Monday, December 28, 2015

My Top 5 Blog Posts of 2015

As we end another year, here's a look back at the five posts on this blog that received the most page views in 2015.

1. Stop Calling It Strategic Planning
This has been on every year-end list since it was originally posted in January 2012, and keeps getting a ton of traffic, including as the page through which the highest number of people enter my site. It was inspired by the take-down of strategic planning in Humanize, and in it I pledge to stop using that term to describe the messy, constantly evolving process my association uses to determine our direction and set our objectives. In laying out the guidelines that govern our activities, I realize that only one term makes any sense--association management.

2. The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
This one was originally posted in May 2014, and returns for a second placement on these year-end lists. It summarizes my takeaways from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. The book's subtitle is “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” and it contains a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that--with a lot of potential applicability for associations. Among the many practical tools it taught me was the need to create "winnable games" for your team to go after, with regular and visual scorecards showing the team's progress towards each goal. As the authors continually remind the reader, people play differently when they are keeping score. When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged.

3. The Chairman's Gift
Originally posted in July 2012, this one has now been on three of four possible year-end lists. It tells the story about how my association ensures that our outgoing Board Chair receives a gift that recognizes not just his service to the association, but the fact that he is an individual who has made a personal sacrifice to serve in that capacity. The true value is the message it sends to others who might be considering a similar commitment in their futures.

4. Rise of the American Nation by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti
The only newcomer to this year's list, this was originally posted in February 2012, and summarizes the takeaways I gained from reading my high school American history textbook, twenty-six years after graduating from high school. The biggest takeaway of all? That our view of history is tainted by our perceptions and political preferences of the day we look back on it. It’s a little like how the future is always imagined in the context of the present. Just as it is difficult to imagine a future fundamentally foreign from the world we live in, it’s hard to look at the past without filtering it through our modern sensibilities and political framework. And personally, my own sensibilities and political framework have changed quite a bit since I was in high school.

5. No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
This one, first posted in February 2012, has made the Top 5 list for each of the last three years. It contains a link to a TED talk video featuring Matt Ridley, who makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information, not on the expertise or creativity of any single individual. To make his point, he uses the example of the computer mouse--a piece of technology we all depend on and that has transformed our world, but which contains so many parts and underlying technologies that no single person on the planet could construct one entirely by themselves. In my commentary, I compare this to the association environment, in which I say the role of the association leader is not to come up with the bright ideas, but to bring together and facilitate the exchange of ideas and information so that the bright ideas emerge.

My thanks to everyone who has been reading what I've been putting up here. I hope you plan to stay engaged in 2016.

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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

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

To Appomattox by Burke Davis

Appomattox refers to Appomattox Court House, the small Virginia town where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, rapidly drawing the American Civil War to an end. The book is a detailed history of the nine days in April from the fall of Petersburg to the surrender at Appomattox, told from multiple perspectives, both blue and gray.

Like a lot of Civil War history I’ve read, it is full of minor tragedies that could easily be expanded into full narratives--historical or, even more alluring to my sensibilities, fictional. The saddest of many I have come across deals with the death and funeral of Confederate General Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill. Here’s how Davis introduces us to the general, on Saturday, April 1, one day before the fall of Petersburg.

General Ambrose Powell Hill’s sector of the line lay south of Petersburg, near the city, facing the massed strength of the enemy. Danger seemed greater than ever today, and the general was out at daybreak with his staff and a handful of couriers. Though Hill looked frail, and had been called from sick leave, he was in the saddle all day. Men in his ranks seemed to take heart at sight of his long pale face; they could remember his red battle shirt at Sharpsburg, so long ago, when The Light Division had saved the army. General Hill’s decline had matched that of the Confederacy.

This is an interesting parallel--Hill’s notoriously failing health and the final failing of the Confederacy.

A vague illness had plagued him through the winter--perhaps psychosomatic, perhaps only a vestige of a case of malaria from his early manhood. Officers recalled that Hill had often been sickly, sluggish and eaten by anxieties in moments when battle action was pending, as at Gettysburg and The Wilderness. Now, in any event, emergency had called Hill from his wife and two baby girls. It was perhaps was well, even for his health, for in Richmond when citizens asked him if the city might fall, Hill was visibly shaken, and was given to shouting, “I don’t want to survive the fall of the city!”

