Monday, July 30, 2012

Why We Don't Take Risks

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I recently had a reason to re-review the four principles of innovation and the four barriers to adopting them in the association world that were identified as part of WSAE's White Paper on Innovation. If you haven't yet read that paper, I would encourage you to do so, but for today's post, I want to focus on just one principle and it's corresponding barrier that continue to resonate with me.

The principle is the "freedom to experiment and fail"--having a culture where new ideas are given the support they need to succeed or fail on their own merits, and where, when failure happens, the focus is on learning from the experience rather than assigning blame. And the corresponding barrier? Well, let me quote directly from the paper:

Low tolerance for risk
Innovative organizations are by nature risk‐taking organizations—places with the freedom to experiment and fail. But many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The need for change must be clearly documented and then trial‐ballooned and focus‐grouped with numerous stakeholders before it can get off the ground, and then it often has to navigate a minefield of existing programs and sacred cows in order to compete for funding. What many associations deem normal due diligence procedures—financial analyses and projections—can prematurely kill most innovative ideas, by creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where none, in fact, exists. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is also often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

There are a lot of ideas packed into that single paragraph, and I think the risk-avoidance behaviors and mechanisms that it describes still surround most of us who work in associations on a daily basis. I also recently re-discovered this HBR blog post from May 2011, where a young social sector professional diagnoses the risk-avoidance behaviors that plague her vocation. The parallels between that world and ours make it valuable reading, too.

But there's one area that's not yet been mentioned. Your boss can provide you with support and cover you need for risk-taking. There can be money in the budget for the implementation of your new ideas. There can even be projects taken off your plate to allow you more time and flexibility to stretch into new areas. But if you're not willing to step outside your comfort zone and actually do something different, something unpredictable, something whose value has not yet been determined, then innovation is not going to happen and you will remain part of the problem, not the solution.

Why aren't we taking the risks we need to break the old habits, to create new value, to advance our profession? It's because of you, isn't it? You and your fear that you won't measure up to the new standard, and that the future won't be as secure as the past. In avoiding risk-taking, you will rush us head-long into the failure we're trying to avoid.

Please stop. What exactly do you think you're protecting anyway?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

I picked this one up on a lark at one of the library’s used book sales. Buck a book the first day. Buck a box of books the second day. Phenomenally popular in some circles, phenomenally panned in others, I thought I’d give it a read and see what sense I could make of it.

In case you don’t know, Left Behind is the first in a sixteen-book series LaHaye and Jenkins wrote—all of them novels—and all of them based on the end time mythology believed by some Evangelical Christians. The Rapture, The Tribulation, the Mark of the Beast—all of that stuff. Left Behind deals solely with the Rapture itself—millions of people all over the world disappearing in the blink of an eye (evidently swept off the Heaven by Jesus)—and the lives of those left behind who have to make sense of the loss. And I want to deal with the novel on three different levels.

First, there’s the writing.

It’s not awful. Given the subject matter and some reviews I’ve heard of it, I expected it to be absolute dreck, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it on par with other popular pulp fiction I’ve read. The prose is not rich, it doesn’t thrill you with its imagery or metaphor, but it doesn’t distract you with its clumsiness and it keeps the story moving forward.

Next, there’s the plot.

There are 468 pages in the edition I have. And until page 458, I was wrestling with the idea that I might go ahead and at least read the next volume, if not all sixteen of them. How did they manage to lose me just ten pages shy of the end? Let me try to explain.

The story is mostly about a handful of people—an airline pilot, his daughter, a journalist, an assistant pastor—who all got left behind because their faith was lacking in some way, and about how they find their ways back to Christ as they realize that world events are starting to follow the prophecies they see in Revelation. The rise of the Antichrist is a big part of that, and in this novel the Antichrist is:

“Nicolae Carpathia.”

“Carpathia like the—?”

“Yes, like the Carpathian Mountains. A melodic name, you must admit. I found him most charming and humble. Not unlike myself!” Again he had laughed.

“I’ve not heard of him.”

“You will! You will.”

Buck [the journalist] had tried to lead the old man. “Because he’s…”

“Impressive, that’s all I can say.”

“And he’s some sort of low-level diplomat at this point?”

“He’s a member of the lower house of Romanian government.”

“In the senate?”

“No, the senate is the upper house.”

“Of course.”

“Don’t feel bad that you don’t know, even though you are an international journalist. This is something only Romanians and amateur political scientists like me know. That is something I like to study.”

