 10%. But eventually, there comes a last 10% that requires the company to cut safety, quality or reliability. When that happens, the lower price no longer matters. Because the customer won't remember how cheap they were. They'll remember that the company let them down.

It spoke powerfully to me, because I see the same dynamic happening in the association world. As desperate as our associations sometimes are to spur greater engagement with our members, we sometimes decide to start lowering the price of our products or services in order to get more people engaged with them. And as Seth describes, that can sometimes work. But in my experience, many associations don't have huge profit margins, so the idea of cutting one, two or three "ten percents" isn't realistic. Almost from the first 10%, the association begins to cut into the resources that are needed to ensure the quality that their members expect.

That results in a vicious cycle of dwindling returns. Lowering the price lowers the value the members receive. As a result, fewer members engage with the product or service. And those that stop utilizing it remember, as Seth says, not how cheap the price was, but how shoddy the quality was. They become less likely to engage with the association in other areas. That lowers revenue to the association even more, and the association may need to make additional cuts that compromise the value of what they provide. And the cycle simply repeats--potentially feeding on itself until there is no association left to speak of.

I'm by no means a pricing expert, but the better strategy, I think, is to do what many associations actually do very well--deliver value and price it at a level that will support its on-going development. It can be a difficult platform to switch to if you're not already on it, but strategic investments in increasing quality--even if they are coupled with increasing prices, can set-up a different kind of cycle--one that actually does lead to higher member engagement and satisfaction.

A quality product, fairly-priced, will attract a loyal user base. And once established, on-going communication with that user base, describing the things you're doing to add even more value to the product they like will prepare them for whatever price increases are necessary for delivering the higher quality.

And even if they don't buy in, they won't be left with the memory that the association let them down. They'll remember that you tried to better meet their needs.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m not exactly sure why.

It’s hard, reading books like these, years after they were published, long after the ground they first broke has been trod so many times that it’s no longer clear what the fuss was all about.

It was revolutionary, evidently, in 1931, to depict Chinese people as people—as human beings with hopes and desires and a culture all their own—and to tell one of their stories from their own point of view. For this is what The Good Earth does, and to a modern reader, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. They don’t know who Jesus is, and they treat women like slaves and concubines, but they are people and their drama is our drama because we’re people, too, even if our culture has taught us different values. The Good Earth is unapologetic about its Chinese perspective. It is, in fact, a Chinese novel, written by a woman who had spent her entire life there.

And it is aptly named, for the goodness of the earth is the primary metaphor that drives all of its action. Wang Lung is a farmer who seeks to acquire ever-increasing amounts of land, and he and his family are rewarded with rich bounty as a result—a bounty initially reflected in the life-giving milk his first wife, O-lan, offers to their first son.

But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child, milk as white as snow, and when the child suckled at one breast it flowed like a fountain from the other, and she let it flow. There was more than enough for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child was fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.

But the earth—like the god it metaphorically represents—is fickle, and in times of drought it has no bounty for Wang Lung and the other farmers, and they are forced to go work in the city, living in shanties constructed against the exterior wall of a rich man’s house. The city is a place where wickedness and temptation reign, a place that beguiles men, and therefore the perfect place for the stout of heart like Wang Lung to struggle in order to keep themselves pure.

Most of these ragged men had nothing beyond what they took in the day’s labor and begging, and he was always conscious that he was not truly one of them. He owned land and his land was waiting for him. These others thought of how they might tomorrow eat a bit of fish, or of how they might idle a bit, and even how they might gamble a little, a penny or two, since their days were alike all evil and filled with want and a man must play sometimes, though desperate.

But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house. He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest. He listened, therefore, apart from the others, because hidden in his heart was the knowledge of the possession of his land, the good wheat land of his fathers, and the strip of rich rice land which he had bought from the great house.