And now we get the foreshadowing of his own death. Davis goes on to cite sources attesting to Hill’s sullenness and gloom during this time--torn, probably by this duty to his country and the love of his family, who remained so painfully close to the hostilities. But when the right of Lee’s line--commanded by Hill--begins to collapse, Hill is spurred into vigorous action.

Hill strode into General Lee’s room without being announced. The generals were talking about the darkening situation when Colonel Charles Venable of Lee’s staff flung open the door. He shouted, “Wagons are flying down the road toward Petersburg and Union skirmishers are behind Hill’s right.”

Hill tore from the house like an excited boy and vaulted into his saddle so recklessly that Lee sent Venable after him to urge caution. When he had been halted, Hill told Venable patiently that his lines were cut into two, and that he must save them. He promised that he would be careful and spurred away, followed by Venable, Tucker and Jenkins.

But Hill is not careful--at least not careful enough--and winds up being shot dead by two Union infantrymen in the process of trying to force their surrender. Here Lee’s famous reaction when he learns the news.

The party met Sergeant Tucker leading General Hill’s gray horse. The artillery courier, Percy Hawes, stood nearby. “I will never forget the expression on General Lee’s face,” he wrote.

Lee asked Tucker for details of the general’s death, and heard them somberly. His voice was almost drowned by gunfire, “Those of us who are left behind are the ones to suffer.”

They were clearly nearing the end of a long, painful fight. And Lee understood that nothing but more death (and probably surrender--more on that later) were in store for those who remained. More poignant, I think, is the much less famous reaction of Hill’s wife.

[Lee] sent Colonel Palmer and Tucker to tell the widow of their loss: “Colonel, break the news to her as gently as you can.”

Palmer and Tucker evaded Federals pouring through the lines and were soon at the Venable house. As they dismounted they heard Mrs. Hill inside, singing loudly at her work. Palmer hesitated, and did not knock on the door. He walked quietly into the hall, but the sound of his boots stopped Mrs. Hill’s singing. Tucker heard her voice from where he stood on the porch:

“The General’s dead. You wouldn’t be here unless he was dead.”

It doesn’t end there. A. P. Hill was killed in the middle of absolute chaos. The Confederate entrenchments that had helped create the seven-month siege of Petersburg had fallen. Now Federals were streaming into the city and Confederates were streaming out of it. To the north in Richmond, the citizens themselves are rioting.

“Hundreds crowded the main government warehouse where whisky was being destroyed. A Richmond Times man watched:

“They contrived to catch most of the liquor in pitchers, bottles and basins. This liquor was not slow in manifesting itself. The crowd became a mob and began to howl. Soon other crowds had collected in front of other warehouses. … So frenzied had the mob become that officers in charge … had to flee for their lives. …

Crowds of men, women and children traversed the streets, rushing from one storehouse to another, loading themselves with all kinds of supplies. … After midnight … straggling soldiers made their appearance on the streets and immediately set about robbing the principal stores on Main Street. … Soldiers roamed from store to store, followed by a reckless crowd, drunk as they.”

And in the midst of this, the family of A. P. Hill seemingly work like mice in a burning church to find peace and dignity for their fallen relative.

Through this melee, at 1 A.M., the hearse of A. P. Hill rolled into town, jouncing uphill at last to Capitol Square. It had been almost all day on the road from the battlefield, and the general’s aide and nephew, Captain Frank Hill, had gone back to the fighting. His brother, Henry Hill, Jr., had guided the body into Richmond, aided by the courier, Jenkins.

The wagon had been delayed for hours near the bridge of the James in the afternoon, and it was only in the early morning darkness that Henry found his cousin, G. Powell Hill, packing papers of the Paymaster General’s office as clerks and Negroes ran in and out with bundles. Henry led Powell to the wagon.

The official stared into the ambulance in bewilderment.

“I thought you’d have a coffin,” he said.

The Hills left the wagon with Jenkins and ran along Twelfth Street through bands of looters into Belvin’s Furniture Store, whose door, like others in the block, had been torn open. They yelled; there were only echoes in the empty building.

They found a coffin and carried it through the streets into an abandoned office, brought the general’s body in from the wagon, and by candlelight washed his face and removed his gloves.

