Monday, September 26, 2011

Should Committees Report to the Board?

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I've been thinking a lot about this question lately. It's a question, I know, that never even occurs to leaders in many associations. "Should committees report to the board?" they might say. "Of course they should. Who else are the going to report to?"


How about the chief staff executive?

I've suggested just such an idea before, and the looks I get back from chief staff executives and board chairs alike can only be described as incredulous.

But hear me out.

There are some committees whose jobs clearly relate to the governance of the association. The Finance Committee. The Nominating Committee. The Executive Committee. These are all bodies appropriately appointed by the Board to help it do its job better.

But there are other committees whose jobs relate to the management of the association. The Education Committee. The Membership Committee. The Marketing Committee. These are all bodies designed to infuse the management practices of the association with the expertise and wisdom of association members themselves.

If your association is an association of widget manufacturers, then you might want widget manufacturers on your Marketing Committee to help you decide how best to market your association to other widget manufacturers. If your association is an association of physicians, then you might want physicians on your Education Committee to help you decide what kind of education to deliver to your members. In most associations, this type of industry- or profession-specific expertise does not exist at the staff level, and the synergistic fusing of member knowledge with staff functional expertise can spell great success.

But in all of these cases, the functions of these "program" committees are not related to how the association is governed (i.e., the purview of the board). They are related to how the association is managed (i.e., the purview of the chief staff executive). And if that is the case, shouldn't these committees "report" to the chief staff executive, the way other members of the staff do? In fact, doesn't having those committees report to the board put the board in the position of having to manage the association, usurping the position and authority it has specifically delegated to its chief staff executive?

These are the thoughts I think about whenever I sit in a board meeting and find myself trapped in a discussion about the details of some committee report. Committee X wants funds to produce a new marketing brochure. Committee Y wants approval on the venues it has chosen for next year's educational sessions.

I can't help it. As a board member, my first question when faced with these requests is always: Why are you asking me? I don't manage this association. The chief staff executive does.

And I'd prefer to keep it that way.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Women with Men by Richard Ford

This is a book of three long stories, one of which I enjoyed far more than the other two.

The Womanizer is the favored one, a tale about a man dissatisfied with his life and enchanted by the idea of what a better life might be. Martin Austin is his name, a salesman for an industrial products company, and on a trip to France he meets Josephine, a woman to whom he attaches all his starry hopes. For life with his wife, Barbara, has become a dull routine.

Late that night, a Tuesday, he and Barbara made brief, boozy love in the dark of their thickly curtained bedroom, to the sound of a neighbor’s springer spaniel barking unceasingly one street over. Theirs was practiced, undramatic lovemaking, a set of protocols and assumptions lovingly followed like a liturgy which point to but really has little connection with the mysteries and chaos that had once made it a breathless necessity. Austin noticed by the digital clock on the chest of drawers that it all took nine minutes, start to finish. He wondered briefly if this was of normal or less than normal duration for Americans his and Barbara’s age. Less, he supposed, though no doubt the fault was his.

Good prose, there. There and throughout Ford’s writing. But the prose alone is not what makes the story so memorable, nor is it its theme or storyline. What makes the story so memorable is the character of Martin Austin himself.

He wondered, staring at the elegantly framed azimuth map Barbara had given him when he’d been awarded the prestigious European accounts, and which he’d hung behind his desk with tiny red pennants attached, denoting where he’d increased the company’s market share—Brussels, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Paris—wondered if his life, his normal carrying-on, was slipping out of control, yet so gradually as not to be noticed. But he decided it wasn’t, and as proof he offered the fact that he was entertaining this idea in his office, on an ordinary business day, with everything in his life arrayed in place and going forward, rather than entertaining in some Parisian street cafĂ© in the blear aftermath of calamity: a man with soiled lapels, in need of a shave and short of cash, scribbling his miserable thoughts into a tiny spiral notebook like all the other morons he’d seen who’d thrown their lives away. This feeling now, this sensation of heaviness, of life’s coming unmoored, was actually, he believed, a feeling of vigilance, the weight of responsibility accepted, the proof that carrying life to a successful end was never an easy matter.