They talked, these men, always and forever of money; of what pence they had paid for a small fish as long as a man’s finger, or of what they could earn in a day, and always at last of what they would do if they had the money which the man over the wall had in his coffers. Every day the talk ended with this:

“And if I had the gold that he has and the silver in my hand that he wears every day in his girdle and if I had the pearls his concubines wear and the rubies his wife wears…”

And listening to all the things they would do if they had these things, Wang Lung heard only of how much they would eat and sleep, and of what dainties they would eat that they had never yet tasted, and of how they would gamble in this great tea shop and in that, and of what pretty women they would buy for their lust, and above all, how none would ever work again, even as the rich man behind the wall never worked.

Then Wang Lung cried out suddenly,

“If I had the gold and silver and the jewels, I would buy land with it, good land, and I would bring forth harvests from the land!”

It’s a lesson that is reinforced again and again for Wang Lung. One of the ways he is able to buy so much land is that an old Lord who lives in the city had fallen on bad times and needed to sell off his assets in order to stay solvent.

And the more he mused the more monstrous it seemed that the great and rich family, who all his own life and all his father’s and grandfather’s lives long had been a power and a glory in the town, were now fallen and scattered.

“It comes of their leaving the land,” he thought regretfully, and he thought of his own two sons, who were growing like young bamboo shoots in the spring, and he resolved that on this very day he would make them cease playing in the sunshine and he would set them to tasks in the field, where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands.

When the land floods and Wang Lung is not able to tend it for a long period of time, he starts spending time in town again, falling in love with a high-priced prostitute. He dotes on her to distraction, until he eventually buys her outright, and brings her home with him, building private courtyards and accommodations for her and her servant. She possesses all of his attention until she ridicules his feebleminded daughter—Wang Lung’s “poor fool”—and he suddenly snaps out of his stupor just as the water finally recedes from the land.

There came a day when summer was ended and the sky in the early morning was clear and cold and blue as sea water and a clean autumn wind blew hard over the land, and Wang Lung woke as from a sleep. He went to the door of his house and he looked over his fields. And he saw that the waters had receded and the land lay shining under the dry cold wind and under the ardent sun.

Then a voice cried out in him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land. And he heard it above every other voice in his life and he tore off the long robe he wore and he stripped off his velvet shoes and his white stockings and he rolled his trousers to his knees and he stood forth robust and eager and he shouted,

“Where is the hoe and where the plow? And where is the seed for the wheat planting? Come, Ching, my friend—come—call the men—I go out to the land!”

Wang Lung’s poor fool is another very interesting part of the novel’s subtext. The introduction to the edition I read describes her as a nameless child, who serves throughout the novel as a symbol of humanity’s essential helplessness, and her few and scattered scenes are all the more poignant when read with that interpretation. Here Buck describes her ignorance of her mother’s impending death.

Only the poor fool knew nothing, and only she smiled and twisted her bit of cloth as she smiled. Yet one had to think of her to bring her in to sleep at night and to feed her and to set her in the sun in the day and to lead her in if it rained. All this one of them had to remember. But even Wang Lung himself forgot, and once they left her outside through a whole night, and the next morning the poor wretch was shivering and crying in the early dawn, and Wang Lung was angry and cursed his son and daughter that they had forgotten the poor fool who was their sister. Then he saw that they were but children trying to take their mother’s place and not able to do it, and he forebore and after that he saw to the poor fool himself night and morning. If it rained or snowed or a bitter wind blew he led her in and he let her sit among the warm ashes that dropped from the kitchen stove.

We are all helpless like this, in our own way—the men in the city as distracted by their baubles and their women as Wang Lung’s poor fool is with her bit of cloth. But Wang Lung has something to save him from this helplessness. Wang Lung has his land.

Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace. And as if to cure him of the root of his ceaseless thought of his own troubles, there came out of the south one day a small slight cloud. At first it hung on the horizon small and smooth as mist, except it did not come hither and thither as clouds blown by the wind do, but it stood steady until it spread fanwise up into the air.