“In your spare time.”

“Precisely. But even I had not known of this man. I mean, I knew someone in the House of Deputies—that’s what they call the lower house in Romania—was a peacemaker and leading a movement toward disarmament. But I did not know his name. I believe his goal is global disarmament, which we Israelis have come to distrust.”

This is our first glimpse of the man who would later be revealed as the Antichrist and, given the novel’s subject matter, the alarm bells should already be going off. The identity of the Antichrist is never really a mystery to the reader, although the characters struggle somewhat to puzzle it out. But what really stands out to me is how much I’m initially on board with Carpathia. Global disarmament. World peace. Sounds good to me. And it seems like he might have a better shot at that with all the evangelicals whisked off to heaven.

You see, as I worked my way through the novel and Carpathia moved farther and farther along the path outlined for the Antichrist in Revelation, I kept trying to harmonize his actions and those of the people around him with reality as I understood it. That, to me, would have been a much more interesting novel—a story in which the events of Biblical Armageddon took place, but in a way that was logical and consistent with the way humans actually conduct themselves on planet Earth. I thought that would have been really clever, and I kept trying to read this novel that way. Picture a series of events that secularists would interpret as natural and beneficial and that evangelicals would interpret as sinister and evil. The authors could have kept their readers guessing as to what was really going on until the very end. But as I finally deciphered ten pages away from the ending, LaHaye and Jenkins couldn’t write that novel. No one could. Because the events of Biblical Armageddon depend entirely on the suspension of reality. They couldn’t happen any other way. And if you aren’t willing to abandon reality, then nothing that happens is this novel will strike you as plausible.

For example, at a press conference, Carpathia is asked what he thinks is behind all the disappearances mainstream society has not yet interpreted as the Rapture. He refers to a hypothesis of one of his scientist friends:

“Dr. Rosenzweig believes that some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world, could have been ignited or triggered—perhaps by a natural cause like lightning, or even by an intelligent life-from that discovered this possibility before we did—and caused this instant action throughout the world.”

Um, excuse me? Come again? The fictional press corps is evidently ready to swallow that mumbo jumbo, but one intrepid reporter asks why, if that is so, the disappearances affected some people and not others?

“At this point they are postulating that certain people’s levels of electricity made them more likely to be affected. That would account for all the children and babies and even fetal material that vanished. Their electromagnetism was not developed to the point where it could resist whatever happened.”

If this was the real world, who would take any of that seriously? Especially a world where all the fundamentalist Christians are gone. The average understanding of real science across the world would have jumped several points. A person’s level of electricity? What does that even mean?

And there’s more stuff like that that this Antichrist does, things that don’t make any plausible sense in the real world, and can only be rationalized if you believe they need to happen because the Bible says they must. Things like a pact between United Nations members to guarantee Israel’s borders, an agreement by all nations to give their nuclear weapons to the U.N., moving the U.N. headquarters to Babylon, and the establishment of one currency, religion and language for the entire world. Think about the real political situation in the world today. These things are not just implausible, they are ludicrous. But LaHaye and Jenkins must make them happen because they are writing a novel about the prophesized end times. And how do they do that? How do they make that all work?


That’s why it took me so long to figure it out. I kept thinking there would a rational explanation for things, that I was reading a psychological thriller—like The Exorcist—where there are two interpretations of events—one embraced by the believers and one by the non-believers, and the authors would heighten the tension by walking the razor-thin wire between the two interpretations, never letting on to the reader which interpretation was the right one. Was Carpathia the Antichrist trying to take over and enslave the world? Or was he the leader of a broad secular movement, working against religious interpretations of reality and towards co-existence and peace among all peoples?

“You think Carpathia is this Antichrist?”

“I don’t see how I could come to any other conclusion.”

“But I really believed in the guy.”

“Why not? Most of us did. Self-effacing, interested in the welfare of the people, humble, not looking for power or leadership. But the Antichrist is a deceiver. And he had the power to control men’s minds. He can make people see lies as truth.”

That last bit LaHaye and Jenkins mean literally. What finally pushes me over the edge is the scene where Carpathia murders someone in front of a room full of people, and then hypnotizes them all into believing some madman had rushed into the room and shot the victim. There’s no going back after that. Carpathia has literal magic at his command. It’s what he needs to make the Bible story actually happen, but it’s also the point where I lose all interest.

And finally, there’s the worldview.

