Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012

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As we end another year (without the world coming to an end, fortunately), here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2012.

1. Don't Rush to Fill the Silence
A lesson I've learned about what a leader can learn from silence, and how that opportunity will be lost if one rushes to fill it. Remember, it is not the job of the leader to have all the answers, only to identify all the real problems.

2. The Mind of the Community
An exploration of how associations can develop a deeper understanding of their members, and a plea to tear down the wall that many organizations build between their staff and their membership. If you want staff to better anticipate the needs of your members, you need to make them part of your members' community.

3. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
Inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

4. The Chairman's Gift
A story about how my association ensures that our outgoing Board Chair receives a gift that recognizes not just his service to the association, but the fact that he is an individual who has made a personal sacrifice to serve in that capacity. The true value is the message it sends to others who might be considering a similar commitment in their futures.

5. Why We Don't Take Risks
A review of the need for greater risk-taking in associations, and the role such risk-taking plays in innovation. It concludes with a challenge to every association professional to step out of their comfort zones and do something different, something unpredictable, something whose value has not yet been determined.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2013.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Myth of Human Races by Alain F. Corcos

If there’s any one paragraph that summarizes the thesis of this book, it is probably this:

Today, efforts to classify humanity have for the most part ceased. Scientists have finally realized that they were no more successful using blood groups, or other genetic markers, than they had been in the past when they were using skulls or skin color. They have finally realized that categorizing human beings into “races” requires such a distortion of the facts that its usefulness as a tool disappears. Simultaneously, the term “race” is disappearing from scientific writing because scientists no longer accept the clear cut division of humanity into white, black, yellow and red that is still present in most college curricula and textbooks. From a biological viewpoint, human races do not exist. This is a conclusion that most anthropologists and geneticists have accepted. Now they understand their task differently: to study human variability without the concept of race. It is also time for the rest of us to abandon this obsolete, destructive and false notion of race.

I don’t know how you’re going to react to this idea. I’m personally sympathetic to the concept. Indeed, I picked up this book because I already thought that races were sociological rather than biological in origin. Now, having read the book, I’m more convinced of it than ever. Biologically speaking, races only exist when populations live in isolation from one another long enough to develop genetically unique expressions, while retaining the ability to procreate with members of the other races of the same species. Despite thousands of years of folklore and pseudoscience to the contrary, this has never been the case for human populations. Our diversity is far greater on an individual basis than it has ever been on a group basis.

But I know some people won’t accept it. They’ll claim it is contrary to their common sense, which ultimately holds sway over us all, and they’ll reject any kind of evidence that goes against it. But if they dig a little more deeply into their understanding of biology and inheritance, they may find that much of their common sense on the subject is built on a bunch of false notions.

Like what? Well, how about the idea that blood plays a role in heredity. It’s a common expression—he’s got Irish blood flowing in his veins, for example—and it leads to the inexact concept that we somehow have the blood of our forebears in our bodies. But it has absolutely no basis in fact. Blood isn’t the mechanism of heredity, genes are. Every person’s body manufacturers its own blood, which is comprised of cells that are more-or-less identical to every other body’s blood cells, and there is no such thing as “Irish blood” or “African blood” or “Chinese blood.”

Unfortunately, this idea about blood being the medium for heredity is more than just word play.

However, one of the most disheartening and cruel consequences of the belief that blood was the carrier of heredity was the “one-drop” rule which was used for centuries in determining people’s ancestry. According to the blood theory of inheritance, as I mentioned previously, the blood of the parents was blended together to form the child; therefore, there was always a little of the blood of any ancestor flowing in one’s veins. If the ancestor were considered to be inferior in any respect, it was thought that his or her blood had tainted all of his or her descendants. For example, in Medieval Europe, people considered a person to be a Jew if he or she had a Jewish ancestor as far as six generations back. In the United States, people consider a person to be black, regardless of skin color, if he or she had a single black ancestor, no matter how far back that ancestor may have been. The “one-drop” rule persisted throughout  World War II. It was this rule that the Nazis used to exterminate the Jews. To them, having one Jewish grandparent was enough to classify someone as Jewish and have him or her exterminated. It made no difference what the religions of the other grandparents were or what the religion of the individual was; the Nazis believed the blood of a Jewish ancestor tainted the victim. It was this idea that also led German authorities to prevent blood transfusion from Jews to non-Jews. Jewish physicians were reported to have been sent to concentration camps for having committed such a “crime.” In the mind of the Nazis, the physicians who did this had obviously tainted the blood of “Aryan” people.

That’s just one false idea that has had horrifying consequences. Another is the again false idea that we carry some piece of the genetic heritage of all of our ancestors. In fact, the only guarantee you have is that you carry on the genetic material of your two parents in some randomly selected quantity. You probably have something from your grandparents—but not necessarily—and as for your great-grandparents, the reality is much slimmer than you may imagine.

The reason why this is so is the same as the one which we gave for the fact that we are unique: the process of meiosis that occurs during the formation of sex cells. Though you can be sure you inherited twenty three chromosomes from each of your parents, you cannot know how many chromosomes you indirectly received from your grandparents. As you remember from our previous discussion of meiosis, your father had received from his own father twenty-three chromosomes that we have called paternal chromosomes and from his mother twenty-three chromosomes that we have called maternal chromosomes. However, because his sperm contains only one chromosome of each pair (which one is determined at random), any one of them can contain any combination of paternal and maternal chromosomes; any one of them could have received either fifteen paternal chromosomes and eight maternal chromosomes or thirteen maternal chromosomes and ten paternal chromosomes, to name just a couple of possibilities. It could happen that the sperm of your father which fertilized the egg of your mother that produced you had only one chromosome or no chromosome at all from your paternal grandfather. It is highly improbable, but it is possible. In the same way it could happen that the egg that produced you had one or no chromosome from your maternal grandmother. Nevertheless, we can assume that, on average, we received eleven or twelve chromosomes from each of our grandparents, that an average of fix or six came from our great grandparents, and average of two or three from our great-great-grandparents. With each generation further back, the average number of chromosomes we may have received from any ancestor is diminished by half. Consider now an important fact: Six generations back we have more ancestors than chromosomes (sixty-four versus forty-six). Hence, it is clear that the more remote our ancestor is, the greater the odds become that we did not received even a single one of his or her chromosomes.