The men of the village watched it and talked of it and fear hung over them, for what they feared was this, that locusts had come out of the south to devour what was planted in the fields. Wang Lung stood there also, and he watched, and they gazed and at last a wind blew something to their feet, and one stooped hastily and picked it up and it was a dead locust, dead and lighter than the living hosts behind.

Then Wang Lung forgot everything that troubled him. Women and sons and uncle, he forgot them all, and he rushed among the frightened villagers, and he shouted at them,

“Now for our good land we will fight these enemies from the skies!”

But there were some who shook their heads, hopeless from the start, and these said,

“No, and there is no use in anything. Heaven has ordained that this year we shall starve, and why should we waste ourselves in struggle against it, seeing that in the end we must starve?”

And women went weeping to the town to buy incense to thrust before the earth gods in the little temple, and some went to the big temple in the town, where the gods of heaven were, and thus earth and heaven were worshipped.

But still the locusts spread up into the air and on over the land.

Then Wang Lung called his own laborers and Ching stood silent and ready beside him and there were others of the younger farmers, and with their own hands these set fire to certain fields and they burned the good wheat that stood almost ripe for cutting and they dug wide moats and ran water into them from the wells, and they worked without sleeping. O-lan brought them food and the women brought their men food, and the men ate standing in the field, gulping it down as beasts do, as they worked night and day.

Then the sky grew black and the air was filled with the deep still roar of many wings beating against each other, and upon the land the locusts fell, flying over this field and leaving it whole, and falling upon that field, and eating it as bare as winter. And men sighed and said “So Heaven wills,” but Wang Lung was furious and he beat the locusts and trampled on them and his men flailed them with flails and the locusts fell into the fires that were kindled and they floated dead upon the waters of the moats that were dug. And many millions of them died, but to those that were left it was nothing.

Nevertheless, for all his fighting Wang Lung had this as his reward: the best of his fields were spared and when the cloud moved on and they could rest themselves, there was still wheat that he could reap and his young rice beds were spared and he was content. Then many of the people ate the roasted bodies of the locusts, but Wang Lung himself would not eat them, for to him they were a filthy thing because of what they had done to his land. But he said nothing when O-lan fried them in oil and when the laborers crunched them between their teeth and the children pulled them apart delicately and tasted them, afraid of their great eyes. But as for himself he would not eat.

Nevertheless, the locusts did this for him. For seven days he thought of nothing but his land, and he was healed of his troubles and his fears…

Wang Lung’s god of the land is not one to reward the idle. To earn his bounty one must press his nose to the grindstone as Wang Lung does, struggling every minute of every day to wrest from him his blessings. But the bounty one receives is great indeed—peace, and the ability to face one’s troubles with equanimity.

This spirit of Wang Lung’s is evidently symbolic of the old China that was passing away at the time Buck wrote the story, and the final message of the novel is clear that this fealty to the land will not long survive in China. For Wang Lung’s sons, despite all his efforts to focus them, see no value in the land that their father has spent so much time and money acquiring, and the book ends with them whispering over Wang Lung’s befuddled and elderly head about their plans to sell it as soon as Wang Lung has passed on.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe it did deserve to win the Pulitzer.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 8, 2014

Opposing Views Are Allowed to Co-Exist

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. It was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's the last one.

When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that opposing views are allowed to co-exist in the room.

I'll admit it. When I first heard this advice, my immediate reaction was that it should be added to the list of ground rules for our staff meetings. We're a passionate group of people, and things can sometimes get sidetracked if we forget that not every discussion is an argument that needs to be won.

But the lesson also clearly applies to facilitating a meeting of members. When arguments erupt around a board table or in the committee meeting room, it's important to take a step back and reflect on whether the subject of the debate is actually material to the matter at hand.

It often isn't, in my experience. And there aren't many things worse for group productivity than chasing a bunch of stray rabbits down their holes.

