Monday, September 24, 2012

Things We Must Do

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I had the pleasure of facilitating a few roundtable discussions at WSAE's second annual National Summit on Association Innovation last week. Our topic was "Creating a Culture of Innovation."

The first thing I did was reflect on the presentations we had heard prior to the start of our roundtables. WSAE brought several valuable perspectives to our attention, and as I listened to their calls for our organizations to do things like taking more calculated risks, rewarding creativity, and facilitating collaboration across all our stakeholder groups, it occurred to me that the challenge before us was not just in figuring out how to do these things once, but how to do them systemically. How were we going to build cultural assumptions, systems, and infrastructures across our organizations so that these innovative practices didn't just happen episodically, but continually and automatically, without the people in the organization having to consciously direct them?

That was, in part, the challenge I put before the roundtable participants. And I asked them to start by identifying the barriers they saw present in their organizations. The things they knew would stand in the way of such radical thinking.

The barriers they identified won't surprise you. Boards that don't support change. Staffs that don't have time to think, much less tackle complex problems. Cultures that reward the status quo and seem pre-wired for risk aversion. It was the usual litany, but as we began to discuss possible strategies for addressing them, several things became clear.

First, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to these problems. Every person in every organization faces a different set of problems. There are certainly some common themes, but the CEO in the organization with a forward-looking Board is going to have an easier time than the junior staffer in the organization whose boss trashes all her ideas for change. That's just the way things are.

Second, regardless of the barriers arrayed before them, individuals in troubled organizations must begin to take action. When asked to summarize all the output of all the discussions at the end of the conference, I decided to frame my comments around this core idea. I decided to speak up. I decided to challenge people. I decided to call everyone's attention to what we already know but which some of us are not willing to face. If our organizations are going to change, it is us who recognize the need for change who must do the changing.

And we know what to do. That's the third takeaway I got from the roundtable discussions. The specific path forward isn't always easy or clear, but we know what big changes need to be made. In short, we must:

1. Create a sense of urgency around the need for innovative change. In our cluttered lives, the only things that seem to get done are the things that come with a sense of urgency. Next week's Board meeting, next month's newsletter, next year's annual conference--they're all screaming for our attention. We must find ways to create the same sense of urgency around building innovative systems in our organizations. It doesn't happen now because it's at the bottom of everyone's to do list. Move it up and start working on it. More importantly, talk to others in your organization and see if you can move it up their priority lists as well.

2. Educate our Boards about the rewards the come to organizations that successfully innovate. The good news is that there is no shortage of information and thought leaders in our environment with real stories about the value of innovative change for organizational performance. We must bring this information to the attention of our leaders. More than one association CEO at the conference was already using Race for Relevance as a primer and discussion guide for their Board meetings, but R4R is not the only conversation starter out there. Find one that will work in your organization and bring it to the attention of your Board.

3. Create a process for sunsetting programs. If you do nothing else, please do this one. We're all being crushed under the weight of legacy programs and out-dated processes. It really is possible to stop doing things, and I would urge you to find one thing to stop doing this week. Once you do that, and discover that the world does not come to an end, you can begin working on the challenging task of linking your organization's strategic priorities to a systemic process that evaluates program and process alignment with those priorities, and brings those found lacking to a timely and a respectful end.

In closing, I reminded everyone that change takes time, and if we are going to be successful, it is critical for us all to extend our visions. Knowing that the road ahead may take many years to traverse,we must begin thinking about the people and processes within our organization who can best serve as consistent advocates for change over the appropriate time horizon. If they're not already apparent to us, then our first task should focus on building them.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I don’t know why I picked this one up. I’d heard of it—in a vague, almost misty kind of way. A book written by a health care professional who works with the terminally ill, documenting what she learned about how the human animal approaches and eventually accepts its own death. That sounds fascinating to me, but this is not that book. Well, not really.

She has a chart. The chart shows the five stages of dying: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. And she has transcripts of long interviews with patients, supposedly in each one of these stages. Except the interviews…

…were purposely left unedited and unabbreviated and demonstrate moments when we were perceptive of a patient’s implicit or explicit communications and times when we did not react in the most responsive manner. The part that cannot be shared with the reader is the experience that one has during such a dialogue: the many nonverbal communications that go on constantly between patient and physician, physician and chaplain, or patient and chaplain; the sighs, wet eyes, the smiles, gestures with the hands, the empty look, the astonished glance, or the outstretched hands—all communications of significance which often go beyond words.

