Future Ready, Not Future Proof: Part II

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • February 22, 2019

This is the second in a two-part series in which I share foundational principles for building future-ready associations. (You can read Part I here.) In Part II, I will discuss three additional principles and offer advice to association decision-makers on how to mobilize their organizations to embrace them.

In Part I, I challenged association decision-makers to reject the unhelpful idea of future-proof organizations that can resist the impact of societal transformation in favor of working to make their associations future ready. This is not a semantic distinction. A troubling implication of creating something that is future proof is the notion that the future is an inherently negative phenomenon against which associations must protect themselves from damage. The powerful forces of societal transformation are not cooperative to be sure, and that means association boards and chief staff executives must focus their attention on learning with those forces (rather than working against them), discarding detrimental orthodox beliefs once and for all and updating outmoded legacy practices to identify and create new opportunities to thrive. This is the essence of building a future-ready association.

Three Collaborative Principles

The effort to build future-ready associations demands both new thinking and new action. In last month’s column, I shared three cognitive principles that can shift organizational mindsets about how to understand, anticipate and prepare for the future. This month, I want to share three collaborative principles that can shift the way associations involve and interact with their stakeholders in the common pursuit of long-term thrivability.

Systemwide stewardship

Associations continue to emphasize the importance of leadership, but in 2016, writing in the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE) magazine, The Executive, I argued, “[a]t this crucial moment in their history…associations will be better served by traveling a different path toward the future: making the affirmative choice to focus their attention on nurturing stewards and realizing the beneficial effects of stewardship.” The numerous high-profile and high-stakes leadership failures we have seen across every sector of our society over the last three years have only strengthened my conviction that associations need less leadership and more stewardship to become future ready. As every association’s primary stewards, boards of directors must collaborate with their stakeholders to create a trusted context in which all contributors understand how they can advance the work of stewardship. Systemwide stewardship—and the requisite generative attention on caring for and leaving the system better than how it was found—is critical to developing a shared and robust sense of responsibility for building associations to thrive.

Networked foresight

To prepare their associations and stakeholders for the impact of disruption created by the forces of societal transformation, boards must let go of counterproductive burdens stipulated by orthodoxy in favor of carrying the essential burdens of board service, including the burden of foresight. While the duty of foresight belongs uniquely to boards, they cannot be expected to undertake the focused, disciplined and intentional learning with the future their associations need without substantial support. As with the deep unlearning principle discussed in Part I, the real-world work of foresight, which involves ongoing sense-making, meaning-making and decision-making, requires the active participation of diverse stakeholders who can bring unconventional perspectives and make surprising connections. Designing foresight as a networked process extends its reach, helps build it into a sustainable practice and amplifies its impact on future readiness over time.

Inclusive co-creation

The final principle for building future-ready associations is about reaching beyond existing association boundaries to include new collaborators in the value creation process. Integrated intelligences, the third principle shared in Part I, is about unifying the distinctive capabilities of humans and machines to create a more powerful platform from which to create radical new value. There is no association that has the full breadth of human talents to which it will need access within its current membership. By designing and developing mutually-beneficial relationships with these “unusual suspects,” associations can capitalize on intelligences outside the scope of the association’s industry, profession or field to drive game-changing innovation.

Building a Future-Ready Association

To build the future readiness of their associations, boards and chief staff executives will need shift their own mindsets, as well as mobilize their stakeholders to embrace the challenge. Association decision-makers must cultivate a shared understanding of why building future-ready associations is a necessary and beneficial effort for everyone involved. This process must banish myopia, nostalgia and denial and concentrate instead on examining the plausible real-world impact (both positive and negative) of the futures their associations face, regardless of whether those futures make boards and chief staff executives happy. It is critical to communicate this shared understanding about what the future holds to all stakeholders with clarity, simplicity and resolve. By directly confronting both reasonable and unreasoned fears of the future, including their own, association decision-makers can give their stakeholders the confidence to let go of the past and the inspiration to embrace the future.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff advises and serves on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). He is the author of the eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, produced in collaboration with Association Adviser, a Naylor publication.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.