But even when the disagreement is over something material, it remains important to take a second step back and reflect on whether it is a matter of perception.

Like the guys in the picture accompanying this post, I often see people arguing over their different perceptions of the same object. These disputes cannot be resolved, because there is no one right answer. Both parties are, in fact, right, and allowing an argument to continue in such a situation is worse than chasing rabbits down holes. In these situations, you're just chasing rabbits, because there are no holes.

More importantly, when arguments over perception are allowed to predominate, you risk rejecting the innovation and creativity benefits that come from allowing alternate perspectives to tackle the same problem. Fighting to determine who's right misses the main point. Solutions, after all, doesn't come when someone wins an argument. Solutions come when people who view a problem differently agree on a path forward..

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image source

Monday, December 1, 2014

Seeing Through Their Lenses

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. It was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of members, be aware of the unique mix of perspectives (or “lenses”) that participants use to make sense of the world around them.

We all have them. To help illustrate this point at the workshop, I was asked to reflect on my own way of viewing the world and to record some of the lenses that I look through that color my interpretation of things compared to someone with a different set of lenses. In doing so, I came to realize that I had three kinds of lenses.

First were the ones that were readily apparent to myself and to those around me. I'm male. I'm a CEO. I'm going to look at problems (and their potential solutions) differently than people who don't have these lenses, and that's going to be obvious to me and everyone around me. Your members have these kind of lenses, too, and you and they both know what they are. Sometimes they align with their membership type, or with their level of experience. The point is, every interaction they have with your association is going to be viewed through these lenses, and it's going to be fairly simple for you to predict and plan for them.

Second were the ones that weren't obvious, but which revealed themselves to me as I took a step outside of myself and reflected on some of the assumptions that I make about the world around me. I'm a parent. I'm an introvert. I'm a midwesterner. These are just as real as the first kind, but they lurk just below the surface of my conscious thoughts. They definitely affect the way I view things, especially compared to others that don't possess them or that possess conflicting lenses. Your members have these kind of lenses, too, and unless they are especially contemplative, they are probably just as unthinking about them as I am about mine.

And third were the ones--as yet still unidentified--that surely exist, but which are so ingrained into my way of thinking, that they will remain unconscious no matter how hard I try to expose them. Maybe you can tell me what these lenses are. Or maybe, since they form the foundational edifice of thinking, it would be better for both of us if you simply noted them for yourself and didn't challenge me on them. Especially if I'm your member and you want to engage me in some volunteer task, it may not be productive to give me the impression that you're psycho-analyzing me.

The larger point is that these lenses exist, some are more apparent than others, and they can all either impede and promote progress in a group situation.

One interesting exercise to try at your next meeting of members is to raise this topic of lenses, and rather than ask people to identify their complete laundry list (which may cause some discomfort), work to ensure that everyone acknowledges their presence, and to disclose only those that they feel may help the group complete their assigned task. I'm I marketing professional by trade, someone might say by way of example, so I'm going to be looking for member value at every turn of our discussion. Or, I specialize in conflict resolution, so I'm going to step in if we seem to be going off track.

This could both increase everyone's awareness of the often-times unstated and conflicting premises that exist in any group of people, and help each individual more consciously apply their areas of strength while accepting the areas of strength that others bring to the table.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image source

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Budding Prospects by T. C. Boyle

Why do I like reading Boyle? One big reason is chapters that start like this…

Grim, silent, dehydrated and disappointed, hemmed in by eight bags of clean laundry, miscellaneous groceries and three coolers of ice, we passed under the great arching portals of the Golden Gate Bridge, skirted Sausalito and plunged into the blistering hellish heat of Route 101 North. We had six dollars left--for gas--the ravaged exhaust system screamed like a kamikaze coming in for the kill, and a cordon of semis--STAY BACK; DON’T TREAD ON ME; PETROCHEM LTD.--spewed diesel fumes in our faces. Gesh lit a cigarette. I flicked on the radio and got fire and brimstone, static, and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails.” We were on our way back to bondage.