That’s probably the crux of my problem. Call me weird, but I didn’t pick up the book for unedited interviews that don’t reveal anything. Based on its title and its reputation, I picked it up for…oh, what’s the phrase? Communications of significance which often go beyond words.

The book is also a relic. A relic from a time when health care professionals feared the mortality of their patients.

During my last visit to Mr. X., I saw that this usually dignified man was furious. He said over and over again to his nurse, “You lied to me,” staring at her in angry disbelief. I asked him the reason for this outburst. He tried to tell me that she had put the siderails up as soon as he asked to be put in an upright position so that he could put his legs out of bed “once more.” This communication was interrupted several times by the nurse, who, equally angry, stated her side of the story, namely, that she had to put the siderails up in order to get help to fulfill his demands. A loud argument ensued during which the nurse’s anger was perhaps best expressed in her statement: “If I had left them down, you would have fallen out of bed and cracked your head open.” If we look at this incident again in an attempt to understand the reactions rather than to judge them, we must realize that this nurse also used avoidance by sitting in a corner reading paperbacks and “at all costs” tried to keep the patient quiet. She was deeply uncomfortable in taking care of a terminally ill patient and never faced him voluntarily or attempted to have a dialogue with him. She did her “duty” by sitting in the same room, but emotionally she was as far detached from him as possible. This was the only way this woman was able to do this job. She wished him dead (“crack your head open”) and made explicit demands on him to lie still and quiet on his back (as if he were already in a casket). She was indignant when he asked to be moved, which for him was a sign of still being alive and which she wanted to deny. She was obviously so terrified by the closeness of death that she had to defend herself against it with avoidance and isolation. Her wish to have him quiet and not move only reinforced the patient’s fear of immobility and death. He was deprived of communication, lonely and isolated as well as utterly helpless in his agony and increasing anger. When his last demand was met with an initially increased restriction (the symbolic locking him up with the siderails raised), his previously unexpressed rage gave way to this unfortunate incident. If the nurse had not felt so guilty about her own destructive wishes, she probably would have been less defensive and argumentative, thus preventing the incident from happening in the first place and allowing the patient to express his feelings and to die a bit more comfortable a few hours later.

A relic from a time when clergy hid behind their doctrine and rituals rather than face the reality that surrounded them.

What amazed me, however, was the number of clergy who felt quite comfortable using a prayer book or a chapter out of the Bible as the sole communication between them and the patients, thus avoiding listening to their needs and being exposed to questions they might be unable or unwilling to answer.

Many of them had visited innumerable very sick people but began for the first time, in the seminar, really to deal with the question of death and dying. They were very occupied with funeral procedures and their role during and after the funeral but had great difficulties in actually dealing with the dying person himself.

They often used the doctor’s orders “not to tell” or the ever existing presence of a family member as an excuse for not really communicating with the terminally ill patients. It was in the course of repeated encounters that they began to understand their own reluctance of facing the conflicts and thus their use of the Bible, the relative, or the doctor’s orders as an excuse or rationalization for their lack of involvement.

A relic from a time when adults had a strange, childlike sense of morality.

As I say, I had always been a good boy. I didn’t swear, I didn’t use vile language, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t particularly care for them. I didn’t chase women, very much, that is, and I was always a pretty good boy.

Oh, wait. That’s largely how things still are. How depressing.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time

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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 fifth 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

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

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Member Engagement Solution #5: Don't Waste a Volunteer's Time

Association members are under increasing time crunches like everyone else. Since less time is available for association work, it is essential for the association to make the volunteer interaction as productive and as valuable as possible.

Nothing is worse than wasting a volunteer's time. I know. I've been the volunteer whose time was being wasted, and I can't think of anything that more assuredly disengages me than when I realizes my time is being wasted. But I've also been the association staffer who inadvertently or accidentally wastes a volunteer's time. And when that reality is exposed--often in public during a committee meeting--it can be one of the most professionally uncomfortable situations of your career.

So why does it happen? Despite the best of intentions on both sides, more frequently than we would ever want to admit, a volunteer's engagement and effort goes to naught, or is wasted on some bureaucratic piece of trivia that does injustice to both the professional ambitions of the volunteer and the strategic aspirations of the association.

I would argue that time winds up getting wasted when the following three things aren't spelled out in advance.

1. The Goal. Ultimately, what is the objective we're seeking to achieve with this volunteer engagement? Is it big picture strategy, mid-range program development, or short-term task? Don't let your volunteer think it's one when it's actually another. That will just lead to disappointment and confusion. And, whatever the goal is, give volunteers a chance to bow out, if they're not willing to work towards it.