It’s pretty black and white.

As someone observes shortly after the Rapture occurs:

Everyone we know who’s gone is either a child or a very nice person.

Of course they are. We all know that only true Christians are good people. All those secularists and Jews and Muslims—they’re all working for Satan. The authors really write about non-believers like all they know about them are the stereotypes. Here one of the main characters, Rayford Steele (the airline pilot) thinking about his wife’s belief and his lack of belief (the bold type is emphasis I have added):

Irene had always talked of a loving God, but even God’s love and mercy had to have limits. Had everyone who denied the truth pushed God to his limit? Was there no more mercy, no second chance? Maybe there wasn’t, and if that was so, that was so.

But if there were options, if there was still a way to find the truth and believe or accept or whatever it was Irene said one was supposed to do, Rayford was going to find it. Would it mean admitting that he didn’t know everything? That he had relied on himself and that now he felt stupid and weak and worthless? He could admit that. After a lifetime of achieving, of excelling, of being better than most and the best in most circles, he had been as humbled as was possible in one stroke.

As if non-believers are consciously denying some truth that is readily apparent to them. As if they believe they know everything. The atheist clich├ęs are thick as thieves in this novel, and there isn’t a single character who has a prayer to survive with their non-belief intact with LaHaye and Jenkins calling the shots. Rayford’s dialogue with Bruce Barnes (the assistant pastor) and his inner turmoil as he struggles with his own lack of belief is a treasure trove of these tropes.

I believe God’s purpose in this is to allow those who remain to take stock of themselves and leave their frantic search for pleasure and self-fulfillment, and turn to the Bible for truth and to Christ for salvation.

Frantic? Most people who are serious about searching for pleasure and self-fulfillment are pretty disciplined about it. There’s no other way to find it.

It doesn’t make any difference, at this point, why you’re still on earth. You may have been too selfish or prideful or busy, or simply you didn’t take the time to examine the claims of Christ for yourself.

Or perhaps you were unconvinced by the utter lack of evidence?

He needed forgiveness of sin and the assurance that one day he would join his wife and son in heaven.

What sin does he need to be forgiven of? Not thinking the right magical thoughts?

He confessed his pride. Pride in his intelligence. Pride in his looks. Pride in his abilities. He confessed his lusts, how he had neglected his wife, how he had sought his own pleasure. How he had worshipped money and things.

Oh, the horror. The horror!

Indeed, much later in the novel when every major character seemed to be turning into a born again Christian, I scribbled in the margin:

This story needs an atheist who, resigned to acknowledge that the God of the Bible is real, still wants nothing to do with the S.O.B.

At first I thought Rayford’s daughter Chloe was going to be that character. Here she is arguing with her father shortly after the “disappearances,” when those “left behind” are still trying to make sense of them. Rayford and Chloe were both part-time Christians before the Rapture, and now Rayford is coming to understand what has really happened.

“Chloe, I think the Christians are gone.”

“So I’m not a Christian either?”

“You’re my daughter and the only other member of my family still left; I love you more than anything on earth. But if the Christians are gone and everyone else is left, I don’t think anyone is a Christian.”

“Some kind of a super Christian, you mean.”

“Yeah, a true Christian. Apparently those who were taken were recognized by God as truly his. How else can I say it?”

“Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator?”

“Careful, honey. You think I’m wrong, but what if I’m right?”

“Then God is spiteful, hateful, mean. Who want to go to heaven with a God like that?”

“If that’s where your mom and Raymie are, that’s where I want to be.”

“I want to be with them, too, Daddy! But tell me how this fits with a loving, merciful God. When I went to church, I got tired of hearing how loving God is. He never answered my prayers and I never felt like he knew me or cared about me. Now you’re saying I was right. He didn’t. I didn’t qualify, so I got left behind?”

Chloe’s conundrum was also mine for a while. I wanted the authors to explain to me what the critical difference was—why some people who thought they were Christians were raptured and why others who thought the same thing weren’t. The closest they come to providing an answer is in that earlier dialogue between Rayford and Bruce. In it, Bruce explains that he thought he was covered because he believed and found solace in the Bible verses that said if he confessed his sins and was faithful God would forgive him and cleanse him. Even though:

I knew other verses said you had to believe and receive, to trust and abide, but to me that was sort of theological mumbo jumbo.

And later, he stresses:

But we are to receive his gift, abide in Christ, and allow him to live through us.