The previous day--the Fourth--we’d awakened sometime after noon to a barrage of cherry bombs and the tat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Startled from concupiscent dreams, I thought at first that war had broken out, made the groping but inescapable connection between the hiss of Roman candles and the birth of the Republic, and then snatched desperately for the glass of water standing on the night table. If I could just manage to reach that glass, there was a chance I might survive; if not, I was doomed. Sun tore through the curtains like an avenging sword, the sky was sick with smog and the stink of sulfur hung on the air. Straining, my fingers trembling with alcoholic dyscrasia, monkeys shrieking and war drums thumping in my head, I managed to make contact with and knock over the glass, and I lay there gasping like some sea creature carried in with the tide and left to the merciless sun and the sharp probing beaks of the gulls. My eyes failed at that point and I dozed (dreams of staggering across the Atacama Desert, ears and nostrils full of sand, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth), until I was jolted awake again by the next concussive report. There was nothing for it but to get up and drink a quart of orange juice and six cups of coffee.

His prose is a tour de force. Terse, but abundant and rich. Like sharp sausage; meat, spices, and everything packed into a small casing, biting and flavorful at the same time. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is about, it is just a delight to savor.

But this time the story is good as well. Our narrator is Felix Nasmyth, a kind of everyman chasing a kind of everyman’s get-rich-quick scheme; this one based on the growth and harvest of illegal marijuana plants. Two thousand marijuana plants, grown in secret out in the California woods, each producing half a pound of marijuana at sixteen hundred dollars per pound. One point six million split just as many ways as people are needed to make it happen.

But like all get-rich-quick schemes, this one is a lot harder than it sounds. Difficulties abound. No rain, then too much rain. Animals and pests. Confusion over male plants and female plants and which are the ones that bud. Nosy neighbors, back-country hicks, and law enforcement authorities. With each new challenge, their projected harvest goes down, and their calculated profits keep going down with it.

At one point, Felix’s conspirators threaten to quit and leave their secret camp. And as he wonders if they will be back, Felix realizes…

They needed this thing as badly as I did--if it failed, after all the hope and sweat and toil we’d invested in it, then the society itself was bankrupt, the pioneers a fraud, true grit, enterprise and daring as vestigial as adenoids or appendixes. We believed in Ragged Dick, P. T. Barnum, Diamond Jim Brady, in Andrew Carnegie, D. B. Cooper, Jackie Robinson. In the classless society, upward mobility, the law of the jungle. We’d seen all the movies, read all the books. We never doubted that we would make it, that one day we would be the fat cats in the mansion on the hill. Never. Not for a moment. After all, what else was there?

What else indeed? This short reflection, and many others like it throughout the text, is key to understanding this novel. It is an entertaining story, but it is also a commentary on the capitalist myths that permeate the American collective unconsciousness. Felix and his crew get so wrapped up in them--so seduced by their promised but ever-elusive riches--that they drive themselves to ever more ridiculous extremes, desperate to protect the snake oil dream that’s been sold to them.

Felix is only able to create some distance, to gain some perspective, when he meets and falls in love with a local sculptress named Petra. Only in telling her about their misadventures does he begin to see how pathetic they are and how impossible their quest.

What could I say? We were losers, schmucks, first-class boneheads. We weren’t paying off politicians or reconnoitering the skies--we were too busy dodging our own shadows and setting fire to storage sheds. Chastened, I dropped any pretense of coming on like the macho dope king and gave her the story straight. I described rampant paranoia, xenophobia, self-enforced isolation. I told her of sleepless nights, panic at the first sputter of an internal-combustion engine, suspicion that ate like acid at the fabric of quotidian existence. I told her how Vogelsang appeared and disappeared like a wood sprite, how Phil slept with his sneakers on, how Dowst would insist that we change the hundred-dollar bills he gave us for supplies before we bought groceries, on the theory that only dope farmers would flash a hundred-dollar bill in the checkout lane. She was laughing. So was I. It was a comedy, this tale I was telling her, slapstick. We were ridiculous, we were cranks, sots, quixotic dreamers--Ponce de Leon, Percival Lowell and Donald Duck all rolled in one. When I told her everything--the whole sad laughable tale--she’d said “Poor Felix,” and patted my hand again. Then she’d asked if I wanted more Postum.

