Monday, March 31, 2014

Being Data Driven Is Harder Than It Sounds

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This week I was struck by two charts from the 2014 Economic Impact on Associations Report published by McKinley Advisors. And as I explored them in more depth, I retaught myself a lesson about how data is not often what it appears to be at first blush.

First, I saw this chart, showing the reported membership retention rates of participating associations over the last five years.

And I have to admit, my first thought was: "So, what's the big deal?" Read the literature, go to conferences, talk to authors and consultants, and you'll get the decided impression that associations are hemorrhaging members, that our fundamental business model is broken, that our demise waits patiently around the corner of the blinders we have put on ourselves.

But this data seems to tell a different story. There is certainly a spread, with some associations retaining members better than others, but each segment seems fairly stable, especially when one considers the variation in reported sample size over the years.

And then I saw the chart on the following page, comparing the reported retention rates of professional societies vs. trade associations.

This tells a much different story, almost a tale of two cities. Looking through the lens of a professional society, I can better understand the higher sense of urgency and concern for the issues I tried to laugh off above.

All of which is offered as a commentary on the challenge of understanding your environment.

Look at only the overall average and you'll come away with one impression. Slice the data one way and you'll get another and, likely, slice it another way and you'll get still another. It's a reality we're all aware of, but in our rush to understand what's going on around us, it's a reality that's all too easy to ignore.

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

Who's Your "Lead User" Community?

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I read this interesting post by Michael Schrage on the HBR blog this week.

In it, he talks about the challenge Google is having with their new Google Glass product and their "lead user" community (i.e., the people out and about with advance versions of Google Glass, testing the user experience in the real world and, not unimportantly, creating buzz and excitement for the new product in the land of us muggles*).

Seems like some of these lead users aren't quite creating the impression Google had hoped for, acting rude and narcissistic and forcing the creation of a new term--"Glassholes."

This is a big problem because, as Schrage says:

"Breakthrough" innovation depends less on design thinking and user experience than how well your lead users/early adopters “brand” your breakthroughs in the mind of the marketplace.

It got me thinking. As an association executive, who is my "lead user" community? Who is it that is out and about in my membership, modelling use of my new products and services and creating buzz and excitement about them? Do I even have one? Should I?

Seems like the answer to my last question is an obvious "yes." Recognizing how difficult it increasingly is to capture the attention of your members and deliver effective communications to them, imagine how productive it would be to have a community of "lead members," interacting with your larger community in the "real world," demonstrating the value of your programs and services.

For me, my board currently plays some version of this role. Their willingness to embrace a new idea has served as a kind of bellwether for me, giving me a clue as to how popular they might be among the broader membership.

But using their enthusiasm more intentionally, leveraging their natural ambassador role for the dissemination of key ideas and services among the membership, is a strategy that has a lot of appeal to me.

*Note: This is likely the first and only Harry Potter reference that will ever appear on this blog.

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sophia by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Sophia" is one of these stories, centering on the character of Sophia Hawthrone, and describing her first experience among slaves in the unreconstructed South, trying to save their heathen souls and finding a truth that had long eluded her.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Sophia by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 15,100 words and the document is 50 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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The first time Sophia Hawthorne met Erasmus Wolcott she took him for someone who cared about the immortal souls of his fellow man—both those with white and those with black skin. Wolcott was a slave owner, one of the largest in South Carolina, with more than three hundred human beings held in bondage to work his gigantic plantation. Sophia had come to the South from her parish in Connecticut precisely to see to the spiritual needs of slaves—to perform missionary work, as it were, not in some far-off land across the ocean, but in her own backyard, in the United States of America—and in her innocence she was at first surprised to find a slave owner such a willing supporter of her calling.

“These people need your help, Sister,” Wolcott told her poignantly over dinner her first night on his plantation, his rough and calloused hand closing tightly over her forearm wrapped in the black cloth of her habit. “Some of them still worship the false gods their ancestors did in Africa. If I showed you the collection of carved idols we’ve confiscated from them over the years, it would turn your hair white. Where they keep getting them from I have no idea, but they go to great lengths to hide them from us and to keep them safe.”

Sophia only nodded her head, more preoccupied with the pressure of Wolcott’s hand on her arm than with the idolatry his slaves might be practicing.

“You don’t believe me?” Wolcott said. “My hand to God, I tell you it’s the truth. Some of these people have never even seen a cross before coming here. It’s tragic, to think of their souls suffering in torment in the next life, especially when you realize how much they have suffered in this one. Father, tell her. Tell the Sister her work is certainly cut out for her here.”

The other dinner guest was Richard Tyler, a priest from Sophia’s own parish, who had been in the South ministering to slaves like the ones owned by Wolcott for two years, and who had recently sent for Sophia to join and assist him.