It’s a bit complicated, but it all clearly derives from biological mechanisms and mathematics. Once you realize that the genetic material that gives you your biological identity can only be from as many as six generations back, you begin to realize how utterly impossible the idea of human races is outside of anything but a sociological perspective. No one, for example, can be half-white and half-black, because there is no such thing as black genes and white genes, black chromosomes and white chromosomes. It may be culturally important to someone that their great-great grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, but it is extraordinarily unlikely that it is biologically so.

But don’t take me or the book to mean that the concept of human races is culturally insignificant. Indeed, one of the most fascinating chapters of the book deals with the racial classifications determined and perpetuated by the U.S. government. There is no biological underpinning to the concept of race, but that hasn’t stopped humans from discriminating of the basis of skin color for hundreds if not thousands of years. The government’s racial classification system is essentially a tracking mechanism that is meant to give it the ability to respond to and correct instances of institutionalized “racial” discrimination. And that mission lends some credibility to its efforts.

But like all racial classification systems, theirs is equally flawed and subject to the widest interpretations. Plenty of people don’t fit neatly into one of the current five categories (White, Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native), and many decisions based on demographic data based on those categories make little objective sense. It may surprise some, but creating a label for something that apparently exists, does not in fact bring that thing into actual existence. As a culture, we’ve understood this for a long time. It was the French naturalist Buffon who observed as early as 1750:

Genera, orders, classes exist only in our imagination … There are only individuals. Nature does not arrange her words in bunches, nor living beings in genera.

It is an observable fact. But, like human races, it runs counter to both common sense and generations of tradition. Few facts can withstand such a withering attack.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Holiday Break: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2012, the one I'd most like to revisit is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. I blogged about it back in January, but it is still very much with me. It, like all the Cather's work that I've read, is about...

...the spaces that exist between people, and how the fleeting moments of true emotional connection that people experience are pulled tenuously over those spaces, stretching into the thinnest of gossamer filaments of memory, ready to snap with the merest tug, lost forever and forgotten.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Too Many Surveys

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Are you like me? Inundated with surveys from the associations you belong to? Tell us what you think of our last conference. How was that last resource you downloaded from our online store? Help us set the future direction of your association.

And do you do the same thing to your members? Asking them too many questions too often and taking too little action based on the embarrassing response rates?

Have you ever thought that the solution might be...

More surveys?

Not long ones. Short ones. Really short ones. Like no more than one simple question.

The next time you're uncertain of a direction, send out a poll with one question and a finite number of options. And when the responses come in, do something you've probably never done before.

Post the results. Share them with the entire membership. And even more importantly, let everyone know what you're going to do differently based on the feedback you received. You don't necessarily have to go with the majority opinion, but do make a decision and tell your members what it is.

What might happen? Will those who responded be more motivated to respond the next time? What about those who didn't respond? Might they decide to chime in the next time, since they saw that you took action based on member feedback, and they didn't have a chance to have their voice heard the last time around? Think of how you might react if an association you belonged to did this. Do you think your members would act any differently?

So why don't we do this? I think there's two simple answers to that question.

First, it's hard to come up with the right question with a few simple options. We like to think that what we do is complex. How can we possibly boil it all down to one question?

Second, we're frightened of having to commit ourselves to some course of action. Or worse, of having to go against the wishes of the members. It is their association, after all.

For both of these reasons, I would suggest starting small. Start with things that are easy to peg to majority opinion. What kind of snacks would you like served at the next conference?

It may seem trivial at first. But by asking, sharing and taking action you just might get your members in the habit of responding to more of your surveys.

And isn't that what you want?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Two different people I respect recommended this book to me for two different reasons. And it turns out they were both right. It’s a gold mine of useful information about one of the most crippling afflictions facing organizations today—the inability to turn knowledge into action.

As with most business books I read, the lessons I take away are not always the ones the author intends. But in reading them, ideas will often strike me with a clarity they very infrequently have in the mile-a-minute, topsy-turvy world of expectations and performance I seem to find myself in. I’ll list just a sampling of the “a-ha” moments I had while reading this book.

There Are No Wrong Actions

Here’s a handy chart.

How to Drive Fear and Inaction Out of Organizations
1. Praise, pay and promote people who deliver bad news to their bosses.
2. Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.
3. Encourage leaders to talk about their failures, especially what they have learned from them.
4. Encourage open communication.
5. Give people second (and third) chances.
6. Banish people—especially leaders—who humiliate others.
7. Learn from, and even celebrate, mistakes, particularly trying something new.
8. Don’t punish people for trying new things.

Guess which one jumps out at me the most. “Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction not unsuccessful actions.” If you needed one sentence to summarize a winning formula, I think this would be it. Increasingly, in my line a work at least, I’m beginning to realize that there are no wrong courses of action. Some courses are better than others, but no course of action, taken with forethought and good intentions, is actually bad, because they all help move the project or the conversation forward. If you accept this premise, then the only truly wrong course of action is to take no action at all—to allow opportunity for engagement and learning to slip by.

Measure Performance at the System Level

The model of behavior implicit in the measurement systems used by most firms is that individuals are atomistic and economic, rather than social, creatures. The atomistic view is captured by having measure for each individual. This procedure presumes that (1) individual results are the consequences of individual decisions and actions and that (2) individual outcomes and individual behaviors are under the control and discretion of these individuals, so that results and decisions can be reasonably reliably attributed to individuals.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that short paragraph. It stresses the need for system-based performance measures in any organization that behaves like an interconnected and interdependent network of actors (i.e., just about every organization on Planet Earth).

What you are able to accomplish, and indeed, what you choose to do and how you behave, is not solely under your individual control. Rather, your behavior and performance are influenced by the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of many others in the immediate environment.

Right on. Find ways to measure performance at a system level, and provide incentives for contributing to systemic, not individual, performance.

Measure the Productivity of the Relationship, Not Individual Performance

More good wisdom on the performance appraisal process, this time direct from the vice president of human resources at the software firm SAS Institute:

If there were a good performance appraisal process, everybody would be using it. … I don’t think you can really manage someone’s performance. I think you can observe the results. I think you can give them the tools. I think you can set short and long-term goals. And you can sit back and see if it happens or it doesn’t happen. … Our idea is to have performance management be based on conversation instead of documentation.

