Monday, October 23, 2017

Peer Surveys Protect the Status Quo

Like many association professionals, I suspect, I belong to a number of associations myself. One of those associations -- comprised primarily of the staff executives of associations that look and behave like mine -- recently conducted a survey of its membership. It was a survey designed to assess and illuminate the practices of all its association members with regard to one particular area of strategy and management.

What that area was isn't important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is how I reacted to the results.

First off, let me say that I like filling out this kind of survey. Especially for an organization that I believe accurately represents a peer group for my association. It's great, in my opinion, to benchmark what my association is doing against its peers and competitors. So I dutifully filled in all the fields, hit submit, and waited patiently for the results to be tabulated and published.

When those results appeared in my inbox, I remember feeling a small measure of apprehension. I think my association is doing well. But is it? What will the marketplace of my peers say? Are others achieving more or less success that we are?

As I scrolled through the results, examining chart after chart of tabulated results, however, my apprehension quickly went away. For question after question, I saw, the strategy and management of my association was squarely in majority. We did this, and so did the majority of our peers, We did that, and so did the majority of our peers. Great!

It wasn't until well after I closed the document and safely filed it away in my "Benchmarking" folder that I began to reflect on and question my reaction. I was reassured, I realized, that my association wasn't an outlier in these data sets. That, I suppose, was a natural reaction, but it made me think how I would have reacted had the opposite been the case. What if I had been the outlier? What if the majority of my peers were doing something different? Would I have interpreted that as some kind of call to action? As a pressing need to do something different in my association?

No. If I am to be honest, I have to admit that if the results would have shown my association to be different from its peer group, I would have either dismissed the survey as faulty, or figured out a way to convince myself that what we were doing, although different from most of our peers, was right and appropriate for our situation and our association.

That's how powerful the barriers to change are in most organizations. Even reliable data isn't enough to overcome it. In either case, with a peer survey that either reinforces or contradicts our practices, I would've had my association keep doing the same old thing.

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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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