Tyler nodded his head after taking a long, slow sip of Wolcott’s wine. “It’s a difficult journey,” he admitted softly. “For us as well as for them. Their heads are so full of superstition, they have to be led very carefully towards the truth. It should start getting easier, though, with Parson Abraham’s arrival.”

“Parson Abraham?” Sophia asked, finally extracting her arm from Wolcott’s grasp. “Who’s that?”

“A former slave,” Wolcott said. “Parson Abraham Finch. Given his freedom years ago and answered the Lord’s calling. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. There was a time when he traveled throughout the North, speaking to congregations of all stripes about the brutalities he suffered as a slave. But now he’s returned to the South, and almost exclusively goes from plantation to plantation, preaching the Gospel to his African brothers. He’s not welcome everywhere, but he’s certainly welcome here. Wouldn’t you say, Father?”

“Most assuredly,” Tyler responded, after draining even the dregs out of his wine glass. “His message is the same as mine, but I’m told he’s received so much better by the slaves. I suppose they see him as one of their own and, of course, he once was. He must make it easier for them to envision the possibility of enlightenment.”

“He’s coming here?” Sophia asked.

Tyler nodded his head. “Tomorrow. He’s expected sometime tomorrow.”

Sophia was uncertain what to make of much of this, but did not ask any more questions, fearing she may have asked too many already. She had little experience around men, and still felt uncomfortable in their presence. And, of course, Tyler was a priest, and it was not appropriate for a nun to ask too many questions of a priest.

The following evening she attended her first worship service with the slaves. It was held after sunset in a long, log house built between the slave quarters and the stables, a “praise house,” as Sophia later learned it was called. She, Tyler, and Wolcott arrived before the slaves and were met shortly by Parson Abraham.

The Parson was a dark-skinned Negro, with hair gone completely white and cut close to his skull. He had reportedly arrived on the plantation earlier in the day, and had enjoyed a glass of Wolcott’s fine wine in the parlor with the slave owner and the priest that afternoon, but this was the first Sophia had seen of him. Wolcott and Tyler welcomed him warmly and then Wolcott introduced him to Sophia.

“Sister,” Abraham said solemnly, bowing before her and making no movement to touch her. He was an old man, older than either Tyler or Wolcott. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

He spoke clearly, and with obvious education. Sophia returned a similar pleasantry, and then stood quietly as Wolcott, the Parson, and Tyler discussed the service the clergymen would be conducting that evening.

“Which hymn will you be starting with?” Wolcott asked.

“Which one would you like?” Abraham replied.

Wolcott started. He had clearly been directing his question more to Tyler than to the Parson. “Well,” he said hesitantly. “Nearer My God to Thee has always been one of my favorites.”

Abraham nodded his head. “Nearer My God to Thee, it is. Sister, do you know that one?”

Sophia was startled, not expecting to be pulled into the conversation. Looking quickly to where the Parson indicated with the tilt of his head, she saw an old wooden piano she had not noticed before.

“Sister,” Abraham said again. “Nearer My God to Thee. Can you play it on the piano?”

“Yes,” Sophia said quickly. “Yes, Father, of course I can.”

The word ‘Father’ was out of her mouth before she even realized she had used it. Abraham wasn’t a priest, was he? No, he couldn’t be. He was a…Parson, whatever that was. But he spoke like a priest, and the use of that chosen form of address was so automatic, it came uncontrollably to Sophia’s lips. No one else, however, appeared to have noticed.

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Challenge of Distilling Ideas

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I had an interesting debate on Twitter last week with Jeffrey Cufaude. It started with me tweeting this paraphrased snippet from one of the Corner Office columns I had just read in The New York Times.

Cufaude took issue with it, calling it ridiculous, and stating (probably correctly) that innovation can happen with any number of people in the room. The important variables are the mix of perspectives and the ground rules for the discussion.

I'm not writing about it here to reignite that debate. Rather, in reflecting on the experience, I'm struck by how difficult it can be to distill ideas down to something that is both useful and true to their original intent.

Going back to the original article, I believe the executive was talking more about decision-making and execution. Both are part of successful innovation, but both also exist apart from it. And those are the elements that spoke more powerfully to me when I read the article.

Here's the entire section:

Q. You were a co-founder of Kayak nine years ago. What’s unusual about the culture?

A. We’re a little bit reckless in our decision-making — not with the business, but the point is that we try things. We give even junior people scary amounts of power to come up with ideas and implement them. We had an intern last summer who, on his very first day at Kayak, came up with an idea, wrote the code and released it. It may or may not have been successful, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it showed that we value speed, and we value testing ideas, not talking about them.

It’s all about fast iteration. When you push down decisions, and you don’t require people to write up plans and do designs by consensus, enormous amounts of work just disappear. We cut out all the middle layers and you let the designers talk to the customers. Otherwise, something gets lost in translation with a lot of layers.