Three cheers for that. And from a 1998 Fast Company article:

Too many leaders confuse feedback with paperwork. “Filling out a form is inspection, not feedback,” says Kelly Allan … “History has taught us that relying on inspections is costly, improves nothing for very long, and makes the organization less competitive.”

What does matter, evidently, is a metric that is closely related to your core competitive advantage. For SAS, in the very competitive software industry, that was employee turnover. Managers were evaluated primarily on their ability to attract and retain people, and the company went to great lengths to ensure that it was a great place to work.

In a relationship-oriented business based primarily on intellectual talent, SAS encourages long-term relationship behavior through its measurements and through what it chooses not to measure and make public. In a place in which the attraction and retention of talent is key, turnover and factors related to the building of talent are what the firm measures. The emphasis, even in a geographically dispersed organization of 5,000 people, remains on interpersonal communication—and emphasis consistent with the relationship-oriented business model and philosophy. You have relationships with people, not with reports or numbers.

Lots of good lessons here for the association world—a place where the emphasis on people, talent and relationships is equally important.

Internal Competition Retards Organizational Succeess

The authors spend a lot of time talking about the value of competition in the workplace. They are, in fact, quite dismissive of it, feeling that it retards performance far more frequently than advances it. Here’s an interesting section, reminiscent of many of the lessons in Dan Pink’s Drive, published more than a decade later.

The confusion between what it takes to do well in routine tasks, especially physical tasks, versus novel intellectual tasks is another reason that people develop misguided beliefs about the positive effects of competition on performance. … Hundreds of studies show that intellectual tasks that require learning and inventing new ways of doing things are best performed under drastically different conditions than tasks that have been done over and over again in the past.

The authors argue, persuasively, I think, that…

People are better at learning new things, being creative, and doing intellectual tasks of all kinds when they don’t work under close scrutiny, they don’t feel as if they are constantly being assessed and evaluated, and they aren’t working in the presence of direct competitors.

Learning, creative, intellectual work is far more associated with the modern workplace that raw, repetitive tasks. Furthermore, this kind of work requires something the authors call interdependence—productivity, performance, and innovation that result from joint action, not just individual efforts and behavior. And the problem is that…

When even modest levels of learning are required and some interdependence exists, individual incentives and internal competition discourage needed knowledge sharing, cooperation and mutual assistance.

The Value of Core Assumptions

I’ve been reading and thinking about the value of values, lately. The clarity and focus that can come from a clearly identified and respected set of organizational values. But one firm profiled in this book takes things a set further. Their core values—fun, fairness, integrity and social responsibility—strike me as yet another meaningless list. But they have something in addition to that.

It also has a set of core assumptions about people that it tries to implement in its management approach: that people (1) are creative, thinking individuals, capable of learning; (2) are responsible and can be held accountable; (3) are fallible; (4) desire to make positive contributions to society and like a challenge; and (5) are unique individuals, deserving of respect, not numbers or machines.

Now that is something I can sink my teeth into. Imagine what managing people would be like if every day—especially when we were facing some kind of management difficulty—we reminded ourselves of these five simple facts.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Are Your Members More Tech Savvy Than Your Association?

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WSAE had Mary Byers speak at their year-end event last week. She's the co-author of Race for Relevance, and gave the WSAE members plenty of food for thought. Among the many things she highlighted was the woeful amount of money most associations spend on technology. In one memorable slide, she showed how many associations spend less on technology than they do on printing or on meals at their events.

It reminded me of how critically important it was for associations to at least be at parity with their members when it comes to technology.

Many associations, I think, have justifiably built up an amount of goodwill with their members. They represent their industry or profession, provide valuable services, and are attempting to accomplish things that are larger than what any single member can do on their own. This goodwill gives them some slack when it comes to not being as up-to-date as the rest of the world in the realm of technology. If it takes a day or two to confirm a new profile in the online community, or the e-commerce site goes down from time to time, or the website looks awful on a mobile device--it's tolerated because of this goodwill. They are an association, after all.

But from where I sit, this goodwill is starting to evaporate. The online expectations of members are being shaped by their experiences across the web, and fewer and fewer of them will offer an association the same pass they might have offered before.

In my own world, I see more and more of my member companies adopting, struggling and solving their own technology challenges and building productive online interactions with their employees and their customers. It's happening slowly, but it is accelerating, and it will eventually become the norm in our industry in a way that it hasn't been before. This adeptness will, I think, inevitably lead to a new set of expectations being placed on my association in the area of technology. A broken e-commerce site or a crappy mobile website will no longer be a sign of a non-profit organization that is trying really hard. It will be the sign of an incompetent organization that no longer deserves support.

Every association is experiencing this shift, and some have already suffered from being caught behind the technology expectations of their members. Ours, I think, has a handful of years to make the necessary adjustments, but yours might be in a different situation. It's a complex problem that won't be solved only by allocating more money for technology in next year's budget, but that will undoubtedly be a necessary component.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Measuring What Matters

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My Too Big to Measure post has generated some good comments and plenty of retweets. It even inspired the folks over at SocialFish to repost it in its entirety, emphasizing and re-asking the question that inspired me to write it. Who is doing the hard work of engaging everyone to determine what to measure and how? I'm curious to see who responds and how.

In the interim, I stumbled across this HBR post by Michael J. Mauboussin, where he presents a four-step process for determining what to measure in an environment where the links between cause and effect are not always clear. Some people in his comments section take exception to one of his fundamental assumptions, but there are some things I like about his four steps, especially the second one:

Step 2: Develop a theory of cause and effect to assess presumed drivers of the objective.

This is the best advice in the entire post, and reminiscent of a point made by one of my commenters. The words here are chosen very specifically. Develop a theory of cause and effect to assess presumed drivers of the objective. The point being that you're not going to know coming out of the gate what should be measured--but that you have to start measuring something.

You shouldn't do it blindly. You need to think carefully, and make a logical argument for what should be measured and why. Then measure it and perform the necessary analysis to determine if it is truly linked to an actual driver of performance. If not, develop another theory and pursue that. If nothing else, the discipline required to execute such a strategy would be a valuable addition to your organization's performance.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle

This one has the juice. Reading A Friend of the Earth immediately after The Inner Circle is like stepping out of a funeral and directly onto a roller coaster.