He’s a bumbling fool, this Martin Austin, at once attuned to the way is which success in life hangs on the most precarious of balances, but utterly unable to connect that wisdom to any of the actual choices he makes in life. The story is a detailed summary of how he blindly throws his life away, all the while in ironic opposition to his near constant perception that he is in control of things. He is confident, mostly, swept up in the exhilaration of risk, and convinced that in his choice to abandon one life with Barbara and launch another with Josephine he has never been more alive and in control of his destiny.

It would be pleasant to walk there with Josephine, Austin thought, to breathe the sweet air of chestnut trees and to stare off. Life was very different here. This apartment was very different from his house in Oak Grove. He felt different here. Life seemed to have improved remarkably in a short period. All it took, he thought, was the courage to take control of things and to live with the consequences.

Except that Austin is in control of nothing. He’s jumped out of the plane, but now he’s in free fall, and he’s left his parachute behind. And the essence of his unrealized powerlessness is wonderfully displayed by Ford in one of the most painful but beautifully-written sections of the story.

Austin and Barbara are childless, but Josephine isn’t, and when he shows up practically unannounced at Josephine’s apartment in Paris—after separating from his wife and risking his job—he manages to convince Josephine to let him watch her young son, Leo, while she runs an important errand. Although he promises not to leave the apartment, he takes the boy to a nearby park, and promptly loses sight of him as his mind swims euphorically in his new-found courage and all the freedom and control it has offered him. Ford is brutal with the reader as he communicates the inexorable foreboding and terror. We’re horrified for Leo and, oddly, sympathetic for Austin, sympathetic in a way only men can be with their hapless and dimwitted selves.

When he looked around again, Leo was not where he’d been, standing dreamily to the side of the older boys, watching their miniature cutters and galleons glide over the still pond surface. The older boys were there, their long tending sticks in their hands, whispering among themselves and smirking. But not Leo. It had become cooler. Light had faded from the crenellated roof line of the Ecole Superieure des Mines, and soon it would be dark. The man having his picture taken was walking away with the photographer. Austin had been engrossed in thought and had lost sight of little Leo, who was, he was certain, somewhere nearby.

He looked at his watch. It was six twenty-five, and Josephine could now be home. He scanned back along the row of apartment blocks, hoping to find her window, thinking he might see her there watching him, waving at him happily, possibly with Leo at her side. But he couldn’t tell which building was which. One window he could see was open and dark inside. But he couldn’t be sure. In any case, Jospehine wasn’t framed in it.

Austin looked all around, hoping to see the white flash of Leo’s T-shirt, the careening red Cadillac. But he saw only a few couples walking along the chalky paths, and two of the older boys carrying their sailboats home to their parents’ apartments. He still heard tennis balls being hit—pockety pock. And he felt cold and calm, which he knew to be the feeling of fear commencing, a feeling that could rapidly change to other feelings that could last a long, long time.

Leo was gone, and he wasn’t sure where. “Leo,” he called out, first in the American way, then “Lay-oo,” in the way his mother said. “Ou etes-vous?” Passersby looked at him sternly, hearing the two languages together. The remaining sailboat boys glanced around and smiled. “Lay-oo!” he called out again, and knew his voice did not sound ordinary, that it might sound frightened. Everyone around him, everyone who could hear him, was French, and he couldn’t precisely explain to any of them what was the matter here: that this was not his son; that the boy’s mother was not here now but was probably close by; that he had let his attention stray a moment.