Q. What else?

A. We’re known for having very small meetings, usually three people. There’s a little clicker for counting people that hangs on the main conference room door. The reason it’s there is to send a message to people that I care about this issue. If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, “It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?”

I just hate design by consensus. No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.

One of his statements hangs its hat on the innovation concept and, like most good sound bites, it is short, provocative and memorable.

No innovation happens with 10 people in the room.

So when looking for a way to distill the idea down into 140 characters or less, I took the shortcut offered--even though it did not accurately convey the idea I was trying to embrace.

The better tweet might have been, "Decisions don't get made with 10 people in the room," but even that's not true. Maybe, "Ten people won't decide and move as quickly as two or three," is closer to the original concept, but it doesn't have nearly the punch either of the other two statements have.

So what? Why all this analysis over one silly tweet?

Well, as I said earlier, I think this experience illustrates the challenge many leaders face in trying to communicate complex ideas. Time and attention often preclude the sharing of a reasoned and thoughtful analysis, and shortcuts and sound bites are often the result.

Crafting those communications, however, can be just as challenging as the deeper analysis from which they spring. So if you're going to use a shortcut to convey your idea, you'd better take the time that is necessary to find the right one.

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

Scavenger Hunts and Industry Knowledge, Part 2

Last week I wrote about a staff scavenger hunt we organized at my association's trade show, which is co-located with the trade show of one of our major customer markets.

In teams to two, venture out onto the show floors and take a picture (or video) of a fluid power component. On our show floor it's worth five points. On the customer market show floor it's worth ten points. If everyone gets at least one hundred points, we'll host a celebratory lunch when we get back to the office and everyone's name will go into a hat for a drawing for a free iPad.

It was an experiment, and it worked better than I could have imagined. From the very beginning, staff was focused on getting out on the show floor and getting their photos and videos. How many points do you have? It was a common question asked in our booth, and a common activity was one staff person showing another the photos on their phone and telling the stories behind each individual shot.

Some components were more challenging than others. A simple stroll through the exhibit hall was all that was necessary to get plenty of photos of hydraulic cylinders and hoses, but what about fluid reservoirs or filter elements? We quickly learned that those components are usually hidden under housings or somewhere in the undercarriage of the piece of equipment. The creative solution? An actual conversation with one of the equipment sales people and a scramble on top of or under the dozer or excavator to get the necessary shot.

To say I'm proud of my team is an understatement. What could have easily been dismissed as a cheesy team-building exercise was instead embraced as something both fun and educational.

Why? I believe because it was relevant. The connection between what we were doing and its relevancy to our jobs was evident. If we are going to do the job we've been asked to do--representing this industry and helping it grow--the more we know about how it interfaces with one of its primary customer markets the better.

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

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Outside In by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine

The subtitle on this one is “The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business,” and that’s as good a sentence as any to describe the central thesis of this book.

The authors argue that the world of business entered a new age in 2010. From 1900-1960 we were in the Age of Manufacturing, where dominance came from mass production (a la Ford, RCA, GE, Boeing, P&G, and Sony), from 1960-1990 it was the Age of Distribution, where dominance came from moving goods around the world (a la Walmart, Toyota, UPS, and CPX), from 1990-2010 it was the Age of Information, where dominance came from connected PCs that allowed the control of information (a la Microsoft, Google, Dell, and Capital One), and now we have the Age of the Customer, where dominance will come from harnessing empowered buyers through a customer focus (a la Southwest Airlines, Amazon, and USAA).

That may be a little too much oversimplification for my taste, but the essential message is one that does resonate with me. Delivering a great customer experience is increasingly a necessary part of being a successful organization. In fact, in my world of association management, this may have always been the case. And yet many associations, like many businesses, struggle to view their mission, function and deliverables from the perspective of their customers.

For me, the most useful takeaway from the book (which, frankly, is 150 pages longer than it needs to be) is the practice of creating a Customer Experience Ecosystem Map. I’ll quote that section in its entirety, because it is something I’d like to try in my own organization.

In May 2011, we brought seven chief customer officers together as part of a networking event. They worked at companies with names you’d know, in a variety of industries, both business-to-consumer and business-to-business. We introduced them to the concept of ecosystem mapping by having them create their own maps. We’ll use their experience to show you what to do to create your own map.

This introductory exercise took our participants just under two hours. To try this out for the first time and get a sense of how the process works, you’ll want to reserve about that much time for yourself. You won’t need sophisticated tools: poster paper, three packs of colored sticky notes (in different colors), several sheets of colored stickers, and some markers. When you’re done, you’ll have a basic understanding of the concepts involved as well as a simple but sound ecosystem map that you can put to immediate use. And even though you’ll develop a more advanced understanding of how to create and use ecosystem maps in the future--and invest far more than two hours to create maps of far more complex customer journeys--the fundamentals you’re about to learn will remain the same over time.

