Monday, August 29, 2016

Organizational Cultures at the Crossroads

Associations typically know a lot about organizational partnerships. I've previously described associations as organizations whose goals are consistently larger than their resources, and one of the strategies many associations employ to help close that gap is to enter into synergistic partnerships with other organizations. Often other associations, but just as often other kinds of non-profit and even for-profit organizations.

Making sure both organizations in a partnership share and understand the same goal is essential. So is making sure that each organization has something unique that only it can leverage towards the goal, and that the contributions of both organizations are needed in order to achieve the goal. You can get tips like these out of almost any management book, but one thing that often isn't discussed is that the two organizations in any partnership are likely to have two different cultures, and it can frequently be a clash of these cultures that creates the most challenge to the partnership.

In my experience, partnerships with other associations often make the most sense and have the highest likelihood of success. When your partner organization is not an association there can be a cultural gap between the two organizations that can be difficult to close. And frequently, this cultural gap centers around the two organizations and their respective tolerances for risk.

Associations are often tarred with the "risk averse" brush. Board chairs are often unwilling to take chances "on their watch," and staff executives are often unwilling to challenge conventional thinking, leading associations to stay entrenched longer than they should in poor-performing systems and programs. But there is one area in which most associations I know actively embrace risk, and it is an area that can scare the pants off some of their non-association partners. It's the area I've already mentioned--chasing after big goals with inadequate resources.

Think about it. An association that avoids turning over applecarts in the Board room or in the corner office can still find itself charging headlong into the marketplace with the intent of accomplishing big things but without the developed capacity to do so. Sometimes we frame such an adventure as a stretch goal, or as a professional development opportunity, but more often we don't put any frame on it at all. It is simply an expectation we place on ourselves and our under-resourced and over-burdened staff.

Try, we say. Or, learn by doing. Or, shoot for the moon and maybe we'll find ourselves in low orbit. We know that our only alternate is to stay grounded and admit that we can't do what we've said it's the job of our organization to do--and that's unthinkable.

Some of the non-association organizations I've partnered with are flabbergasted by this mindset, by this almost foolhardy willingness to embrace the risk of a failed venture. Failure is the thing that is unthinkable to them, and the courage that we show in the face of long odds appears to them as anything but. Getting halfway there for the partner organization is a failure, but getting halfway there for us is a smashing success.

Sometimes, when two partner organizations, one association and one not, disagree on the resources that are necessary to achieve their shared goal, the disagreement can be traced back to two different approaches to the kind of risk I'm describing in this post. And when that happens, the partnership may very well find itself at a crossroads. Culturally-speaking, one organization is forever aligned in a north-south direction, and the other is facing east-west. There is still and always a place where those two cultures meet, and the challenge for both is to find a way to co-exist there, where both organizations can see but don't have to march down the road of the other.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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