This, I think, is the most affecting moment of all. Brother and cousin, likely by candlelight, in the back of a looted furniture store, washing the dead body, and trying to arrange it respectfully in a stolen coffin.

The fatal shot had blown off the thumb of the left hand and passed through the heart, emerging from his back. They stuffed the body into the coffin, which was a bit small even for the slight figure, and left the city by Fourteenth Street, over Mayo’s Bridge to the south side of the river and upstream toward the farmhouse where G. Powell Hill’s parents were refugees. It was slow going in the stream of vehicles and walking people. They were most of the night on the way.

G. Powell Hill rode ahead and found his mother and father at breakfast, unaware of the general’s death or the collapse of the army.

They debated what was to be done with the body, since it was out of the question to carry it to distant Culpeper, and at last buried the general on the farm, in the graveyard of the Winston family. G. Powell Hill and a Negro butler made a rough case for the coffin while others dug a pit in the clay.

Imagine the scene. Of course, this sorrowful drama, captured in Burke’s historian voice, is only preserved because of who A. P. Hill was--a figure worth studying and understanding in the long line of secondary actors who helped shape events in the American Civil War. But that war, like all wars, is filled with wretched dramas like this, affecting people whose names are never recorded in history books, but whose stories are just as universal and filled with pathos as those few that are preserved for our knowledge and understanding.

That’s one theme I want to pull out of this book. Here’s another.

Just outside the town, pushed by a heavy Federal force, was the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion, with Captain Frank Myers commanding the lead squadron. A bluecoat came up with a white flag.

“Letter from General Grant to General Lee,” he said.

“Nothing doing,” Myers said. “I won’t take it unless that line of infantry stops where it is.”

The Federal rider went back, and the troops were halted half a mile away. Myers sent a rider into Farmville with the dispatch.

It was good news for Robert Lee--Custis was a Federal prisoner, alive, unwounded and well.

There are also plenty of stories like this in the American Civil War. In this case, it is General Grant, sending a note to General Lee with news about Lee’s son, but there are many other examples of these courtesies and acts of human compassion amid the untold slaughter of so many others. In part, it is a kind of professionalism, educated soldiers being a kind of caste unto themselves in this and many other societies. But in part, it is also a kind of elitism, an entitlement that allows an otherwise civil society to engage in the savagery of war. Yes, please assure Marse Robert that his son is alive and well in Federal custody. We would hate for unsatiated worry to trouble the General’s mind as he plots the death and dismemberment of so many other people’s sons.

Or is that too harsh?

Fact is, as much of a Civil War buff that I am, I’ve never been one to fall victim to the idol worship that seems to surround so many Civil War generals, north and south, and Robert E. Lee perhaps most of all. I have always been more swayed by the argument (made by someone I’ve lost track of) that it is often the noblest men who do the most evil in the world, cloaking (sometimes, I grant, without their conscious attention) the carnage they create in heartwarming wrappers of honor and fidelity.

But evidence of Lee’s caginess on this issue comes out loud and clear in his actions when negotiating the terms of surrender with General Grant. It begins, as before, with the passing of notes through the lines.

Longstreet’s infantry was moving westward again, when, at about nine thirty, Robert Lee opened the dispatch:

Headquarters Armies of the United States
April 7, 1865 -- 5 P.M.

General R. E. Lee,
Commanding C. S. Army:

General: The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. Grant,
Commanding Armies of the United States

Lee read the sheet and passed it to Longstreet without a word. Old Pete looked for a long moment and handed it back.

“Not yet,” he said.

Lee scratched out a reply by candlelight in the cottage:

7th Apl ‘65


I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va.--I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of surrender.

Very respy your obt. Servt
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U States

By 10 P.M. General Seth Williams, waiting in the moonlight, had the reply, and was on his way back to Grant’s headquarters.

It is true that Lee, in this message, did not agree to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. He did, clearly I think, ask for Grant’s terms of surrender, so that such a decision could be considered. But the next day, before Grant’s next message is received, when a group of subordinate generals, led by General Pendleton, approach Lee with the idea that perhaps he should surrender, Lee said this.

But of surrender Lee told Pendleton firmly, “I trust it has not come to that. We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms. They still fight with great spirit, whereas the enemy do not. And besides, if I were to intimate to General Grant that I would listen to terms, he would regard it such an evidence of weakness that he would demand unconditional surrender, and sooner than that I am resolved to die. We must all determine to die at our posts.”