And then, the release. The realization that the dream he had been sold--the one he had actually fought to buy--was false, fake and destructive.

Now, as I watched her at the stove, the first splash of sun ripening the window and firing the kimono with color, I felt at peace for the first time in months. Annealed by the fire, shriven by confession, I rolled the cup in my clumsy hands and felt like Saint Anthony emerging from the tomb. I’d revealed my festering secret and nothing had happened. Petra hadn’t run howling from the room or telephoned the police, the DEA hadn’t burst in and demanded my surrender, the stars were still in their firmament and the seas lapped the shores. No big thing, she’d said. She was right. For the moment at least I’d been able to put things in perspective, separate myself from the grip of events, see the absurdity of what we’d come to.

This is not just the true power of confession, but as Boyle so wonderfully puts it next, the power of good storytelling.

If the best stories--or the funniest, at any rate--derive from suffering recollected in tranquility then this was hilarious. In telling it, I’d defused it, neutralized the misery through retrospection, made light of the woe. My trip to Belize? Oh, yes, I lost eight layers of skin to sunburn while snorkeling off the barrier reef, turned yellow from jaundice, got mugged outside the courthouse and couldn’t get a grip on my bowels for a month. Ha-ha-ha.

After this encounter, the rest of the novel finds Felix wavering between the twin pole stars of his idealized consciousness--the get-rich-quick scheme of the marijuana plantation and the almost archetypal love, home and hearth that Petra represents. He desperately wants and pursues both, but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that can only lead to him having neither. Indeed, on the novel’s last page, when this sorry fate has befallen him and he has to decide which direction to move with whatever remaining vigor he can muster, he fairly well summarizes the morale of the tale Boyle has told.

I don’t know how long I sat in the car. Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? The wind drove in off the ocean, steady as a hand, the moon lay across the hood of the car like a cheap bauble. I was thinking. Of chinless Rudy, of Jones, Vogelsang and Savoy, all the stingers and stingees of the world, all the best deals, the scams and the hustles, and I realized how precious little it all mattered. Go for it, they said, get it while you can, early to bed and early to rise. Well, I’d gone for it and now I was out of work, out of money and out of luck. I had a trial coming up and no place to live, and I felt like an emotional invalid, like a balloon without the helium. I sat there, getting cold, and I thought of Phil and Gesh back in the apartment clipping away at the shreds of their yachts and restaurants with scissors that grew duller by the moment. Money, give me money. Then I thought of Petra. No, I saw Petra. Her hands, sunk in the raw clay, kneading it like bread, molding it, pulling the hard, lasting stuff from its shifting, shapeless core. Wet, yielding, fecund: I could smell the clay, I could feel it.

Love, if not conquering all, is at least the better gamble to stake your claim on.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 24, 2014

Learning and Growth

I've been writing about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. And it's probably time I mentioned that it was organized and led by Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of members, remember that learning and growth result from the appropriate mix of challenge and support.

Many of the volunteer groups that associations bring together represent not just mechanisms for accomplishing the work of the association, they also represent opportunities for learning and growth for the participants. In my own association, we intentionally emphasize this aspect of our committee and task force work, using the learning and growth opportunities as a specific recruiting tool.

As such, we have to think and act more intentionally about this aspect of the encounter. A certain amount of organic networking and peer education will take place during any kind of committee work, but there are ways to increase the growth potential of the activity for the participants.