But the New York Times review of the book panned it. I’m starting to read them after each book I read—curious what experts think after I have formed my own opinions. Oh, the juice is there all right. They agree. But, in the opinion of the reviewer, there is little else. No inner life of any of the characters, who are frequently dispatched with the seemingly wicked glee that Boyle brings to each hyperbolic turn of phrase.

I’m not so sure.

The protagonist is Tyrone Tierwater, an environmental activist, whose story is told in chapters that alternate time periods. Half the time we’re with him in the 1990s, when he is a middle-aged man with his second wife (Andrea), his daughter from his first marriage (Sierra), and an assembly of other “eco-warriors,” protesting and perpetrating acts of “eco-terrorism” against lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest. In one of those early scenes, they have dug a trench across one of the logging roads, filled it with wet cement, and dropped their feet into it. When the morning comes, the cement has hardened, and they have become human traffic barriers to the heavy equipment that was to be moved up the road to continue the deforestation. The lumber men, angry but undeterred, go to work with pick axes and sledge hammers to get them free.

It hurt. It hurt more than Tierwater could ever have imagined when he sank his sneakered feet into that yielding plastic medium, now hard as stone—stone, in fact—but he gritted his teeth and thought of the Mohawk. The hammers dropped again and again, the dull reverberative thump sucked up in the baffle of the trees. A crack would appear, and they’d go after it, beating a wedge loose here, levering up a section there. He tried to remain calm through all of this, tried to choke down the rage rising in his throat—passive resistance, that was the ticket, the strategy that brought the British Empire to its knees, stopped the war in Vietnam, humbled George Wallace and Bull Connor—but when his daughter let out a gasp, the smallest exhalation of pained surprise, the faintest whisper built round the thump of the hammer at her ankle, it went right to him.

This is the first clue that Sierra is something special to Tierwater and, indeed, she becomes a kind of polestar throughout the entire narrative.

The other half of the time, we’re still with Tierwater (oddly in the first person, whereas the chapters in the 1990s are told in the third person), but now it’s the 2020s, he’s a much older man, and much of the environmental apocalypse he feared in the 1990s has come to pass. Humanity trudges on, reduced from new plagues and hanging onto the edge of what was once modern society, and Tierwater is working as a kind of zookeeper for an eccentric pop star who keeps a menagerie of some of the earth’s now rarest creatures. Andrea returns after a long separation, bringing with her a writer who is working on a book about Sierra, who died years ago as a martyr to the environmental cause. We don’t know how that happened until it is revealed late in the book, and much of the chapters in the 2020s are of Tierwater remembering and reminiscing about his daughter and her special place in his movement and his heart.

Three times I went by the road I wanted and three times had to cut U-turns in a soup of mud, rock and streaming water, until finally I found the turnout where we’d parked that afternoon. It had been compacted dirt then, dusty even, but now it was like an automotive tar pit, a glowing head-lighted arena in which to race the engine and spin the tires until they stuck fast. I didn’t care. Sierra was up there on top of the ridge before me, up there in the thrashing wind, scared and lonely and for all I knew dangling from some limb a hundred an eighty feet in the air and fighting for her life. I had five beers in me, I was her father. I was going to save her.

This is from when Sierra decides to camp out on a platform high in a redwood tree, determined to stay there in protest for as long as it takes to stop the logging of those precious trees. She’s up there an unbelievable three years—while the logging goes on all around her—but it is in her airy sojourn, and Tierwater’s desperate quest for her on her first desperate night when a colossal storm hits, that we begin to see the symbolism that lies under Boyle’s high octane melodrama—the symbolism of man eternally longing for something meaningful in an indifferent world.

What was I wearing? Jeans, a sweater, an old pair of hiking boots, some kind of rain gear—I don’t remember. What I do remember is the sound of the wind in the trees, a screech of rending wood, the long crashing fall of shattered branches, the deep-throated roar of the rain as it combed the ridge and made the whole natural world bow down before it. I was ankle-deep in mud, fumbling with the switch of an uncooperative flashlight, inhaling rain and coughing it back up again, thinking of John Muir, the holy fool who was the proximate cause of all this. One foot followed the other and I climbed, not even sure if this was the right turnout or the right ridge—path? what path?—and I remembered Muir riding out a storm one night in the Sierras, thrashing to and fro in the highest branches of a tossing pine, just to see what it was like. He wasn’t trying to save anything or anybody—he just wanted to seize the moment, to experience what no one had experienced, to shout his hosannas to the god of the wind and the rain and the mad whirling rush of the spinning earth. He had joy, he had connection, he had vision and mystical reach. What he didn’t have was Black Cat malt liquor.

Here is the indifferent world in all of its primordial power—oblivious to both fools like John Muir and fools like Tyrone Tierwater.

I spat to clear my throat, hunched my shoulders and hovered over the last can. I was halfway up the ridge at that point, sure that at any moment a dislodged branch would come crashing out of the sky and pin me to the ground like a toad, and when I threw my head back to drink, the rain neat at my clenched eyelids with a steady unceasing pressure. Three long swallows and my last comfort was gone. I crushed the can and stuffed it into the pocket of the rain slicker and went on, feeling my way, the feeble beam of the flashlight all but useless in the hovering black immensity of the night. I must have been out there for hours, reading the bark like Braille, and the sad thing is I never did find Sierra’s tree. Or not that I know of. Three times that night I found myself at the foot of a redwood that might have been hers, the bark red-orange and friable in the glow of the flashlight, a slash of charred cambium that looked vaguely familiar, the base of the thing alone as wide around as the municipal wading pool in Peterskill where Sierra used to frolic with all the other four-year-olds while I sat in a row of benches with a squad of vigilant mothers and tried to read the paper with one eye. This was her tree, I told myself. It had to be.

And against that force Tierwater struggles, desperate to find the thing that will give him meaning.

Sierra!” I shouted, and the rain gave it back it back to me. “Sierra! Are you up there?”

Sadly, for Tierwater, and for the searching souls that he represents, Sierra is gone and can never return.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #10: Engagement Is About Much More Than Just Volunteering

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I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the tenth and final post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much
#7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins
#8: Effective Orientation and Interaction is Key
#9: Discourage Non-Performance By Rewarding Performance

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments.