And Pendleton’s response?

“We’re perfectly willing for you to decide,” Pendleton said. “Every man will cheerfully die with you.”

Okay. Two things.

First, this could be a fabrication. Recollections of Civil War generals, and this is described as Pendleton’s recollection, are somewhat notorious for retrofitting. When talking to posterity after the fact, they are often more concerned about their reputations than the unvarnished truth. And this, to me, reads suspiciously like a perpetuation of the myth of Robert E. Lee and the moral pinnacle of the Southern Confederacy. The bit about people cheerfully dying for the marble general is like icing on that cake.

And second, even if this is an accurate retelling, Lee could only be doing what many leaders do in times of doubt and strife--putting on a strong face in front of his subordinates.

Because, of course, according to the chronology presented, Lee has already done precisely what he has now told Pendleton he wouldn’t do--ask General Grant for the terms of his surrender. And if it isn’t a fabrication, and if Lee isn’t grandstanding, then perhaps it is a result of Lee’s own confusion, or his duplicity, or his inner turmoil.

I suspect the last. Here’s how the next pair of messages go.

A second message from Grant had come through Mahone’s lines, and Lee opened it in the early night, with Colonel Venable peering over his shoulder by the light of a candle.

April 8, 1865

General R. E. Lee
Commanding C. S. A.

Your note of last evening in reply to mine of same date, asking the condition on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you many name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.

U. S. Grant
Lieutenant General

“How would you answer that?” Lee asked.

“I would answer no such letter,” Venable said.

“Ah, but it must be answered.”

Several ways to read that exchange--one being that Venable still believed surrender is out of the question, while Lee believes it must be accomplished, but in a way that preserves the pride and dignity of his officers and men.

The commander dictated a reply:

8th Apl ‘65


I recd at a late hour your note of today. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of N. Va.--but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that and I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of N. Va.--but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. forces under my command & tend to the restoration of peace, I shall be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the two picket lines of the two armies.

Very respy your Obt. Servt.
R. E. Lee

Lt. Genl U. S. Grant
Commd Armies of the U. S.

I’ve got to admit, when I first read Lee’s reply, I had trouble making any sense of it. I asked for terms, but not because I want to surrender, just to see how serious about peace you are. I’m not near ready to surrender this army, but I’ll meet you anyway, as long as we only talk about peace and not the surrender of my army. What does any of that mean? How is peace going to be established without the surrender of Lee’s army? Does Lee think Grant is going to surrender to him?

As for what Grant thought of the message, here’s how Burke describes the scene at his headquarters when Lee’s message is received.

Rawlins read aloud the note from Lee to Grant, and as he read his voice rose and became angrier. At the end Rawlins cursed:

“He did not propose to surrender!” Rawlins shouted. “Diplomatic, but not true. He did propose, in his heart, to surrender. Now he’s trying to take advantage of a single word by you, to extend such easy terms. He wants to entrap you into making a peace treaty. You said nothing about that. You asked him to surrender.

“He asked your terms. You answered with the terms. Now he wants to arrange a peace--to take in the whole Confederacy. No, sir! You can’t do it. It’s a positive insult. It’s an underhanded way to change the whole correspondence.”

Grant’s quiet voice came down to the listeners:

“It amounts to the same thing, Rawlins. He’s only trying to get let down easy. I can meet him in the morning as he says, and settle the whole business in an hour.”

“No!” Rawlins said. “You can’t presume to teach Lee the use of the English language. He’s arranged this meeting to gain time, and get better terms. He deserves no reply whatever. ‘He don’t think the emergency has arisen!’ Now that’s cool--but a lie. It’s been staring him in the face for forty-eight hours. If he hasn’t seen it yet we’ll soon show it to him. He’ll surrender. He had to surrender. By God, it’ll be surrender and nothing else!”

Grant tried to calm him. “We’ve got to make some allowance for the trying place Lee is in. He’s got to obey orders of his government. It all means exactly the same thing, Rawlins. If I meet Lee, he’ll surrender before I leave.”

“You’ve no right to meet General Lee or anybody else to arrange peace terms,” Rawlins said. “That’s for the President, or the Senate. Your business is to capture or destroy his army.”