“Lay-oo,” he called out again. “Ou etes-vous?” He saw nothing of the boy, not a fleck of shirt or a patch of his dark hair disappearing behind a bush. He felt cold all over again, a sudden new wave, and he shuddered because he knew he was alone. Leo—some tiny assurance opened in his to say—Leo, wherever he was, would be fine, was probably fine right now. He would be found and be happy. He would see his mother and immediately forget all about Martin Austin. Nothing bad had befallen him. But he, Martin Austin, was alone. He could not find this child, and for him only bad would come of it.

Across an expanse of grassy lawn he saw a park guardian in a dark-blue uniform emerge from the rhododendrons beyond which were the tennis courts, and Austin began running toward him. It surprised him that he was running, and halfway there quit and only half ran toward the man, who had stopped to permit himself to be approached.

“Do you speak English?” Austin said before he’d arrived. He knew his face had taken on an exaggerated appearance, because the guardian looked at him strangely, turned his head slightly, as though he preferred to see him at an angle, or as if he were hearing an odd tune and wanted to hear it better. At the corners of his mouth he seemed to smile.

“I’m sorry,” Austin said, and took a breath. “You speak English, don’t you?”

“A little bit, why not,” the guardian said, and then he did smile. He was middle-aged and pleasant-looking, with a soft suntanned face and a small Hitler mustache. He wore a French policeman’s uniform, a blue-and-gold kepi, a white shoulder braid and a white lanyard connected to his pistol. He was a man who liked parks.

“I’ve lost a little boy here someplace,” Austin said calmly, though he remained out of breath. He put the palm of his right hand to his cheek as if his cheek were wet, and he felt his skin to be cold. He turned and looked again at the concrete border of the pond, at the grass crossed by gravel paths, and then at the dense tangle of yew bushes farther on. He expected to see Leo there, precisely in the middle of this miniature landscape. Once he’d been frightened and time had gone by, and he’d sought help and strangers had regarded him with suspicion and wonder—once all these had taken place—Leo could appear and all would be returned to calm.

But there was no one. The open lawn was empty, and it was nearly dark. He could see weak interior lights from the apartment blocks beyond the park fence, see yellow automobile lights on rue Vaugirard. He remembered once hunting with his father in Illinois. He was a boy, and their dog had run away. He had known the advent of dark meant he would never see the dog again. They were far from home. The dog wouldn’t find its way back. And that is what happened.

The park guardian stood in front of Austin, smiling, staring at his face oddly, searchingly, as if he meant to adduce something—if Austin was crazy or on drugs or possibly playing a joke. The man, Austin realized, hadn’t understood anything he’d said, and was simply waiting for something he would understand to begin.

But he had ruined everything now. Leo was gone. Kidnapped. Assaulted. Or merely lost in a hopelessly big city. And all his own newly won freedom, his clean slate, was in a moment squandered. He would go to jail, and he should go to jail. He was an awful man. A careless man. He brought mayhem and suffering to the lives of innocent, unsuspecting people who trusted him. No punishment could be too severe.

Austin looked again at the yew bushes, a long, green clump, several yards thick, the interior lost in tangled shadows. That was where Leo was, he thought with complete certainty. And he felt relief, barely controllable relief.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said to the guardian. “Je regrette. I made a mistake.” And he turned and ran toward the clump of yew bushes, across the open grass and the gravel promenade and careful beds in bright-yellow bloom, the excellent park. He plunged in under the low scrubby branches, where the ground was bare and raked and damp and attended to. With his head ducked he moved swiftly forward. He called Leo’s name but did not see him, though he saw a movement, and indistinct fluttering of blue and gray, heard what might’ve been footfalls on the soft ground, and then he heard running, like a large creature hurrying in front of him among the tangled branches. He heard laughter beyond the edge of the thicket, where another grassy terrace opened—the sound of a man laughing and talking in French, out of breath and running at once. Laughing, then more talking and laughing again.

Austin moved toward where he’d seen the flutter of blue and gray—someone’s clothing glimpsed in flight, he thought. There was a strong old smell of piss and human waste among the thick roots and shrubby trunks of the yew bushes. Paper and trash were strewn around in the foulness. From outside it had seemed cool and inviting here, a place to have a nap or make love.

