Tuesday, April 03, 2012

I Want ASAE to Fail. And You Should Too.

I want ASAE to fail. 

To try a new program or service and have it flame out spectacularly. 

Or incorporate a completely new element into an existing initiative and have a large percentage of the membership go, "huh?"

Not everyone who reads this blog is a member of ASAE or a professional organization, so to make the most of this post, think of an organization you care about, perhaps one you contribute to financially or as a volunteer.  Whenever I say ASAE, you think of the organization of your choice.

I haven’t done any formal polling, but I believe the freedom to swing for a home run and strike out is something that began to disappear shortly after ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership joined as one organization.  Don’t get me wrong.  Many, many positive benefits have accrued to the association community as a result of that union.  But we lost something important. Surprise, Delight, and Wow was a driving mantra for the Center and a rallying point for its staff, members, and volunteers .... just as it was for the Center in its earlier incarnation as GWSAE, the Great Washington Society of Association Executives.  Where that mantra is left in our merged entity, it seems to come only in lower case letters, unbolded text, and a much more confined range of risk.

And that's either a serious problem or a huge of pool of unrealized potential.  Either way, it needs to be addressed because we no longer have ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership.  We only have ASAE-The Center for Association Leadership.  And there simply is no way to be the center without more room in the Price is Right rangefinder for trying new things.

I’m sure the expectations and scrutiny we place on the ASAE staff and volunteer leadership contributes to too much of a "we can't screw this up"  mental straightjacket.  So that’s why I wanted to come out, fly my freak flag as Joe Gerstandt would say, and openly declare that this is one member who wants more failures, more thoughtful attempts to achieve great things that fall short, but produce meaningful insight that members of the association community can use in their own organizations.

In 2010 and 2011,  a diverse cross-section of ASAE staff, volunteers, and members convened regularly as members of the Innovation Task Force.  One of the outcomes (approved by the ASAE Board) was that ASAE serve as a convener, catalyst, and role model for innovation in the association community.
  • We need more conversations to be convened;
  • We need more catalysts for commitments to be unleashed; and
  • We need more role modeling of capital letter Experimentation.
Calculated risks are fine, but let’s not allow IGNITE sessions to be seen as the major conference innovation year after year.  Cool as they are, they were a proven format in many other environments that were simply imported into our community, something many would say was a pretty low risk initiative.
  • Maybe we as a community need to all come out in favor of failure. 
  • Maybe we need to express the experiments we’d most like to see happen.
  • Maybe we need to say “here’s something we’d love to try in our own organization, but are afraid to do so.  Would you try it for us?”
Maybe we need to do all this and much more.

The real irony is that 1575 I Street is not ASAE.  We are.  And if we the member community don't invite, cajole, or demand bigger and bolder experimentation from the staff and volunteers who help lead us, we are the ones who ultimately will fail.

And the reality is that even if you strike out when you swing for the bleachers, you truly haven’t failed.  You’ve simply learned what doesn’t work.  That’s what progress requires.


Deirdre Reid said...

Failure is dangerous for employment. Is that why association executives are so afraid to try something new? Is it the "not on my watch" syndrome, much like their elected leaders?

The recent post by Jamie Notter about bringing innovation to life and comment from Jeff De Cagna made me realize: my word, we HAVE been talking about innovation for six years. When I first started reading association blogs, it was the same conversation. Awareness is heightened, but that's about it.

But who's talking? Is it the executives? No, with a few exceptions, it's primarily those who have tempted failure by taking a big risk themselves -- self-employment. We continuously reinvent and reshifting our professional and personal lives, so no wonder we get frustrated at inaction in organizations we love/like/tolerate.

Associations can't be entirely run like businesses, but maybe they (or their boards) do need to have more of an entrepreneur's attitude. But will fear and ego stand in the way?

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

I think we'll continue to talk about this forever, but only so long as we start having more corresponding action.

Your observations about risk definitely factor into what I've observed in groups I've helped facilitate. I think part of what any association staffer needs to do though is help volunteers see the potential risk in not experimenting, in not trying things before it is too late or too little, of not seeing investing some money in things with uncertain outcomes as part of being fiscally responsible.

