Disruption: It’s So Hot Right Now

By Elsbeth Russell • March 17, 2015

Elsbeth Russell
Elsbeth Russell, Naylor Association Solutions

Anytime I start to hear a word, phrase or idea over and over again, I immediately default to what has become, for me, a classic line from the Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell movie, Zoolander. It’s “so hot right now.”

 As a parent to preschoolers, I’m no stranger to the concept of disruption, but the term as it relates to the association landscape first started popping up on my radar a few months ago. I saw it on a blog here or there, we even featured a story on it in the March/April issue of TSAE’s Association Leadership magazine.

Then, as I attended the 2015 ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Orlando it became immediately clear. Disruption is so hot right now.




There are two kinds of disruptions—the kind that shakes us out of the status quo and the game-changing kind that alters the future of entire industries (and associations). RealLilTweetables

Relaxing and allowing the brain to decompress from the work of the day is a proven way to stimulate “Aha” moments. RealLilTweetables

Adapting to a mobile website, revamping your content strategy, crowdsourcing educational programming and gamifying event networking can prepare your association for more seismic disruptions. RealLilTweetables

One of the very first sessions of the conference was titled, “Association Disruption: New Possibilities and Competition.” Then there was the Monday morning session on “Disruptive Trends” in learning. Even the early morning spinning class was dubbed, “Disruptively Innovative.”

So what does all this disruption mean? It appears that there are different types of disruption in the association community. There’s the kind that shakes us out of the status quo, to new and better things, and then there’s the kind that may threaten the whole future of our associations (but in a good way, I promise).

Little Quakes

The first kind of disruption I’ve identified is smaller, but it’s more than the tap on your office door when you’re right in the middle of a big project. It’s the realization that you’ve got to do more and you need to find that next big idea.

In the session “Einstein, Disney & Gates: Leveraging ‘Aha’ Moments to Evoke Change in Your Association,” Margaret Little, the senior director of strategic initiatives for the National Retail Federation, shared how her team’s work to highlight their industry’s entrepreneurial spirit to lawmakers and the community at large resulted in the inception of a successful annual event.

Zoolander - Will Ferrell
Like this scene from “Zoolander,” associations seem to be crowning disruptive trends and actions as “so hot right now.” Photo: CelebBistro.com

NRF’s Retail’s Night Out was developed by the team as a celebration of Small Business Week and came to be as a result of some window-gazing during a late afternoon meeting. The window of the NRF offices, which overlook The Park at CityCenterDC in Washington, D.C., helped to bring about the insight that the association could partner with neighboring stores, helping to build community within the industry.

The key to this disruption is that it occurred because the NRF staffers took a moment to relax and allow their brains to decompress from the work of the day. In fact, Little’s fellow presenter Sheri Singer says that “Aha” moments like this require that the brain have the correct mix of chemicals, and most often occur during relaxation periods.

Your Big Moment

For the Emergency Nurses Association, the disruptive moment occurred when news of the Ebola outbreak started pouring in and taking over the international dialogue.  In her session, “SPIKE Your ROI: How to Maximize Reputation and Get Results,” author Adele Cehrs shared how the association saw the Ebola outbreak as an opportunity to advocate for its members.

ENA used the attention that Ebola cast on the entire health care environment, to bring the concerns of emergency nurses to the public, legislators and other professional health care organizations. ENA was able to partner and build relationships with other associations and public entities, to make their association stronger, and the group was even invited to the White House twice to be recognized for its efforts.

Cehrs and other speakers on the topic of trends and our keyword–disruption–agree the key is to be prepared. Watch for the moment when your association is most relevant, whether on a local, national or international stage, and make sure you’re ready to act.

It may sound opportunistic, or like capitalizing on someone’s misfortune, but by using an event that is already in the public eye, you can help to further position your association as the primary source of support for members and the community at large. This allows you to showcase the parts of your industry that are truly helpful.

The Big Boom

While the smaller disruptions most likely happen in your association pretty regularly, the other kind of disruption is the big, once-in-a-lifetime kind of change. It’s the kind that can make or break your industry and your association.

It’s also the kind that, through diligence in dealing with the smaller disruptions, your association can use to grow and transform. Keeping your eyes open to the changes, both in your industry and in society as a whole, can make or break your future.

This is where making changes like adapting to a mobile website platform, revamping your content strategy, crowdsourcing your educational programming or gamifying your event networking all come together to prepare your association for more seismic disruptions.

Keeping your mind open to the fact that your partners may not look like traditional association partners, and your process may be different than “the way we’ve always done things,” will allow you to work through disruptions and even embrace them as they happen for the greater good of your members and your association.


So what are you doing to prepare your association for the future? What little steps or big initiatives have you put in place to make sure you keep your stake in the industry? Remember: Disruption … it’s so hot right now. And it’s going to happen in your association whether you like it or not.

Elsbeth W. Russell is a senior editor and content strategist with Naylor Association Solutions, working exclusively with society of association executive clients. Email her at [email protected] or follow her as @ElsbethRussell on Twitter.