And Leo was there. Exactly where Austin had seen the glimpse of clothing flicker through the undergrowth. He was naked, sitting on the damp dirt, his clothes strewn around him, turned inside out where they had been jerked off and thrown aside. He looked up at Austin, his eyes small and perceptive and dark, his small legs straight out before him, smudged and scratched, his chest and arms scratched. Dirt was on his cheeks. His hands were between his legs, not covering or protecting him but limp. As if they had no purpose. He was very white and very quiet. His hair was still neatly combed. Though when he saw Austin, and that it was Austin and not someone else coming bent at the waist, furious, breathing stertorously, stumbling, crashing arms-out through the rough branches and trunks and roots of that small place, he gave a shrill, hopeless cry, as though he could see what was next, and who it would be, and it terrified him even more. And his cry was all he could do to let the world know that he feared his fate.

It’s a fascinating piece of writing, heart-wrenching and true from start to finish, as Austin continues to deceive himself until the very bitter and painful end. When it’s over, and Leo is reunited with his mother, Josephine has the harshest of all possible verdicts for Austin and his wayward understanding of himself.

She shook her head and crossed her arms tightly and looked away, her dark eyes shining in the night. She was very, very angry. Possibly, he thought, she was even angry at herself. “You are a fool,” she said, and she spat accidently when she said it. “I hate you. You don’t know anything. You don’t know who you are.” She looked at him bitterly. “Who are you?” she said. “You do you think you are? You’re nothing.”

You don’t know who you are. He doesn’t. That, ultimately, is his crime, and the object lesson for us all to take away from this story. How many of us, wandering through this life from job to job and relationship to relationship, don’t know who were are, and what wreckage are we leaving behind?

In the end, Austin remains clueless, wondering to himself in his small Paris apartment what is it that connected or detached him from the people around him, and if it is something that he could have controlled, or if he is just a victim to some larger force that pushes people together and then drives them apart.

+   +   +   +   +   +   +

The third story in the book is called Occidentals, and near the very end I stumbled across a short exchange that I think well summarizes Ford’s view on writing and the essential question he is asking in each of the stories in this book. In Occidentals, Matthews is an author, and here he is meeting with a French translator about the forthcoming foreign publication of his novel.

“Your book will be better in French, I think,” she said. “It’s humorous. It needs to be humorous. In English it’s not so much. Don’t you think so?”

“I didn’t think it was humorous,” he said, and thought about the street names he’d made up. The Paris parts.

“Well. An artist’s mind senses a logic where none exists. Yet often it’s left incomplete. It’s difficult. Only great geniuses can finish what they invent. In French, we say…” And she said something then that Matthews didn’t understand but didn’t try. “Do you speak French?” She smiled politely.

“Just enough to misunderstand everything,” he said, and tried to smile back.

“It doesn’t matter,” Madame de Grenelle said, and paused. “So. It is not quite finished in English. Because you cannot rely on the speaker. The I who was jilted. All the way throughout, one is never certain if he can be taken seriously at all. It is not entirely understandable in that way. Don’t you agree? Perhaps you don’t. But perhaps he had murdered his wife, or this is all a long dream or a fantasy, a ruse—or there is another explanation. It is meant to be mocking.”

“That could be true,” Matthews said. “I think it could.”

“The problem of reliance,” she said, “is important. This is the part not finished. It would’ve been very, very difficult. Even for Flaubert…”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“But in French, I can make perfectly clear that we are not to trust the speaker, though we try. That it’s a satire, meant to be amusing. The French would expect this. It is how they see Americans.”

“How?” he said. “How is it they see us?”

Madame de Grenelle smiled. “As silly,” she said, “as not understanding very much. But, for that reason, interesting.”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“Yes,” she said. “Though only to a point.”

“I understand,” Matthews said. “I think I understand that perfectly well.”

“Then good,” she said. “So. We can start.”