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Member Engagement Solution #10: Engagement Is About Much More Than Just Volunteering

There are many forms of engagement, and volunteering is only one of them. Joining, participating, advocating are all forms of engagement, and none of them should be neglected when it comes to thinking about increasing membership engagement in your association. By letting members define how they wish to be engaged and then removing as many barriers to that engagement as possible, and association can experience an across-the-board rise in all forms of engagement.

I'm going to take exception to this one. That may seem crazy, but this series has been about concepts discussed by the people in the WSAE Innovation Circle on Member Engagement, and I'm not going to agree with everything everyone says. That's okay. Not everyone is going to agree with me, either. So here goes.

Member engagement IS all about volunteering--about members volunteering some portion of their time and talent to help the association achieve goals it has set from itself. You may want to call something else you're worried about member engagement--membership growth, for example, or conference participation, or sales of your association products--but none of these are truly about member engagement. If you call them that, you're missing the point.

Joining an organization isn't engagement. Going to one of their conferences isn't either. And neither is buying any of their products. These are all transactions--an organization providing a valued service--and there isn't anything unique or special about your association when it provides these services. Your members may value these services, but if they find the same or better service offered by someone else for the same or lower price, they'll jump ship in a minute. They will because they're not really engaged in your association. They have no skin in the game.

That all changes when they take on a volunteer role in your organization. They stop being a customer and start being a creator--part of the way the association develops and provides those services. Now they're on the inside, not the outside, and that's ultimately where you want them to be. Because now they will have allegiance to your association. They will truly view themselves as part of it, and they will look to it to improve and will want to take an active role in helping it get better. It's no longer them. Now the association is us.

This is what I think about when I think about member engagement--and it's the objective to which all of my member engagement strategies are aimed. I don't want more customers. I want more creators helping me build the association they need for tomorrow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Too Big to Measure

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This is a true story. My association Board chair and I were chatting not long ago, talking about the mission and big-picture objectives of our association, and I mentioned, literally without giving it a second thought, that we were incapable of measuring progress on some of the things we had set for ourselves.

It was only the look of shock that passed over his face that made me step back and think about what I had just said.

Maybe I was thinking about Shelly Alcorn's recent post, Is Your Mission Bigger Than What You Can Measure?, where she argues that associations had better be focused on things that are difficult to measure. If you can measure it, she seems to say, you're not aiming high enough.

Or maybe I was thinking about Seth Godin's recent post, Avoiding the False Proxy Trap, where he cautions against settling for something that's easy to measure as a proxy for what you're truly trying to achieve. Tactics that you employ to move the proxy needle will likely have very little to do with affecting change for the bigger picture.

Thought-provoking stuff. But what was more likely on my mind was an email discussion I had recently had with Jamie Notter in response to his post, Taking High Performance Seriously. Reacting to a much-circulated slide show from Netflix on their "high performance" culture and values, Jamie insightfully suggested that achieving high performance was more difficult than the slide show lets on--and that at least part of that difficulty was related to determining what to measure.

So if you want to get serious about “high performance,” then I say go for it. Let’s raise the bar. But get ready for the hard work of clarity. Get ready to spend some time (involving everyone) in determining what to measure (and how). And please don’t default to what we already know (hours worked, or overall organizational performance). We need more sophistication than that if we’re going to do this right (I was happy to see that Netflix says hours worked is “not relevant”). We can’t assume our people are like cogs in a machine, where we KNOW they accomplish more if they spin on their axis for 10 hours than they do if they spin for 8. We can’t oversimplify it and say if the company does well, then everyone is performing well. Let’s roll up our sleeves and experiment with some new metrics and try to learn enough from the experiments that we can create the clarity that would truly drive a “high-performance” culture.

I thought it was great advice. Something I wanted to learn from. So I reached out to Jamie, asking him for a reference to an organization who had done exactly what he was advocating, who had done or was doing the hard work of engaging everyone to determine what to measure and how. I thought he would know of at least a handful off the top of his head.

Turns out he didn't know any. Not one.

It's an interesting conundrum. Pledge yourself to something that can be measured and achieve things of lesser significance. Or pledge yourself to something of great significance and give up on the idea of finding a metric that truly tracks your progress.

Does any one know of a third choice?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle

I think this is my least favorite Boyle novel so far. It’s still a great read, but it’s a different kind of novel than all the other Boyle books I’ve read.

First, let’s mention the prose. It’s mature and sharp, but it lacks that rollicking flow that so permeates most of Boyle’s work. And I was ready for that thrilling ride. I had my pen in hand this time, ready to underline every precisely turned phrase, confident that there would be more than could reasonably be counted, and that I would be stuck picking some at random as a representative sample.

But there weren’t that many. “I was lonely, bored to tears, masturbating twice a day in my attic room that was like a sweatbox in a penal institution” comes on page 4, but the next one, “Unfortunately, it was insulated about as thoroughly as an orange crate…” doesn’t show up until page 33, and then, it’s a wait until page 76 for “…her mouth drawn down to nothing, a slash, a telltale crack in the porcelain shell of her shining, martyred face.” Eventually, I put the pen down, disappointed that it wasn’t getting more use.

I took me a while to realize what the problem was. The novel is in the first person and Boyle’s narrator, John Milk, just doesn’t have the traditional Boyle flamboyance in him. The New York Times review of the book called Milk as bland as his name, and that’s pretty much true. Maybe it is something Boyle did purposely, but the lack of his traditional flair really called my attention to Milk’s voice. The fact that he is supposedly speaking the novel extemporaneously into a tape recorder made the occasional flourishes not welcome but actually out of place. Add that to the fact that Milk is a stutterer—stumbling over his words whenever he quotes himself directly. (Who would do that, by the way? I stutter, but not when speaking into a tape recorder, except when I am repeating words I actually said. Then I recreate the stutter I used at the time.) The whole thing just kind of falls in on itself.

Still, there are moments when Boyle—and I do mean Boyle, not Milk—puts you directly in the scene, and sends chills up and down your spine. In case you didn’t know, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is a major character in this book—called Prok, as in Professor K, and he’s Milk’s employer, mentor and sometimes sex partner—and Milk, along with several other assistants, help Kinsey collect sexual histories from tens of thousands of people. There’s one scene where they secretly arrange to meet a subject that falls well outside the bell curve of normal sexual behavior. He’s called Mr. X, and he shares with Milk and the others some evidence of his exploits.