There was more of it, but Rawlins at last subsided and went back to bed. Grant stayed up.

Rawlins’s reaction, of course, explains Lee’s behavior perfectly, and helps make everything he has said, both in notes to General Grant and in discussion with General Pendleton and his subordinates, consistent. He will surrender his army, but only under terms that will preserve the pride and dignity of his men. And Grant understands this, reading even more intelligently between the lines that Rawlins is.

Does that make Lee a great leader? Probably. He was clearly skilled at keeping his cards close to his vest when the stakes were highest, knowing, as he surely did, that every hour that he delayed his intended surrender only meant more dead soldiers in blue and gray uniforms. And I probably shouldn’t blame him. After all, after killing so many thousands in the pursuit of Southern independence, should I expect him to be troubled over tens or maybe hundreds more that would be sacrificed for more favorable terms of surrender?

By this time, the scales of actual justice had been so weighted with military power and esprit de corps that I suppose the only outcomes possible where those mediated by the culture of the two professional soldiers that met that April day at Appomattox Court House.

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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, December 21, 2015

A Holiday Break: Continental Drift by Russell Banks

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

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2015, the one I'd most like to revisit is Continental Drift by Russell Banks. I blogged about it back in July, and included the following excerpt from one of the book's early chapters:

It’s as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses. It’s as if the poor forked creatures who walk, sail and ride on donkeys and camels, in trucks, buses and trains from one spot on this earth to another were all responding to unseen, natural forces, as if it were gravity and not war, famine or flood that made them move in trickles from hillside villages to gather along the broad, muddy riverbanks lower down and wait for passage on rafts down the river to the sea and over the sea on leaky boats to where they collect in eddies, regather their lost families and few possessions, set down homes, raise children and become fruitful once again. We map and measure jet streams, weather patterns, prevailing winds, tides and deep ocean currents; we track precisely scarps, fractures, trenches and ridges where the plates atop the earth’s mass drive against one another; we name and chart the Southeast and Northeast Trades and the Atlantic Westerlies, the tropical monsoons and the doldrums, the mistrals, the Santa Ana and the Canada High; we know the Humboldt, California and Kuroshio currents--so that, having traced and enumerated them, we can look on our planet and can see that all the way to its very core the sphere inhales and exhales, rises and falls, swirls and whirls in a lovely, disciplined dance in time. It ages and dies and is born again, constantly, through motion, creating and recreating its very self, like a uroborous, the snake that devours its tail.

It’s a tip-off, I said about this excerpt back in July. Banks wants us to understand from the very beginning of his novel that the movements his characters will make, and, of course, by inclusion the movements we all make--movements not just in space but also in time and social position--are as natural, timeless and cataclysmic as the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

And the drama that follows comes in the juxtaposed trajectories of two characters, one who understands these forces, and a second, a kind of everyman that represents the aimlessness of much of American culture, who does not. Most of us, Banks reminds us through this character, are people whose very lives are formed by these tectonic movements, and who are completely oblivious to their powers and their impact on their lives. We’re like primitives, but primitives disconnected from the forces of nature, clutching the totems and talismans of an orderly, modern life, thinking they are what keep us safe, when they are nothing but shadows, instilled with impotent power by our own misconstrued beliefs.

It’s an amazing novel. As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book like it. I know I will.

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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

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Tracking Metrics Isn't Easy or Free

One thing that's apparent to most people when they become serious about actually achieving their vision is that identifying the right metrics is paramount. If you aren't measuring the thing that actually translates to progress, then you have no way of knowing if your vision is being achieved.

What is sometimes less apparent is how difficult and time consuming it can sometimes be to actually track those metrics. Collecting data, organizing it, sharing it with others, thinking about what it means--these tasks all require time and effort. Too often, in my experience, these tasks are just assumed. The time it takes to perform them is never included in the calculations associated with staff time and focus. As a result, sometimes an unmanageable number of metrics are put on the organization's plate, preventing it from accomplishing the success it might otherwise have.

In my own organization I've tried to protect against this by concretely assigning the task of tracking each of our metrics to an individual staff member. In the language I've introduced before, tracking and reporting on the metric is a Program Objective in and of itself. It is included and given equal weight in the list of things a staff person is held accountable for.

