On December 31, 2024, the halfway point of The Turbulent Twenties, the senior decision-makers, staff and stakeholders of associations across the country will reflect on this decade’s first 60 months and anticipate the 60 months ahead. Their experiences up to that time, and their expectations going forward, will be shaped significantly by the choices that today’s boards and chief staff executives make to reinvent their associations in 2021.
In Part I of this series, I argued that for current boards and chief staff executives, reinventing their associations for the rest of this decade is a solemn responsibility to current stakeholders and a moral obligation to successors. To fulfill these stewardship commitments, senior association decision-makers must adopt a long-term view of the challenges ahead and begin addressing them within multiple always-shifting time horizons. Pursuing this critical work with intention will require a solid intellectual and ethical context and framework, both of which I will present in this column.
From Short-Termism to Future Shaping
The orthodox belief that short-term concerns matter more than long-term thinking is pervasive and entrenched throughout our society, and it is doing real damage. In a provocative essay for BBC Future in January 2019, journalist Richard Fisher described short-termism as “civilisation’s greatest threat.” Nearly two years after the publication of Fisher’s essay, the events of 2020 and our collective failure to better prepare for societal transformation over the previous two decades has made plain the profoundly detrimental impact of short-term thinking on individuals and institutions alike. We cannot continue down this pathway.
My concerns about how today’s decision-makers approach the work of reinventing their associations for the rest of this decade are not limited to the risks of short-termism. Reinforcing the point made in my column about building “future-ready” associations early last year, I remain deeply troubled by the use of the term “future-proof” throughout our community. While clearly appealing from a marketing perspective, the implication of this catchphrase is that associations can be made somehow impervious to the impact of future forces. This belief is both untrue and harmful to the difficult, yet necessary work of reinvention. At the same time, I am also quite uneasy with what I describe as “future-washing,” the sporadic and superficial discussion of an association’s future issues for the sole purpose of adding rhetorical flourish to planning documents, as an acceptable and ethical alternative to developing a consistent practice of foresight.
In 2021 and beyond, association decision-makers must continue to understand, anticipate and prepare for a full range of plausible futures. Given the powerful forces that have been fully unleashed this year, however, simple future readiness will not be sufficient if associations’ reinvention efforts are going to have a real chance to succeed. Boards and chief staff executives, working with other contributors, will need to take their work to another level of impact by building their capabilities for “future-shaping.” Grounded in a consistent practice of foresight, future-shaping requires active intention and investment in the co-creative process of building more equitable, ethical, humane and just futures. There must be a deep and unbreakable connection between the reinvention of today’s associations and the effort to shape better futures for stakeholders and successors.
Making Reinvention Happen
To begin moving down this new pathway for the rest of The Turbulent Twenties and beyond, I urge association decision-makers to begin pursuing immediately the three complementary reinvention initiatives described below.
Develop and guide the advancement of reinvention intent
For years, I have encouraged associations to think and act in terms of strategic intent (a focused expression of how they intend to create value for and with stakeholders in a manner consistent with purpose) and governing intent (a specific expression of the outcomes their boards will strive to achieve through the work of stewardship). Reinvention intent is a detailed and resolute expression of how the association will reinvent itself for the turbulence of the 2020s. Guaranteeing the legitimacy of the conversation around reinvention intent demands that boards and chief staff executives put everything on the table without exception. There can be no deference to either predecessors from decades past or to sacrosanct yet harmful orthodox beliefs. There can be no protection of pet projects, and no nostalgia or denial. Instead, there must be clear-eyed, sober, and future-focused thinking that focuses attention on exactly how the association will become different today, in 2021 and throughout this decade so it can make purposeful contributions to shaping a better future.
Negotiate and design a “next covenant” with stakeholders and successors
For most associations, the traditional membership-centric approach to developing relationships is built on a combination of:
1) constraints on the variety of potential stakeholders with whom the association is willing to enter into relationships, often based on orthodox beliefs around eligibility requirements contained in governing documents, tribal loyalties and ideological disagreements;
2) the long-standing expectation that known stakeholders will choose to consume from a pre-configured menu of standardized products, services, and experiences; and
3) the inherently inequitable realization of beneficial impact from association involvement across various stakeholder networks.
By negotiating and designing a “next covenant” with stakeholders and successors, associations can expand and permanently transform these relationships by grounding them in actionable commitments to inclusion, collaboration and contribution that will inspire the positive-sum action required to reinvent associations for truly mutual and long-term benefit.
Adopt stewardship, governing and foresight next practices
The reinvention of associations also must include reinventing how we think about the purpose and role of association boards. It is crucial for boards to let go of short-term operational concerns and devote their attention to sustained long-term thinking. While the work of foresight must involve many diverse contributors, in most associations, it is only the board (working in concert with the chief staff executive) that embodies the requisite responsibility, authority and opportunity to drive the development of a consistent practice of foresight. With that in mind, association boards and chief staff executives must collaborate to implement stewardship, governing and foresight (SGF) next practices, including the confident embrace of a stewardship mindset and approach, the clear articulation of governing intent and the beneficial choice to accept the duty of foresight. The decisive adoption of these and other SGF next practices will reorient board thinking, action and create new board capacity for shaping the future.
With 2021 now just a few weeks away, association decision-makers must accept the unavoidable truth that there are no easy choices ahead. The continuing test for boards and chief staff executives will be to make the correct hard choices with the full conviction that those decisions will create long-term benefit for their associations, stakeholders and successors. Yet even the obvious challenges that association decision-makers will encounter in fulfilling their stewardship responsibilities pale in comparison to the extraordinary difficulties that stakeholders and successors will confront throughout the rest of The Turbulent Twenties if their associations fail to pursue reinvention and actively shape a better and different future.
In the final part of this series next month, I will explore the underlying sources of the reinvention mandate, as well as their implications for association decision-makers. To all readers in the United States, my best wishes for the Thanksgiving holiday. Please stay safe and well.