These are clearly the key ideas, the description of the difference that saved some and caused the others to be left behind. Believe and receive his gift. Abide in Christ. Allow him to live through you. Sounds good. But I don’t have any idea what they really mean. The rest of Bruce’s dialogue provides some clues, but they are all so childish, so parochial, that it’s hard to take them seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, Bruce laments, he knows that he was left behind because he did such abominations as not tithing to the church, not sharing his faith with others, seeing movies when he was supposed to be witnessing, reading things he was not supposed to read, and looking at magazines that fed his lusts. Well yeah, Bruce, doing stuff like that, I can see why God left you behind.

And being left behind is evidently a very bad thing in this narrative world that LaHaye and Jenkins have created. As Bruce laments at the end of this dialogue:

There is no doubt in my mind that we have witnessed the Rapture. My biggest fear, once I realized the truth, was that there was no more hope for me. I had missed it, I had been a phony, I had set up my own brand of Christianity that may have made for a life of freedom but had cost me my soul. I had heard people say that when the church was raptured, God’s Spirit would be gone from the earth. The logic was that when Jesus went to heaven after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit that God gave to the church was embodied in believers. So that when they were taken, the Spirit would be gone, and there would be no more hope for anyone left.

This, of course, is totally consistent with the evangelical worldview. The only good people on the planet are the true Christians, so when they are gone, the world will inexorably slip into darkness and chaos.

The news was full of crime, looting, people taking advantage of the chaos. People were being shot, maimed, raped, killed. The roadways were more dangerous than ever. Emergency units were understaffed, fewer air- and ground-traffic controllers manned the airports, fewer qualified pilots and crews flew the planes.

People checked the graves of loved ones to see if their corpses had disappeared, and unscrupulous types pretended to do the same while looking for valuables that might have been buried with the wealthy. It had become an ugly world overnight, and Rayford was worried about his and Chloe’s safety.

And this, for me, is ultimately the most unbelievable part of the entire story. If only the truest of true believers had been swept off to heaven, then there would still be BILLIONS of people left on earth who were fundamentally good people, who would want to see the world move on the way it always had. I certainly would. Contrary to the authors’ opinion of the ungodly, most of them aren’t looking for someone else to save them. They are working hard, day in and day out, to save the world from itself. Maybe, since the world population would be slightly more secular than before, they would actually find ways to make things a little better. Chaos would certainly reign for a day or two after the Rapture incident, but cooler heads would prevail.

But not in this novel. There can be no positive atheists in this morality play. For God is real and the atheists are just plain wrong.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #1: Don't Forget the Fun

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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 want to share some of the solutions the group is coming forward with--strategies that have been demonstrated to work in at least one association environment. I'll share a number of these over an on-going series of posts, and would encourage you to add your thoughts and comments as we go along.


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Member Engagement Solution #1: Don't Forget the Fun

To be truly engaging, association activities and volunteer tasks must include an element of fun. Volunteers and members are people. By making the tasks you want them to perform fun, you have a better chance to engage their innovation and creativity. Fun is not necessarily frivolous. In fact, too much mindless fun can be detrimental as decision-makers may question the value of participation. Keeping things clearly tied to organizational objectives, but allowing people to openly explore and experiment, may be a way to create a balance between having fun with a fulfilling a serious purpose.

For me, one of the best lessons learned on this front is the need to couple exciting and engaging extra-curricular activities with any association business function. Sure, you can put Rubik's Cubes on the breakout tables and provide scented markers for the flipcharts, but let's face it; people can only have so much fun during a committee meeting or strategic planning exercise. You need to get them out of the four walls of the meeting room and help them experience something unique in the location they find themselves in.

In my current association, we've planned a number of different excursions like this, all designed to get people interacting with one another in a setting different from the one they may have shown up for. The surprise factor, the new experience, the sharing of personal reactions--they all combine to create heightened engagement opportunities, both between the participants and between the participants and the organization. They become a more cohesive team, and they do it while they're having fun.

What strategies have you successfully used to bring fun into volunteer tasks or your member engagement process?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts on Association Mergers

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I've had reason to think more about association mergers in recent weeks. Not because my own association is contemplating one, but because I know of a few situations among people in my network, and I've been asked for my thoughts and perspective.

So here's what I've been thinking. The first question to ask of any leader contemplating a merger is: "Are you willing to create something new?"