Now, go back a read that again. Except every time it mentions “French,” think “Women,” and every time it mentions “English” or “American,” think “Men.” The things that separate French and English literature are the same things that separate Women and Men. What Women find satiric and silly, Men find deadly serious. And vice versa, I suppose.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Millennials Are the New Slackers

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What goes around comes around. Here's another one of those fun HBR blog posts where a blogger from one generation pontificates on the failings of a younger generation, and gets taken to task for it in the comments. In this case, the blogger is Andrew McAfee and his target is the "entitlement mentality" of many Millennials.

A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that might nonetheless be true. The deepest one I've come across recently goes something like at a time of high unemployment and persistent joblessness, Millennials are asking for more concessions and perks from their employers. I just came across a CNN story about how new hires at marketing agency Euro RSCG told their CEO that they want to come in at 10 or later, have free food and a Pilates room, and get reimbursed for their personal trainers.

It's horrific, McAfee says, and he goes on to detail out how Millennials should be acting in this dismal economy. His five-point plan sounds like every other piece of advice given by the older generation to the younger generation entering to workplace: play by our rules and you'll get ahead when we decide the time is right.

The comments are a fun read--more fun, in fact, than McAfee's post. There are some impassioned and frustrated young people expressing both of those emotions there. One, mocking McAfee's dismissal of the younger generation's use of "e-speak" in business correspondence, says:

Your organization should stop hiring employees who can't write. Then again, I guess you'd be jobless.

Ouch. But there is a larger point to be made here.

Millennials are the new kids on the block when it comes to the workplace. And like the Xers that preceded them, they are coming of age in a time of massive joblessness and economic uncertainty. They have youthful enthusiasm and a fresh way of seeing things, and we're witnessing what happens when ideals like that collide with the powerful status quo, protected ever more preciously by an older generation not quite ready to let go.

Although McAfee never uses the word, reading what he says about Millennials, it was hard for me not to sympathize with them and see their plight as similar to the one GenX fought and is in some measure still fighting. It's not fair to call us "slackers" anymore--us Xers with our mortgages, college savings accounts and flirtations with the alternative minimum tax--but it is such a tempting description, that I fully expect it will be recycled with abandon for these Millennials. After all, they have no true sense of how the real world works.

Monday, September 12, 2011

There Is No Recipe for Innovation

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Or so seems the conclusion of this fascinating blog post from Tim Leberecht of the the frog design and innovation firm, in which he reviews and connects several established and not-so-established kinds of innovation.

Jugaad seems the latest in a long list of innovation fads, "a colloquial Hindi word that describes a creative ad hoc solution to a vexing issue, making existing things work and/or creating new things with scarce resources." But that's just a launching pad for Leberecht, who gives his reader a stream-of-consciousness tour of different approaches to innovation floating around the business landscape. Design Thinking, Disruptive Innovation, Hybrid Thinking, Hacking, Shanzai--they're all given a quick but cogent treatment, the differences and distinctions between them blurring under Leberecht's scrutiny.

His larger point seems to be that there is no magic pill for innovation.

Most of these consultants are trying to sell innovation as a toolbox, but as former BusinessWeek writer Helen Walters aptly points out: Innovation cannot be reduced to a process. “A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization,” she writes, and suggests that: “Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts – but they'd be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t any.”

Which is an interesting backdrop for this week, because this is the week of WSAE's National Summit on Association Innovation, where association executives, professionals and industry partners will work together to create new capacities for innovation in the association community and to help individual association professionals develop practical innovation roadmaps for their own organizations. In the words of our summit facilitator, Jeffrey Cufaude:

By associating with each other in the collaborative learning environment of the National Summit on Innovation for Associations, we have the chance to not only gain fresh insights and develop tactical plans for our own organizations, but identify shared paths for moving together as a community.

I'm up for it. I'll be there and tweeting throughout the conference (following along and join in at #innovationhub).