The photographs—there were a hundred or more—had the most immediate effect. I remember one in particular, which showed only the hand of an adult, with its outsized fingers, manipulating the genitalia of an infant—a boy, with a tiny, twig-like erection—and the look on the infant’s face, its eyes unfocused, mouth open, hands groping at nothing, and the sensation it gave me. I felt myself go cold all over, as if I were still in the bathtub, standing rigid beneath the icy shower. I glanced at Corcoran, whose face showed nothing, and then at Prok, who studied the photograph a moment and pronounced it “Very interesting, very interesting indeed.” He leaned in close to me to point out the detail, and said, “You see, Milk, here is definite proof of infantile sexuality, and whether it’s an anomaly or not, of course, is yet to be demonstrated statistically—”

It is exactly this kind of clinical detachment that subsumes the novel and attracts Milk. I’ve written before about how most of Boyle’s work seems to focus on the contrasts and commonalities between two primary characters—whether they are Ned Rise and Mungo Park or Will Lightbody and Charlie Ossining. Well, in The Inner Circle, the two contrasting characters are both Milk—Milk’s basic human nature and the aspiring ideal he has of himself. And it is the clinical standards of detachment that Prok introduces to him that puts these characters into conflict with one another.

I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise if I told you I had trouble concentrating on my work that day. As much as I tried to fight them down, I was prey to my emotions—stupidly, I know. Falsely. Anachronistically. I kept telling myself I was a sexologist, that I had a career and a future and a new outlook altogether, that I was liberated from all those petty, Judeo-Christian constraints that had done such damage over the centuries, but it was no good. I was hurt. I was jealous. I presented my ordinary face to Prok and, through the doorway and across the expanse of the inner room, to Corcoran, but I was seething inside, burning, violent and deranged with the gall of my own inadequacy and failure—my own sins—and I kept seeing the stooped demeaning figure of the cuckold in the commedia dell’arte no matter how hard I tried to dismiss it. I stared at Corcoran when he wasn’t looking. I studied the way he scratched at his chin or tapped the pencil idly on the surface of the blotting pad as if he were knocking out the drumbeat to some private rhapsody. Kill him! a voice screamed in my head. Get up now and kill him!

Corcoran has slept with Milk’s wife. It’s something that Prok encouraged, a freedom not enjoyed by the tormented specimens they study. But Milk can’t accept it. There is something immovable within him that is jealous and horrified by the idea, even though he is welcome to sleep with any woman or man in their entourage.

The device lends a kind of lurid fascination to the entire novel. You don’t quite know what Prok is going to expect his henchmen to do next, and whether Milk will do it with self-abandon or self-abuse. In the end, it is his wife Doris that stands out as the incorruptible ideal, although it is not the hedonistic kind of which Prok would approve. She, and not Milk, is the agent of volition within the novel, and that makes for a strange and sometimes surreal ride.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #9: Discourage Non-Performance by Rewarding Performance

image source
I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the ninth post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much
#7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins
#8: Effective Orientation and Interaction is Key

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

+ + +

Member Engagement Solution #9: Discourage Non-Performance by Rewarding Performance

Many associations struggle with volunteers or volunteer committees that don’t perform useful functions for their associations. And yet many provide recognition and rewards for all volunteer positions, even those that have not contributed. Although it may be difficult, it is essential to publicly reward only those behaviors that provide positive contributions to what the association is trying to achieve. Recruiting volunteer leaders that agree with this philosophy is key, as it is often they who will be on the front line of having to confront under-performing members of their volunteer team.

This is one of the solutions that is much easier to state than it is to implement, especially in any association that has already established a practice of rewarding all volunteers regardless of their contributions. As I've started sharing some of these ideas more widely, it's a question that comes up repeatedly. The question takes many forms, but at its very essence it is borne of frustration. How does one affect change when there are powerful forces aligned against the change that is sought?

The answer is not one that many want to hear. How does one affect change in these situations? Slowly and with dogged determination.

Maybe it starts with questions. One might ask, why do we reward all volunteers equally when some volunteers contribute more than others? Everyone should agree with that, right? Even in an association where all volunteers are rewarded, some would be deserving of higher recognition than others, wouldn't they? Maybe the first step would be to create a recognition award for outstanding volunteer service, and to be very clear and specific about the contributions and achievements that are necessary to obtain it. Maybe that could serve as a new model by which volunteer contributions would be measured, and maybe that will begin to shape the organization's perceptions about volunteer service and the recognition that comes with it.

Now, don't start objecting. I know that question won't work in your association. The leaders won't like it. We already have multiple levels of recognition. The dog ate my homework. It's all okay. The question wasn't intended as a key that will magically transform your organization. It was meant as an example of the doggedness that you have to show if you're serious about affecting that change.

Maybe you're asking the wrong person. Or maybe you're asking it at the wrong time. Try someone else. Try again next year. Or try another question. Try something and keep trying. Believe it or not, you're the only person in the organization who can bring about the change you seek because you may be the only person who sees the need for it.

Does that deter you? Why? What do you have to lose?

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Member Engagement Experiment

As I talked about previously, I gave a webinar on November 2, 2012 (rescheduled from an original date of October 30 because of Hurricane Sandy), on "What Does Member Engagement Mean To You?" Unfortunately, because of some lingering difficulties related to the storm, I was not able to complete the presentation, and so I promised to record and post to my blog some supplementary material about a member engagement experiment that’s going on in my own organization.

Whether or not you saw the original webinar, I'm hoping you'll take a few minutes to review this material, and give me some feedback in the comment section of this post.

The supplementary webinar, "A Member Engagement Experiment," can be downloaded here.

If you'd like to watch the original webinar, it can be viewed here.

Thanks.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Attention Deficit Democracy by Jim Bovard

Another one of those libertarian-leaning books. And like Who Killed the Constitution?, this one leaves me rethinking much of what I once thought about the country I live in.

Bovard has two main observations to make. The first is that, despite popular opinion to the contrary, “we the people” are not in control of our government.

In 1693, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, wrote what could be the motto for modern American government. “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.” Rulers endlessly assure people that they are in charge—while creating agency after agency, program after program that people can neither comprehend nor control. Americans’ political thinking is becoming akin to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance—a series of bromides that sink into the mind and stifle independent, critical thought.

It wasn’t always this way. Early in our nation’s history, the majority of people were suspicious of federal power, and actively worked to curtail it.