2. The Roles. Who is responsible for doing the organizational work associated with the volunteer task? Another way of addressing this is to clarify how much staff support will be available. Some volunteers like to roll up the sleeves and do everything themselves. Other prefer logistics to be coordinated by staff. Others wants to do it all themselves, but frankly don't have the time. All three scenarios can work, but only if it is understood from the beginning what the volunteer will do and what the staff member will do.

3. The Benefit. Why does it matter? Not for the association (that's covered in "The Goal"), but for the volunteer himself. What is he expecting to get out of the assignment, and does that match with what the association is expecting and able to provide? Many volunteers are looking for professional development opportunities, and a volunteer assignment for their professional association can often fit that bill. But sometimes a volunteer is looking for something different. For a chance to teach, or promote himself, or to widen his circle of influence. These are not necessarily bad benefits for associations to be offering their volunteers, but it is critical to clarify up front what the expectations on both sides of the aisle are in this regard.

When a volunteer wants to offer his time, no one wants to see it go to waste. Talking openly about these three things before he gets started can help greatly minimize that chance.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Is American Exceptionalism a Generational Thing?

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Not too long ago, I tweeted out a blog post from Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, in which he argues in favor of something that's come to be known as "American Exceptionalism." Despite a number of recent shortcomings, Shapiro seems to be saying, America is still the greatest country in the world. In my tweet, I offered up the following observation:

By which I meant to say, if America is truly exceptional, why does it have so many problems that need fixing?

Now, I've been thinking a lot more about American Exceptionalism since that tweet--and the rhetoric offered at the two recent major party political conventions has given me plenty of grist for that mill. And what I want to do now is not argue for or against the concept, but simply ask, is American Exceptionalism a generational thing?

Shapiro's post links to a much-watched YouTube clip from the HBO series The Newsroom, in which a 57-year-old Jeff Daniels tears apart an actress playing a 20-year-old college student who has the temerity to ask what makes America the greatest country in the world. Now, that's theater, I know. It's designed to call attention to itself and make someone money. But what strikes me as odd about it is that far more often in the reality I live in, it is the 57 and older crowd who seem to be the most vocal defenders of the idea of American Exceptionalism. Indeed, even Daniels's character pivots at about the two-minute mark and begins waxing poetic about how great America used to be, about how it used to stand and fight for things that mattered, about how exceptional it used to be. It's enough to make a Baby Boomer cry.

It seems to me that it is members of the younger generations who have more often than not gotten over this thing called American Exceptionalism, especially its most rabid form, in which a believer must agree that not only is America exceptional, but that it is the most exceptional country in the history of the world. And it's not just us increasingly crotchedy Xers. It's Millennials, too. Both of us, I would say, are more concerned with how we're going to solve the problems our nation faces, and less with whether or not we can continue to think of ourselves as a beacon to the rest of the world.

And that's ultimately the point I want to make. I'm not arguing that America isn't exceptional. There are many aspects of it that I think clearly are. But given the challenges we face, what utility does the idea of American Exceptionalism have? Why does it matter? How will it help us fix what ails us?

The older generation will likely claim that it will inspire us and help us achieve more than we may have thought possible. But I don't think the younger generation believes that. American Exceptionalism inspires Boomers because it reminds them of a time when they seemed to own the world, when the world seemed to revolve around their hopes and dreams. And its decay scares them because it hearkens to a time when they will no longer be in control and when they will no longer matter. But to Xers and Millennials, the idea of American Exceptionalism too often clouds what they see as an essential reality. That the mental frames with which the members of the older generation confront the world no longer serve the interests of those who will be here after they are gone.

Is America the greatest country in the world? Maybe. But I'd rather ask why it is so important for us to think that it is.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Who Killed the Constitution? by Thomas E. Woods and Kevin R. C. Gutzman

I’ve started reading some libertarian-leaning books lately and this is one of them. It’s a little dense at times—even though I assume it was written for the lay public—going into some detail about the constitutional arguments surrounding a dozen or so historic Supreme Court decisions or Presidential actions. In many ways, it was a good history lesson for me, but more fundamentally, it left me asking a very specific question.

Is nationalism inevitable?

Let me explain. There was a debate that happened while the U.S. Constitution was being written and ratified. The debate had two sides:

1. The “Nationalists,” who thought the government in Washington should be a national one, with wide-ranging powers to act, especially in places were the separate states were thought to be incompetent, and

2. The “Federalists,” who thought the government in Washington should be a federal one, with only a specified set of powers granted it by the states.

