Note from Jeff: This column is the second in a two-part series on Preparing for The Next Six Months. Part I can be found here. Also, I believe that Black Lives Matter.
The next six months are underway. No matter how they might appear right now, we must expect them to be difficult—things will get worse before they get better—and prepare ourselves and our stakeholders accordingly.
Even as we use the pessimistic mindset discussed in Part I to navigate the demands of these next six months, we will need to begin the hard work of achieving better and different outcomes for the rest of this decade as well. To do that, we must ask better and different questions. Before I share three such questions for association decision-makers to consider, let me situate them in the proper context.
Putting the Questions in Context
In Part I, I argued that associations will need more stewardship and less leadership to reinvent themselves for the rest of this decade. The shift from leadership to stewardship is essential because we knew the 2020s were going to be turbulent, but we were still not prepared for it. The fact that our society was not ready for the full force of this decade’s turbulence to arrive almost immediately is a clear failure of leadership at every level. There is simply no justification for association decision-makers to continue to embrace a paradigm that has left so much preventable damage in its wake.
The difficult work that must be done starting today and throughout The Turbulent Twenties will require a stewardship mindset and approach. Stewardship is about a shared commitment we make to leave the system better than how we found it for the benefit of stakeholders and successors. While there is considerable distance to travel before systems across our society will be better than how they were found, we must bring our full stewardship commitment from the outset to focus our attention on and accelerate our progress toward that long-term outcome.
Three Better and Different Questions
In addition to three questions that every staff and voluntary association decision-maker must consider, I am sharing three specific and generative challenges to association boards to shift their thinking and action over the next six months and beyond.
What is your association’s purpose for the rest of this decade and beyond?
In very personal ways, each of us is mourning the loss of the world in which we lived when this decade began. 2020 has been a year of intense pain, unspeakable suffering and what feels like endless upheaval. To reconnect with the intrinsic motivation that will be required for the demanding work of reinvention, associations must offer their stakeholders a new source of sustained inspiration. This renewed sense of meaning can come in the form of one simple and powerful expression of purpose, i.e., why does the association exist and what is its most important work, that prioritizes the effort to create a better future for successors who are not yet connected to the organization.
Replace your current vision/mission with a new purpose that advances your association’s long-term shared interest and primarily benefits successors you will never know personally.
How will your association enable human contribution to fulfill that purpose?
Many constraints under which associations operate are self-imposed, including the limitations of membership. If there has ever been a time in the history of our organizations to think and act beyond membership orthodoxy, it is now. The powerful forces of transformation that are reshaping our world, our associations and our lives are not the least bit concerned with anyone’s membership status. These forces are not neutral, they exert a disproportionate (and frequently detrimental) impact based on who we are and no one is exempt. In this unforgiving context, associations can no longer afford to draw “us and them” lines based on membership. Instead, we must strive to attract every capable and interested contributor into collaboration and direct their talents toward purposeful action.
Remove artificial membership barriers and build mutually-beneficial and collaborative relationships with capable and interested contributors who will never be members of your association.
How will your association redesign and rebuild its fragile systems to thrive in an irrevocably-altered world?
The turbulence of 2020 has revealed conclusively that many conventional ways of doing business are not resilient when placed under extreme stress. In the absence of more resilient systems, associations will struggle to withstand the turbulence on the horizon for 2021 and beyond. Associations cannot simply patch these exposed weaknesses by doubling down on established yet increasingly outmoded management approaches grounded in unexamined orthodox beliefs. Instead, it is imperative for associations to design, develop and implement next practices in every phase of their work that help build new capacity for action and nurture a shared responsibility for stewardship among all stakeholders and contributors.
Eliminate flawed and fragile governing approaches that have failed the association, its stakeholders and successors in favor of designing more resilient governing next practices.
Balancing Doubt and Care
For some readers, the challenging ideas offered in this series may spark a desire to push back. Here is my advice: balance any doubts with the need to exercise care. This is a perilous moment with many tough choices in front of us. Even in disagreement, I hope there this space for reflection on how these divergent perspectives can be helpful to association decision-makers in the months and years ahead.
In October, look for Part I of a new three-part series on “The Reinvention Mandate” that I am confident will take the conversation started in this series to another level of impact. Please stay safe and well.