Look at the image I choose to accompany this post. Google Images is rife with links to pictures of the more traditional merge sign--where one traffic lane comes in from the side and connects with the more dominant one moving forward. But I didn't select any of those. The image I chose I think is someone's own creation, because I've never actually seen it on the roads. Two lanes of traffic, coming together from opposite directions, equally contributing to a new and more concentrated direction.

That's what should happen when two associations merge. And the new organization that's created? It should be more effective at meeting the needs of the community than the two distinct organizations had been. If not, what exactly was the point?

Think of all the traditional reasons why associations contemplate merging with an allied or competing organization. Why does A want to merge with B? Because A is dying and linking to B will keep its brand alive? Because B is threatening A's market share and swallowing B will eliminate the threat? These may be legitimate business reasons, but do either better serve the interests of the community? And who makes that determination? The staff? The Board? Don't both have obvious conflicts of interest on the question?

It seems to me that this is one of those situations when the community itself has to participate in the decision-making process. Does the community agree that a new strategy is necessary to better meet its needs? Not A's membership and B's membership, but the actual community. Is it tired of paying dues to two redundant organizations? Or to two that provide unique and valuable services, but would it benefit from greater efficiency and effectiveness if the two merged into one? These are the far better questions to ask before staff and volunteer leaders start negotiating the terms of a merger.

And when those terms are negotiated, have them focused on creating something new out of the best pieces of the two. Bringing two organizations with different cultures together is hard enough. Don't force one to adhere to core principles of the other. Use the merger as an opportunity to create something that's better for everyone. If staff is to be consolidated, don't force A to move into B's offices or B to move into A's. Figuratively and practically, go find some new office space for both A and B to move into. It's meant to be a change for everyone involved, so shouldn't the new organization start from the different platform than that built and protected by either of the original two?

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. I'd be interested in what others think, especially those who have actually been through association mergers in the past.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester

I read about the Bismarck—a famous German battleship from World War II—and the British campaign to sink it in one book or another. I remember the author, whoever it was, describing it as one of the most daring and thrilling episodes of the Second World War, so I thought I would see if anyone had written a book about it. The search results included just one tome—Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester.

The exclamation point should have cautioned me. Here’s Forester’s opening line:

This is a story of the most desperate chances, of the loftiest patriotism and of the highest professional skills, of a gamble for the dominion of the world in which human lives were the stakes on the green gaming table of the ocean.

And it goes downhill from there. I think this book might have appealed to members of the Winston Churchill Admiration Society when it came out in 1959, but it suffers painfully under a modern reading. The patriotism is, I fear, more jingoistic than lofty, and the desperate chances and professional skills Forester likes to portray in his fiction are largely supplanted by the indiscriminate and bone-crushing technology of modern warfare.

Far down below decks in the Bismarck, walled in by armor plate, a group of officers and men sat at tables and switchboards. Despite the vile weather outside, despite the wind and the waves, it was almost silent in here; in addition to the quiet orders and announcements of the radar fire-control team there could only be heard the low purring of the costly instruments they handled. Centered in the room was the yellow-green eye of the radar, echoing the impressions received by the aerial at the masthead a hundred feet above; the room was half dark to enable the screen to be seen clearly. And in accordance with what that screen showed, dials were turned and pointers were set and reports were spoken into telephones; save for the uniforms, it might have been a gathering of medieval wizards performing some secret rite—but it was not the feeble magic of trying to cause an enemy to waste away by sticking pins into his waxen image or of attempting to summon up fiends from the underworld. These incantations let loose a thousand foot tons of energy from the Bismarck’s guns and hurled instant death across ten miles of raging sea.

The strategy employed to trap the Bismarck is not gripping—lots of scenes of admirals and captains in control rooms with fingers pointing to sea charts saying “here,” the Bismarck is “here”—the kind of thing, I suppose, that really happened, but which pales in comparison to any typical Tom Clancy novel.

It also helps tremendously if you have a rooting interest in the fight, especially the one you’re supposed to have, the one in favor of the British and against the Germans. The Germans portrayed in the novel are, in fact, more or less monolithic in their evil devotion to their Reich and their Fuhrer—something, I think, the real Germans would have called patriotism—but clearly not the kind of patriotism we’re supposed to respect. They, of course, get what’s coming to them, and the final destruction of the Bismarck is almost orgiastic in its devastation.