As the workshop helped me realize, the conscious alignment of group and task so that participants are professionally challenged by the work put before them, but provided with the support they need to be successful, creates just the kind of learning and growth environment we're looking for.

Create an unchallenging task and you risk having your volunteers drift away or phone it in. They question why they're being asked to do something so simple or tactical. Isnt this what we have association staff for? Create a challenging task but provide no support and you risk having your volunteers give up. They'll realize they don't have the time or the resources needed to do the job and they'll simply bow out. How do they expect me to do this? Don't they realize I have a day job?

The sometimes difficult balance to strike is a challenging task with the support needed to accomplish it. We need to stretch our volunteers enough so that they engage productively with the work we need them to do, but we also need to provide them with the right amount of intelligence, tools, and logistical support so they can see clearly a path that leads to success.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image source

Monday, November 17, 2014

Breaking the Ice

image source
Last week I wrote about a facilitation workshop I recently attended--a workshop to learn how to be a better facilitator and how to teach others to do the same. I got a lot of takeaways that are relevant to the work I and my staff do with our association's Board, committees, and task forces. Here's another.

When facilitating a meeting of association members, think about what “ice” needs to be broken.

I don't mean one of those silly ice breaker exercises--like going around the room and having everyone say which Wizard of Oz character they are most like and why. No, those just make people uncomfortable and perhaps makes them question the competence of the facilitator.

Rather, given the work that needs to be done, the people gathered to do it, and the time available to get it done, what initial task should be performed in order to ensure that the group can knit together as a team and focus most effectively on the task at hand.

This is something that is often overlooked. As a volunteer, I, myself, have been in situations where we have been plunged into a task by an association staff person without taking the time to make sure that everyone knew each other and understood what we were there to do. The result? A lot of time wasted as people held back, not knowing what or how much to contribute in the presence or strangers, and then, a lot of fumbling around as the group tried to solve a problem that hadn't been clearly defined for them.

It is well worth the extra time and preparation it takes to address this issue up front; to "break the ice" so that the balance of the time reserved for the interaction can be used most productively. While I was at the workshop, I thought about three possible applications in my own association.

Staff Meetings. Here everyone knows each other, so there's no real need for introductions or for social time. What is sometimes missing, however, is a clear understanding of the intended output of the meeting. Is this a general update on staff activities or a discussion focused on solving a particular problem or making a particular decision? And if the latter, who's going to make that decision? Are we looking for consensus on something, or are we feeding information and opinions into a central decision-maker who will make the final call? This is the kind of ice that needs breaking but almost never is.

Strategic Task Force Meetings. These are the task forces of our Board I wrote about a few posts ago, where Board and non-Board members come together to focus on particular elements of our strategic plan, trying to define what success looks like and how progress will be measured. The ice that needs breaking here is clearly an orientation on all the work that has come before--certainly for the new task force members that haven't been part of the the Board's regular dialogue, but for Board members, too, who have possibly spent three months away from our strategy, working with more focus on the challenges of their businesses than those of the association. This is one of the reasons why I open every Board meeting with a "strategy briefing" session, where I summarize the Board work that happened at the last Board meeting, the staff work that has happened since then, and, with the buy-in of the Strategic Task Force chairs, the issues that will be dealt with at this Board meeting.

New Roadmapping Sessions. These will represent a brand new project for our association. Working with stakeholders in and out of our association, we plan to create a research and development roadmap for the technology our association represents. Doing so will require us to knit together a diverse coalition of technical experts. When they come together for their first meeting, we're going to have to spend some time "breaking the ice" on all the knowledge and capabilities that each person is bringing to the conversation. More than just simple introductions, the team is going to need a deeper understanding of each team member's CV so they can consciously mine the brainpower that we've assembled to complete their challenging task. In fact, some of that work is going to have to be done before the first session to make sure we've invited the right people to attend.

These groups and meetings are specific to my association, but I bet you can identify some parallels to them in your organization. Next time you do, think about the ice you may need to break before bringing them together.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at