Yes, we want you to lead a team in organizing our Fall Conference, but we also want you to track the number and types of members registering for it, compare those numbers to the pace of registrations in previous years, report the latest data at each of our weekly staff meetings, and lead your team in discussions about new actions to take that can help drive those numbers towards our goals.

That's a lot of work--important work--that deserves to be recognized with an intentional allocation of a staff person's most limited resource: time.

And some metrics are more difficult to track than others. Weekly tracking of conference registrations is fairly easy. But what if the metric requires data that isn't readily available to the association? Metrics like the number of members who are learning something new at the conference and applying it in their professional lives? You can't run a weekly report out of your registration database to get to the bottom of that one. Someone, somewhere is going to need to design and implement a discrete data collection mechanism. Something, in this example, that may require pre- and post surveys, phone interviews and education audits. Who in their right mind would think that is something they can just tack onto someone's plate without any ramifications to their overall output?

And yet, that is what often happens. By all means, choose your metrics carefully to make sure you're tracking the right things. But don't forget to allocate the appropriate time to track them. They won't tell you want you want to know unless you do.

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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

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

This is the second book in a trilogy, the first being the more widely-known The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights), and the third being The Amber Spyglass.

As I’ve blogged before, I first picked up The Golden Compass because of the negative publicity that began swirling around when the movie based on that book was about to come out--negative publicity from the point of view of the religious folks who felt the book (and the overall series) was a kind of atheist’s take on The Chronicles of Narnia, with the Christian-like characters taking on the role of villains rather than heroes.

I personally didn’t find The Golden Compass egregious on that level--although it was clear seeds were being planted. And The Subtle Knife, as anticipated, really ups the ante.

“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history--and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many, many of theirs--it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did--not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This is a speech given by a witch queen, trying to convince her sister witches that they should fight in a war against the Magisterium, who is secretly cutting daemons (animals magically paired with people in this fantasy world, and acting as something between their familiars and their souls) away from children so they can be more easily controlled. That’s the surface plot, but it’s not difficult to see the analogy to our world and some of the churches that dominate it riding barely under that surface.

And there are two heroes in this trilogy--characters who knowingly and unknowingly lead the fight against the oppression of the Church. As I discussed more thoroughly with my post on The Golden Compass, there is Lyra Belacqua, still refreshingly a petulant and awkward child, and not, as so often in young adult literature, a protagonist with adult sensibilities dressed up in the guise of an adolescent.

Here’s the best example yet:

“You don’t even know what it is you stole,” Lyra stormed. “You seen me using it and you thought you’d steal it, and you did. But you--you--you’re worse than my mother. At least she knows it’s important! You’re just going to put it in a case and do nothing with it! You ought to die! If I can, I’ll make someone kill you. You’re not worth leaving alive. You’re--”

She couldn’t speak. All she could do was spit full in his face, so she did, with all her might.

Will sat still, watching, looking around, memorizing where everything was.

Sir Charles calmly shook out a silk handkerchief and mopped himself.

“Have you any control over yourself?” he said. “Go and sit down, you filthy brat.”

Lyra felt tears shaken out of her eyes by the trembling of her body, and threw herself onto the sofa. Pantalaimon, his thick cat’s tail erect, stood on her lap with his blazing eyes fixed on the old man.

Have you any control over yourself, indeed. It keeps the reader more engaged, because there just isn’t the fatalistic certainty that Lyra will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.

But Lyra is not the only hero. There is also her father Lord Asriel, not actually appearing in The Subtle Knife, but clearly being set up for the final confrontation in The Amber Spyglass. Here’s a conversation about him between another witch (Serafina Pekkala) and a man who was once Asriel’s manservant (Thorold).

“Well, Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I’ve seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike. It’s death among our people, Serafina Pekkala, to challenge the Church, but Lord Asriel’s been nursing a rebellion in his heart for as long as I’ve served him, that’s one thing I do know.”

“A rebellion against the Church?”

“Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.”

“Why? Was the Church too strong?”

“No,” said the old servant, “that wouldn’t stop my master. Now this might sound strange to you, Serafina Pekkala, but I know the man better than any wife could know him, better than a mother. He’s been my master and my study for nigh on forty years. I can’t follow him to the height of his thought any more than I can fly, but I can see where he’s a-heading even if I can’t go after him. No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the Church not because the Church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth fighting.”