Wariness toward government was one of the most important bulwarks of American freedom. Representative government worked partly because people were skeptical of congressmen, presidents, and government officials across the board.

But Bovard says that all began to change in the 1900s, and really accelerated during the New Deal, when “government was placed on a pedestal.”

And it seems that the people most enamored with government are the people in the government itself. There is one vignette, about the publication by the Harvard University Press of a book titled Why People Don’t Trust Government, that is quite revealing.

Britain’s Times Higher Education Supplement published an interview with Joseph Nye, the book’s senior editor and dean of the Kennedy School. The Times reported that “the book, and its subject matter, are being taken seriously in the highest political circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Nye was among a group of American experts led by Hillary Clinton who recently came to Britain for a seminar on the book attended by, among others, Tony Blair, who left clutching a copy.” The book—and Nye’s move from the Clinton administration to Harvard—was prompted by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Nye explained: “I was preoccupied that people could become so anti-government that they were capable of an act like that.” Why People Don’t Trust Government had no mention of Waco. Nye lamented: “All the evidence is that government and politicians are at least as honest as they were in the past, but that isn’t the impression people are getting.” Three days after the interview was published, a Washington Post banner headline heralded the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Monica Lewinsky is not a troubling as what happened at Waco, but the point is well made. The people in government and their academic colleagues sit there and scratch their heads, wondering why the people don’t trust them, while scandal after scandal pours out of Washington. It’s frankly laughable that they can be both so educated and so blind. Bovard sums it up well.

The tone of disbelief in Why People Don’t Trust Government is at times almost comical. Harvard professor Gary Orren wrote: “The public has not only lost faith in the ability of government to solve problems, but it has actually come to believe that government involvement will just make matters worse.”

But it’s not all fun and games. This lack of trust in government has a darker side, and I’m not talking about blowing up buildings or other acts of domestic terrorism. Bovard also quotes Gary Wills, from A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

Many people find themselves surprised at the sympathy they can feel for even outrageous opponents of government—as was demonstrated when popular support blossomed for the anti-government forces holed up with David Koresh at Waco, Texas, or with Randy Weaver, who defied the FBI at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. … But the real victims of our fear are not those faced with such extreme action. … The real victims are millions of poor or shelterless or medically indigent who have been told, over the years, that they must lack care or life support in the name of their very own freedom. Better for them to starve than to be enslaved by “big government.” That is the real cost of our anti-government values.

This makes me think of much of the modern Republican Party, comprised of low and middle-income white America, who stand to lose more than they stand to gain by fighting for the rhetorical liberty that so many false Republican prophets proclaim during their stump speeches.

Loss of control over lawmakers and the resulting increase in distrusting government is, I think, an observable phenomenon, but Bovard’s second observation is more sinister. It is that our perception of democracy as a grand liberating force is flawed, and that this perception, or misperception, is directly responsible for our enslavement. Bovard puts it this way:

The issue is not whether democracy is good or evil, but that seeing democracy as an absolute good open the gates to great evil.

And:

The more people who believe democracy is failsafe, the more likely it will fail. Attention Deficit Democracy produces the attitudes, ignorance, and arrogance that pave the way to political collapse.

I find it to be a persuasive argument. The thought that Who Killed the Constitution? exposed me to—that a government that is responsible for policing itself will inevitably drift towards at best cronyism and at worst tyranny—seems equally applicable to democracies as much as other forms of government. Why would they offer any special protection?

So what does Bovard prescribe for this malaise? I’m not sure he’s clear on that, but it is in his Conclusion that he comes closest to issuing a call to action.

It is time to de-sacralize democracy. Being crowned a winner by the Electoral College does not give one American the right to dispose of all other Americans’ lives and liberties. If we want a new birth of freedom, we must cease glorifying oppressive political machinery. Most of what the government does has little or nothing to do with “the will of the people.” The combination of ignorant voters and conniving politicians is far more likely to ruin than rescue this nation. In the same way that our forefathers in the 1770s refused to be grabbed off the streets and pressed into His Majesty’s navy, so today’s Americans must cease permitting politicians to impose one scheme and fraud after another.

It’s an appealing message for me, but I am not sure how practical it is. Most Americans are uninterested in politics and the activities of politicians. Those that are interested are lost (I think) in an ideological battle between a Left and a Right that increasingly have more in common than the small issues that separate them. I do agree with Bovard when he writes:

The sin of most political activists today is that they want to be anti-conservative or anti-liberal, anti-Republican or anti-Democratic, without being anti-Leviathan.

What is a liberty-minded individual to do? The central message of Bovard’s book is a powerful one.

We must recognize that mankind has not yet devised stable, lasting institutions that can safeguard rights without spawning oppression.

I used to think we had. I used to think—and was taught—that America was that stable and lasting institution. But, increasingly, I am no longer sure.

+ + +

Much of this book reads like a series of loosely connected essays. Bovard’s focus on the two main observations I describe above comprise only a portion of the text. The balance is a cavalcade of libertarian tropes.

The government always lies us into war:

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 provided a challenge for the first Bush administration to get Americans mobilized. In September 1990, the Pentagon announced that up to a quarter million Iraqi troops were near the border of Saudi Arabia, threatening to give Saddam Hussein a stranglehold on one of the world’s most important oil sources. The Pentagon based its claim on satellite images that it refused to disclose. One American paper, the St. Petersburg Times, purchased two Soviet satellite “images taken of that same area at the same time that revealed that there were no Iraqi troops ‘near the Saudi border—just empty desert.’” Jean Heller, the journalist who broke the story, commented, “That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist.” Even a decade after the first Gulf War, the Pentagon refused to disclose the secret photos that justified sending half a million American troops into harm’ way.

Bovard goes into some depth on this general theme, quoting some people throughout history who observed how governments convince their citizens to go to war. Here’s author Randolph Bourne after the United States entered World War I:

Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war. For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, it is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled toward us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it had a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger role in the destiny of the world.

And here’s an interesting exchange between Hermann Goering and an interviewer during his Nuremberg trial:

Goering: “Of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. … But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along.”

Interviewer: “There is one difference. In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

Goering: “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

It’s almost as if there is a science to this—to taking a nation to war. And, if that’s so, are we fools to think that our leaders aren’t students of that science?