First, pick an important target customer and think of a problematic journey for that customer. It doesn’t matter whether the customer journey involves buying a product or service, using that product or service, getting support, or whatever--just so long as the journey causes significant pain for an important customer. You’ll also want to make sure the journey you select is one you understand well, otherwise you won’t be able to complete the exercise without running off to do research.

Next, write down the series of actions that the customer takes as part of that problematic journey. For example, “opens bill and reads it,” “sees charge that looks wrong,” and “calls customer care to get billing details.” Write each of these actions on a separate blue sticky note and place the notes in a row across the top of the sheet of poster paper. In working with our chief customer officers, the journeys were remarkably similar in length, despite the diversity of industries, customers, and problem types--ranging from eight to eleven steps. That’s about the right number of steps for a journey you’re tackling in your first outing, especially in a compressed time frame like this two-hour exercise.

Next, write down all the people and groups that your customer interacts with at each step, like a call center agent or someone in the billing department. Do the same thing for objects or systems the customer touches--like a mobile phone or a paper bill. We had our chief customer officers put the people or groups onto pink sticky notes, the objects or systems on yellow sticky notes--use whatever color scheme works for you, as long as you’re consistent. Then place both sets of notes on the poster paper, lined up under the relevant steps in the process.

Draw a horizontal line across the middle of the poster paper, below the notes you’ve placed so far. This is the “line of visibility.” Your customers can see everything above it--the people, products, systems, snail mail, email or whatever--that they interact with, Everything you’re about to put below the line is completely invisible to your customer, despite the fact that what they don’t know is often the thing that hurts them.

Using sticky notes in another color, post the actions, people, groups, objects, and systems that support the above-the-line parts of the ecosystem. These should include people and things like your bill designer, your bill printer, the action of printing the bill, the IT system that supplies the data that goes into your bill, your IT department that maintains the system that provides the data that goes into the get the picture. That process will take a little longer than the previous steps--it took our chief customer officers about a half hour.

Then the fun begins. You’re going to need to put colored dots on the sticky notes. With our chief customer officers, we used little colored stickers so we could make changes on the fly by moving them around. In a pinch, you can just make do with colored markers (you’ll just end up rewriting some sticky notes). Put green dots on each part of your ecosystem--each sticky note--that is working well from the perspective of the person who is touching it. Tag parts of the ecosystem that are making people unhappy with yellow dots, and parts of the ecosystem that are making people very unhappy with red dots.

The results we got with our chief customer officers were very much what we described for John Birrer at the beginning of this chapter. It’s almost certainly what you’ll see as well. Customer interactions with people, objects, or systems along their journey turned red well before employee or partner interactions did. Some employee and partner interactions stayed green despite the fact that they were the root cause of customer grief.

We had expected something like this outcome. But even we were surprised by the consistently repeated pattern of unhappy customers let down by happy, oblivious employees and partners. Since that first session we’ve repeated this exercise with other groups, and the result is always the same.

By using the process we just described, you can get started today on finding and fixing customer experience problems. Don’t hesitate to take this first step--it will help you right now and start you down a path to something even more powerful in the future.

What do you think? Worth a try? It would be interesting to run an experiment or two and see what improvements one could make. And their fundamental conclusion is one that is absolutely true in most organizations--unhappy customers let down by happy, oblivious employees.

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Scavenger Hunts and Industry Knowledge

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It's been a busy few weeks at my association. Our Annual Conference just passed, we're now revving up for our big triennial trade show. In fact, when this post goes live, I'll be in the thick of things at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Always on the lookout for ways to increase my and my staff's understanding of the industry we represent and the technology it produces, we're launching an experimental program at this year's show--a kind of staff scavenger hunt where the items sought are components manufactured by our members and, hopefully, at work in their natural environment.

Our trade show, you see, is co-located with the tradeshow of one of our major customer markets, so we have the opportunity not just to travel around our show floor looking at our members' components (perhaps a shelf full of valves here or a display of hoses of different thicknesses and strengths there), but to travel around the co-located show floor hunting for examples of our members' components working as part of an integrated system (perhaps on a excavator here or on a road paver there).

Hence our scavenger hunt. The rules of engagement: In teams to two, venture out onto the show floors and take a picture (or video) of a fluid power component. On our show floor it's worth five points. On the customer market show floor it's worth ten points. If everyone gets at least one hundred points, we'll host a celebratory lunch when we get back to the office and everyone's name will go into a hat for a drawing for a free iPad.

I'm looking forward to it, and hope that many of my staff are, too. Not only will it get us out of our own booth and talking to our members and their customers, it should also give many of us a crash course on how our members' technology is used in the marketplace.

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