The smoke was pouring from the battered, almost shapeless hull of the Bismarck, stripped of her upper works, mast, funnels, bridge and all. Yet under the smoke, plainly in the dull gray light, he could see a forest—a small grove, rather—of tall red flames roaring upward from within the hull. But it was not the smoke nor the flames that held the eye, strangely enough, but the ceaseless dance of tall jets of water all about her. Two battleships were flinging shells at her both from their main and from their secondary armaments; and from the cruisers twenty eight-inch guns were joining in. There was never a moment when she was not ringed in by the splashes of near-misses, but when the leader forced his eye to ignore the distraction of this wild water dance he saw something else: from bow to stern along the tortured hull he could see a continual coming and going of shellbursts, volcanoes of flame and smoke. From that low height, as the Swordfish closed in, he could see everything. He could see the two fore-turrets useless, one of them with the roof blown clean off and the guns pointing over side at extreme elevation, the other with the guns fore and aft drooping at extreme depression. Yet the aftermost turret was still in action; even as he watched, he saw one of the guns in it fling out a jet of smoke towards the shadowy form of the King George V; down there in the steel turret, nestling among the flames, some heroes were still contriving to load and train and fire. And he saw something else at the last moment of his approach. There were a few tiny, foreshortened figures visible here and there, scrambling over the wreckage, incredibly alive amid the flames and the explosions, leaping down from the fiery hull into the boiling sea.

My favorite bit there is line about the heroes. Yes, I guess it’s okay to call the Germans heroes in death. We certainly aren’t allowed to call them heroes in life.

It ends predictably, with an appeal for humanity and the equality of man.

“Bismarck sunk,” said the young officer in the War Room. “Bismarck sunk.”

Those words of the young officer were spoken in a hushed voice, and yet their echoes were heard all over the world. In a hundred countries radio announcers hastened to repeat those words to their audiences. In a hundred languages, newspaper headlines proclaimed , Bismarck sunk to a thousand million readers. Frivolous women heard those words unhearing; unlettered peasants heard them uncomprehending, even though the destinies of all of them were changed in that moment. Stock exchange speculators revised their plans. Prime ministers and chiefs of state took grim note of those words. The admirals of a score of navies prepared to compose memoranda advising their governments regarding the political and technical conclusions to be drawn from them. And there were wives and mothers and children who heard those words as well, just as Nobby’s mother had heard about the loss of the Hood.

The Hood is an English ship sunk by the Bismarck, and Nobby one of the English sailors who died as a result. The juxtaposition of two deaths and two mothers is false pathos as its finest, coming as late as it does in the story. Too bad the author didn’t think of those mothers sooner.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Too Many Choices

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Anyone who's had dinner with me knows I hate restaurants with too many things on the menu. When the waiter hands me something that's spiral bound I know I've come to the wrong place. The best thing I can do is open the menu to a random page and limit my options to what I see in front of me. Entree salads? Great. I can find one that I like. Pasta? That's fine, too. Believe it or not, to my way of thinking, the best restaurants are those with just three entrees on the menu. One meat, one fish, one vegetarian. How many other options do I really need?

So given that I have this perspective, it was strange when I recently realized that my association was offering too many options to our members. Too many programs, too many initiatives, too many goals and objectives. In our efforts to be innovative and experimental we had taken on too much and were having a hard time: (A) Getting everything done, and (B) Communicating all we were doing effectively to our members and board.

I made the determination that it was time to trim back. It was time to stop doing many things well and start doing fewer things better. It would help with our effectiveness. It would help with our messaging and communications. If we had spent the last few years adding things to our plate in the spirit of innovative improvement, then it was certainly time to assess what was working and what wasn't and reallocate our resources into those fewer areas that had demonstrated the biggest impact.

We tackled some of this at our recent strategic board meeting. I engaged the leadership in a discussion about focusing our message and initiatives, and they met me more than half way. They saw the need and the logic behind what I was advocating, and they shared their perspectives on what their own experiences and the program data we had was telling them about where we were having the greatest impact. I came back from the meeting with a sharpened understanding of what was important and a readiness to realign our program initiatives for more focused effect.

But guess what? Stopping things is a lot harder than it looks. Things that fall outside the smaller circle we had drawn have champions and advocates in the membership and on the staff. That's largely why we were doing them in the first place. Somebody was deriving some benefit from them, and if we were going to stop working on them, those somebodies would have to be informed about the reasons why.