It'll be another major step on the innovation journey I embarked upon when I joined the WSAE Board of Directors and became the chair of its Innovation Task Force. I went into that role with the impression that there was a way of "doing" innovation in the association world. Based on the innovation principles and processes I had been exposed to in the for-profit world, there surely was an adaptation to those models that could made for associations. It would be difficult to find, I believed, and it would take association professionals willing to experiment with different strategies in their real world, but it was there, and we could find it if we worked hard enough.

Now, almost two years later, I'm more confident than ever that associations can be innovative and can find ways to make innovation work for them. I've seen it in my own association and in many other associations in my network.

But I have increasing skepticism for the idea that there is a single innovation model that will work for everyone in the association community. Today, Helen Waters' words ring really true for me. We want innovation to be an established, predictable process, because established, predictable processes are easy for us to manage and master. But your innovation solution is going to be messy, and different from mine. There is a common body of innovation knowledge we can all draw from--things that have been shown to help and things that have been shown to hurt--but it is up to each one of us to study that body of knowledge and figure out how to apply it in our own situations.

I'm going to rededicate myself to that this week in Madison. When will you?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Recipes for Innovation

So here's a funny story. Trish Hudson of the Melos Institute sent me an email a few days ago.

Reason for writing - is I was at San Fran's Museum of Modern Art yesterday - saw something that made me think of you.

Dieter Ram is an industrial designer - did a lot of work with Braun in Germany. He has designed some very innovative tools...and created innovative designs for traditional tools. SFMOMA had an exhibit of his designs. On one wall -they shared his princples of good design...thought there might be some relevance to your interest in innovation...

So - here goes. Possible opportunities for adaptation to association management, maybe?

Dieter Ram's 10 Principles of Good Design

1. good design is innovative.
2. good design makes a product useful.
3. good design is asthetic.
4. good design makes a product understandable.
5. good design is honest.
6. good design is unobtrusive.
7. good design is long-lasting.
8. good design is thorough down to the last detail.
9. good design is environmentally friendly.
10. good design is as little design as possible (back to simplicity).

I wrote back and told Trish how odd it was that she should email me this, because just a few days before I had read a post of one of frog's blogs about the work of Dieter Ram, and how it had inspired me to prepare a post for Hourglass on its similarities to innovation in the association (and other) worlds. The frog post talks about Ram's collaborations with Braun and Apple, and highlights the following attributes as pivotal to their successes:

1. Close collaboration of designers and engineers, and deep involvement by designers in working with materials and manufacturing processes.

2. Supportive executives that made design integral to the way the company operated (Steve Jobs for Apple, and Erwin and Artur - the sons of founder Max Braun. And to their credit, when Gillette acquired Braun in 1963, they recognized the value of Braun's design team and gave it free reign.)

3. Obsessive attention to detail, supported by relatively long gestation cycles and an iterative, prototype-driven process.

4. A small, stable team (Apple's ID team is famously tight-knit, and the core of Braun's design team was largely unchanged for a quarter century during its golden age of output).

As far a recipes for innovation go, I prefer this shorter list than the one Trish sent over (although I remain jealous of her proximity to SFMOMA--one of my most favorite places in the world). Close collaboration of people with different perspectives, executives supportive of experimentation, obsessive attention to detail coupled with an iterative prototyping process, and small, stable teams who know their jobs and who they're innovating for--these are all themes that we've outlined in the WSAE white paper on innovation and which have been subjects of discussion on this blog.

"Funny how people and ideas are connected, isn’t it?" I wrote back to Trish and she replied:

Dare I get freaky in saying that there's a bigger force out there that connects like-minded folks at pivotal times in ways that defies description?

And when we listen intuitively and act accordingly - we have the opportunity to experience something that goes way beyond the intellectual realm....and often when we are able to blend intellectual and intuitive - we find innovation?

Blending the intellectual with the intuitive. Be sure to add a pinch of that to your innovation recipe.