“So...what is he doing?”

“”I think he’s a-waging a higher war than that. I think he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him. That’s what I think. It shakes my heart to voice it, ma’am. I hardly dare think of it. But I can’t put together any other story that makes sense of what he’s doing.”

Serafina sat quiet for a few moments, absorbing what Thorold had said.

Before she could speak, he went on:

“Course, anyone setting out to do a grand thing like that would be the target of the Church’s anger. Goes without saying. It’d be the most gigantic blasphemy, that’s what they’d say. They’d have him before the Consistorial Court and sentenced to death before you could blink. I’ve never spoke of it before and I shan’t again; I’d be afraid to speak it aloud to you if you weren’t a witch and beyond the power of the Church; but that makes sense, and nothing else does. He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill Him.”

“Is that possible?” said Serafina.

“Lord Asriel’s life has been filled with things that were impossible. I wouldn’t like to say there was anything he couldn’t do. But on the face of it, Serafina Pekkala, yes, he’s stark mad. If angels couldn’t do it, how can a man dare to think about it?”

“Angels? What are angels?”

“Beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell. They failed, you see, that’s the point. They couldn’t do it. And they had the power of angels. Lord Asriel is just a man, with human power, no more than that. But his ambition is limitless. He dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think. And look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it? So with one part of me, Serafina Pekkala, I say he’s mad, wicked, deranged. Yet with another part I think, he’s Lord Asriel, he’s not like other men. Maybe...if it was ever going to be possible, it’d be done by him and by no one else.”

Yes, Asriel is clearly the Satan in Pullman’s dark tale, only much more powerful because he is a human Satan and not an angelic one. God, after all, gave humans free will, a blessing he did not bestow on his angelic host, and, in killing God--the Authority--it looks like Asriel will be making Pullman’s ultimate statement on the power of human science over myth and legend.

Should be quite a climax. After all, as Pullman has another one of his characters say late in the book:

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

Care to guess which side wins in The Amber Spyglass?

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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, December 7, 2015

Innovating the Lean Startup Way

Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting has another white paper out. It's the third or fourth one I've read from her shop, and it's another good one. This one was co-authored with Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and it's titled "Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment."

I won't go into all the details. You should read the white paper if you're interested. But here's one of the underlying concepts that really connected with me.

Associations, generally, are "resource-poor environments." In my own phraseology, our goals are often bigger than our resources. We're non-profits, we're trying to change the world, and our resources are, frankly, often not up to the task. We don't have the dollars we wished we did. And, although we have, among our members, a source of human capital many for-profits would envy, we are frequently inefficient in aligning those resources with the objectives we've set for ourselves.

But here's the shocker. When it comes to applying lean startup methodology to our product and program development processes, all the liabilities I just described are not liabilities at all. They turn into advantages because, as the white paper says, the lean startup method "favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over tradition 'big design up front' development. As such, it's ideally suited for resource-poor environments."

Wondering how to start? The white paper has plenty of ideas. One of the things I like best about this series is that Elizabeth and the co-authors she recruits "get" the audience their speaking to. That audience is associations, and even with something like lean startups, something more naturally suited to our environment, there are things that won't easily translate to our world. In this paper, she and Guillermo first lay out the theory, then talk about how associations can apply it, and then provide several examples of associations doing exactly that. It's great.

Here's my own contribution. Something "lean startup-ish" that we've started doing at my own association. When developing a new product or program, we first conduct what I'm starting to refer to as a "call for interest." Before putting any time or money into development we simply lay out the idea in 300 words or less and send it out to the membership. Here's something we're thinking about and the value we think it will provide. Do you agree? Let us know if you'd like to see us develop this further and would like to be part of the team that works on it.

We've had surprising results with this approach--helping us to move forward with some ideas and, importantly, helping us to decide not to move forward with others. Although the white paper mentions associations that may be worried about the brand reputation and the "risk" associated with releasing intentionally half-baked ideas to the membership, I'm finding that mindset increasingly marginalized in my community.

The reverse, I believe, is increasingly true. Letting your members know that you are open to experimentation, that you value their perspective, and that you will only invest in ideas that they help you validate adds rather than detracts from your brand reputation.

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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