Here’s another trope, that the priorities of government are surreal:

In the spring of 2005, Congress showed vastly more enthusiasm for investigating steroid use by baseball players than torture by the U.S. government. Congressmen were more concerned about the sanctity of home run records than they were about the CIA or military interrogators killing innocent people. IN August 2005, the House Government Reform Committee opened a perjury investigation of a baseball player who had testified to the committee that he did not use steroids but tested positive for steroid use a few months later. Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) piously announced that “we have a obligation to look at this.” Perhaps this obligation to scrutinize private misconduct is the flipside of their obligation to ignore government atrocities.

And a thing I plan to use in future arguments:

For those who continue to fail to understand how American actions abroad can motivate foreigners to hate our government, Bovard offers one of the most compelling “shoe on the other foot” examples I’ve come across.

Many Americans have remained oblivious to the impact that the Abu Ghraib photos and other torture reports have on foreigners. How would Americans have responded if the roles had been reversed? Consider the case of Jessica Lynch, the 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed, attractive West Virginian Army supply clerk captured after her supply convoy was attacked during the invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon and the Washington Post trumpeted grossly deceptive accounts of her capture and rescue that were later exposed as frauds (and which Lynch disavowed). What if Americans had seen photos of Lynch with blood running from cuts on her thighs, cowering before attack dogs lurching at her? What if Americans saw photos of a hooded Lynch with wires attached to her body, looking like she was awaiting electrocution? What if Americans saw videos of Lynch screaming as she was being assaulted by Iraqi captors? Such evidence would likely have swayed millions of Americans to support dropping nuclear bomb on Iraq. And yet many Americans refuse to recognize how similar evidence inflames Arabs’ attitudes towards the United States.

And some things that I just didn’t know.

The Abu Ghraib photos were only the tip of the iceberg. Far more incriminating photos and videos of abuses existed, which Pentagon officials revealed in a slide show for members of Congress. However, the Bush administration slapped a national security classification on almost all of the photos and videos not already acquired by the media. Rumsfeld told Congress that the undisclosed material showed “acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.” Highlights included “American soldiers beating one prisoner almost to death, apparently raping a female prisoner, acting inappropriately with a dead body, a taping Iraqi guards raping young boys,” according to NBC News. Suppressing this evidence enabled the Bush administration to persuade many people that the scandal was actually far narrower than the facts would later show.

Finally, in the course of his book, Bovard time and again gives me new perspective on issues I had long thought were settled. For example, we’re taught in school that, early in our nation’s history, the right to vote has reserved only for white men who owned property. That has always struck me as short-sighted and archaic. But read this:

In the era of the Founders, few things were more dreaded than “dependency”—not being one’s own man, not having a truly independent will because of reliance on someone or something else to survive. One of the glories of America was the possibility that common people could become self-reliant with hard work and discipline. John Philip Reid summarized eighteenth-century political thinking: “Property was independence; lack of property was servility, even servitude. … A man without independent wealth could easily be bought and bribed. A man of property has a will of his own.” This was part of the reason why many of the states initially required a property qualification for voters. Sir William Blackstone, whose work on the English constitution profoundly influenced Americans, observed that a property qualification for suffrage was necessary because if the property-less “had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other.” Thomas Jefferson warned: “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”

This is a view I have never taken before, and certainly never have been offered before. Depriving certain citizens of the right to vote still may not be the proper course of action, but knowing that the motivation for the property qualification was maintaining an independent electorate rather than racism changes the view of the problem.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #8: Effective Orientation and Interaction Is Key

image source
I've mentioned previously that I'm leading another innovation effort for WSAE, something we're calling an Innovation Circle. Ours is focused on member engagement, and you can get an overview of what it is and what we're trying to achieve with it here.

I've previously posted on some of the member engagement issues people in the Circle are wrestling with. Now, I'm sharing a some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. This is the eighth post in that series. Previous posts include:

#1: Don't Forget the Fun
#2: Recruit with a One-to-One Philosophy
#3: Recognize Volunteer Contributions
#4: Manage Volunteer Transitions
#5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time
#6: Provide Structure, But Not Too Much
#7: Advisory Groups Can Be Tremendous Win-Wins

As always, I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.

+ + +

Member Engagement Solution #8: Effective Orientation and Interaction is Key

Most new association members (and some old ones) have no idea what their association does and how to get engaged with it. On-going and individual orientations are important, not just to educate members on what is meant to be accomplished and how, but to learn more about the members with an interest in participating and what their individual motivations are. Being upfront about why members want to get engaged (i.e., to advance themselves professionally, to network with colleagues and competitors) and designing opportunities to satisfy those needs while getting the work of the association done can pay tremendous dividends.

I've been doing a lot of this this past summer and fall. My Board chairman and I have been going on in-person visits to some of the members of our association. We've been focusing on those that have been big contributors in the past and, for one reason or another, have fallen away, or those that have been "checkbook members" that we'd like to see get more engaged.

As part of these visits we've offered a short presentation on our association's overall mission, strategy and key objectives. In doing so, I've been surprised by two things.

1. How interested the members are in this information. Sure, they want to know what the association can do for them--what programs and services we offer and what the value of those services are compared to the dues dollars they spend. But they also want to know why we do the things that we do. What's our mission? What are we trying to achieve big picture? And why do we think those strategies are important for the future of our industry? They are, I realize in speaking with them, strategic thinkers, too. They and their companies are trying to achieve big things in difficult circumstances, and validating that the association that represents their industry conducts itself in the same manner is important to them.

2. How much there is to learn from talking to members. Without exception, I learn something every time I talk to a member. And when I sit across the table from one, in their own place a business, and engage them in a discussion about what our association does and why, I learn a ton. Not the least of which better ways to think and frame and talk about the things that we do. It's one thing to put together a Powerpoint presentation is your office and make sure the animations coincide with all the talking points. It's quite another to make the presentation to an interested listener and watch them respond and listen to their feedback. When you hit something that resonates, it's like finding gold. And when you stumble into something that falls flat, the new perspective you gain is worth all the time and expense of being out of the office.

Talking to members is something every association staff person should do more of. And to the degree you can, strip away all the marketing speak about how wonderful your association is. Just talk plainly. Here's how we see things and here's what we're trying to address it. If you haven't done anything like that before, I think you'll be surprised by how much there is to learn.