In 1787, the Federalists won. In fact…

Federalist proponents of the new Constitution…pointed to this feature of the Constitution to assure doubters that the new government would not subvert the principle of local self-government for which the Revolution had been fought. As Governor [Edmund] Randolph of Virginia put it, the federal government was to have only the powers it was “expressly delegated.”

…and the Constitution was ratified by the states with that express purpose in mind. And today, in fact, the Constitution still reads this way. It lists the limited powers that the federal government has and, expressly in Article Ten of the Bill of Rights, says that all powers not explicitly stated are reserved to the states.

But that is not how we interpret the Constitution today. Today, we have a much more “nationalistic” perspective, and Woods and Gutzman’s book is a catalog of the major steps that took us along that path.

There are several examples of presidential power expanding beyond the letter of the Constitution—Roosevelt confiscating gold, Truman seizing the steel mills, Bush’s policy on the unitary executive during wartime—but so are there examples of the Supreme Court expanding the scope of Federal power through (according to the authors) unconstitutional decisions. Desegregating and banning organized prayer in the public schools both fit into this category and, I have to admit, their arguments for the unconstitutionality of these decisions are logically sound, as much as we (and even the authors) might support the intent behind them.

And that, I think, is the key idea. It’s human nature. If you want to do things badly enough, you inevitably find ways to get them done, regardless of any rules that have been written to prohibit them—especially if you are the one responsible for interpreting the rules. The authors credit Thomas Jefferson with first making this observation with regard to the American experiment.

He knew that if the federal government had a monopoly on constitutional interpretation, it would naturally read the Constitution in its own favor, always announcing that it had discovered in the text yet more power that it could exercise. He insisted that the states, twelve of whose delegates had drafted the Constitution, and all of which by 1790 had ratified it, were entitled to make ultimate constitutional determinations, because the only alternative was a central government monopoly that in the end would swallow up the states.

This is where things stand today. There are some fledgling “Tenth Amendment” movements that are gaining some ground—most notably with regard to what states want to do with medical marijuana and their clashes with federal drug policy—but we are largely a nation with a monopoly on power at the federal level. I’m not ready to say that’s either good or bad, but it does make one of the authors’ closing paragraphs much more compelling.

It is perhaps jarring to consider the possibility that constitutions are destined to fail. After all, we are indoctrinated from early childhood with the idea that the Constitution is the font of our liberties—even though Americans were free before it was written. And it is to the U.S. Constitution that every government official still swears his fidelity. But when we look beyond the grand rhetoric to the actual record, we must confront a troubling conclusion: once an institution obtains supreme force, it is probably utopian to expect its powers to remain limited over time—especially when the one thing doing the limiting is a document that is interpreted and enforced by the very institution it is supposed to restrain.

So again, I ask. Is nationalism inevitable?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Member Engagement Solution #4: Manage Volunteer Transitions

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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 fourth 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

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

+ + +

Member Engagement Solution #4: Manage Volunteer Transitions

Don't lose the talent and enthusiasm of a long-serving volunteer just because their term of service comes to an end. Work to find new ways to engage them in the organization. Their understanding of the association's history and strategy is invaluable. They can often achieve far more than any newly-recruited volunteer because of it.

I'll admit that this is one I've always struggled with. With all the focus that goes into identifying and developing new leaders in the organization, keeping those who have cycled through a formal volunteer engagement often falls far down the priority list. There are times when the individual speaks up, when they make it clear that they want to stay engaged, and work proactively to find another assignment within the organization. But more often than not, they simply drift back into the membership pool, and it's not always clear if that was the way they wanted it, or if they were expecting some personalized outreach for re-engagement.

At a minimum, then, I think it behooves you to ask each retiring volunteer what their preference is. Would they like to stay engaged? To find a new assignment to help the association with? Or would they prefer to step down their engagement level? Maybe there are other volunteer commitments they have for other organizations, or maybe their professional responsibilities have increased, or maybe there are things going on in their personal lives that make engagement at their previous level difficult.

Either way, it's been my experience that most volunteers appreciate this direct approach, especially when it comes with no strings attached. Just as there should be no barrier for a retiring volunteer to get engaged with a new project or task, there should also be no retribution or ill feelings for a volunteer who decides, for whatever reason, that they have given enough to the organization and would like to go back to being just a member.