We're in that process now. To help frame those conversations, I've actually created three categories of things we're going to "stop doing":

1. Maintain Status Quo. In my estimation, these are programs that are right on the line. They are things the association has invested time an energy in, they continue to serve the interests of a small constituency, and they are clearly aligned with the shorter list of objectives we have identified for the future. They don't, however, represent growth areas for the organization. They're small. They're good. But that's all they'll ever be. Let's accept that and quit trying to promote and grow them so aggressively.

2. Put on the Backburner. These are good ideas that the association does not currently have the resources to pursue appropriately. Every association (I think) has things like this on its agenda--big picture goals and ideas that are certainly worth achieving but not so certainly worth pursuing. Look at it this way. If in order to pursue one of these objectives appropriately, you'd have to reallocate resources wildly across your organization and make it 30% or more of your total focus, you have to honestly ask if the objective is worth that kind of intensity. Is it that mission critical? If so, then you should go for it. But if not, then put it on the backburner and focus instead on a shorter list of programs and their potential impact on the resource base of the association. If you're able to grow and be more successful, you might be better positioned to pursue those backburner ideas in the future.

3. Stop Doing. No kidding. Really. We're going to stop doing these things. I know they seem like good ideas, but they haven't worked out as well as we thought they would and they're taking our focus away from the things that are more highly valued. To be innovative we absolutely have to try new things, and they were all worth the effort from that point of view, but innovation equally requires us to stop doing things as part of a continuous improvement cycle. Spend some time branching out, trying new things, and then spend some time pruning back, funneling resources into the areas that have shown the greatest potential. Everyone understands that in concept. It just takes discipline to put it into practice.

Hopefully these three categories will help me communicate with the various stakeholders who will be impacted by the changes we're going to make. I'm sure some programs will float around between the categories as the discussions begin, but at least they provide a framework that will help me accomplish the most important thing--reducing the number of programs we have to coordinate and promote.

If you'll forgive my restaurant analogy, when our customers sit down in our restaurant, I don't want them poring over a spiral bound menu, stuffed full of choices that will tax my kitchen staff to prepare and create. I'd rather hand them a single sheet of paper, with everything on it made of the finest quality ingredients by people who know and love what they do.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Chairman's Gift

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We have a tradition in our association of giving a gift to our outgoing Chairman of the Board. That's not terribly unique, I know. Most associations recognize the contributions of their outgoing chair some way. But over time, we have evolved a special approach to this tradition, one that is based not on what the association values, but what is valued by the individual. It takes more time and sometimes costs more money, but I think it's worth it.

With our fiscal year drawing to a close, we just went through this gift-giving ritual again at our year-end strategic retreat. At the closing dinner, we first offered token gifts of appreciation to those who were rotating completely off the board. Then our outgoing chair passed the ceremonial gavel to his successor. And then it was time to make the gift presentation to the outgoing chair.

The process that led up to that moment was about a month in the making. I had reached out to his spouse to enlist her help. "We want to recognize his contributions to the organization," I told her, which had been significant. "But we don't want to give him a simple plaque or even yet-another Mont Blanc pen. We want to get him something he will truly remember. Something he will appreciate just as much as we appreciated his service as chair."

She immediately accepted the challenge. We brainstormed, tossed a few ideas back and forth, brought the incoming chairman in on the conspiracy, and eventually settled on an item that both fit our budget and which would surprise and delight our chair. It wasn't even a thing. It was an experience. Something he had always wanted to do, but had never had the time or the ability to do so.

What it was is not important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is the look on our chair's face was the gift was presented to him--when he opened the token we had gift-wrapped and chosen to represent the experience that was in store for him, and when he was told what opportunity we had made possible. He was surprised. He was delighted. He was, I think, more than anything else, touched that we had taken the time to get him something unique, to think of him as an individual and not just as another in a long line of association chairs.

But that wasn't the best part. The best part was the message it delivered to everyone else at the retreat. The other folks sitting around the long banquet table, some of whom have been part of the association leadership for years and others who are attending their first event. Folks who may not have known what they were getting themselves into when they accepted the invitation to attend or to join the Board of Directors. Folks who had sat solidly in "listen-only mode" for the strategic discussions we had just had for the past day and a half. To those people, most of all, this chairman's gift, and the manner in which it was given and received, demonstrated more than anything else we could have done that this association is a family, and that we care about each other in ways that go beyond financial reports, strategic objectives, and key performance indicators.

And that, I think, is worth the extra time and expense we pour into our chairman gifts.