I've found some success in getting people to talk about how they perceive risk, failure, and experimentation and what has led them to their belief systems in those areas. We can then talk about the environment in which the association and the profession or industry it serves are operating and what little bets and strategic investments would be the right thing to do. I really like how Peter Sims frames this in his book, Little Bets. “Little bets are for learning about problems and opportunities while big bets are for capitalizing upon them once they’ve been identified.”

If we can get our staff and volunteer leadership in the habit of routinely placing little bets and then acting on what is learned, I believe much more value can be created and innovation will move from talk to action.

Mark Dorsey said...

The conversations at Great Ideas about what consitutes innovation were intriguing to the extent that definitions seemed to range from the chaotic to the micro-wins. We all know risk-taking execs, boards, volunteer groups, and staffs.

To me, a key question is what is the groups real tolerance for risk and how is taking risk cultivated and encouraged (and I don't mean the risk taking for the association encouraged in the bar or even the board table)? In the wrong environment, even little bets are punished.

And risk-taking isn't just for those facing crisis. In fact, I'm more paranoid about risk when repeating success than when trying to solve a crisis.

What's your tolerance for risk within the organization? And what's your real tolerance for action--even with corresponding fear and ego--in the face of the rewards?

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Great points Mark. We definitely need more talk about individual and collective risk tolerance and how to effectively manage perceived (or real) risk associated with innovations that are deemed worth pursuing.

My facilitator response nowadays to "that will never work" is "what would need to happen in order for that to become more possible?"

Anonymous said...

I read this twice - what is it about? Don't write to write, next time write to say something.

Tony Lorenz said...

Excellent discussion. We are on the front lines of this dynamic in the association marketplace as we take on development of an online Network for the event marketing space.

I will say ASAE leadership at the very top is a prominent advocate and partner in the development of this platform. They are because they realize the potential, and they know their membership needs to embrace online extensions of one of their most prized assets, their face to face events.

They also realize that aligning with the Network carries a bit of calculated risk. That is what leaders do . They take calculated risk.

From there it is a matter of degree.

Tony Lorenz said...

Agreed jeff. It was an excellent post. And I am new to your blog.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

@Tony: Thanks for stopping by and sharing what you are up to. Sounds exciting.

@Anonymous: Others seem to understand what it is about. I'm sorry I wasn't clear enough for you (and I'm saying that sincerely, not snarkily). IThe blog title is pretty specific though. I don't write unless I feel I'm saying something and perhaps I tried to say too many things in one post.

It's always disappointing when people choose to remain anonymous when offering negative feedback. It makes our exchange very one-sided. Had you provided actual contact information, I would have reached out to you to try and learn how I could have been clearer in conveying my meaning. Should you read this comment, feel free to email or contact me via the info provided on my site.

Eric Casey said...

Nice piece Jeffrey. This needs to be said more often by more of us.

I wonder if Mark Graham or the ASAE Board reads this. That's the group to which this is really addressed. Staff can innovate around the periphery, and can even be the driver of change, but without support from the top, it won't happen.

Earlier in my career I had the benefit of working for two visionary CEOs who let me swing for the fences with a completely new concept for the association. One was a home run; the other a spectacular flameout. However, if the results had been reversed, it really wouldn't have mattered. Both CEOs fully supported and championed the effort and were ready to stand behind the result.

There are limits also. I would not advise an association on life support to try this unless every conventional option has been exhausted and the ship is sinking (sorry about the mixed metaphors). As the ED of an association struggling to turn itself around financially, I long for the day when I can pursue a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal).

Susan Kistler said...

I'm pretty sure the anonymous comment was spam - you'll likely see the same comment on other sites. It is done just to provoke or to gain access for mass spamming of advertisements. Your post was thought provoking enough - thank you! I always struggle with failure and the idea that we must be open to it. On paper, and in my heart, that looks great - but when push comes to shove, and the scrutiny of why did you make that decision over this one (which in hindsight never looks as good as it did at the time) takes hold, it becomes more difficult to embrace.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Eric: Important observation about knowing what is an appropriate level of risk for your organization's individual circumstance. That's one reason why Rosabeth Moss Kanter's innovation pyramid has always appealed to me: you have a base of quick wins and continuous improvements, a middle layer with a portfolio of new ventures, prototypes, and projects and a top layer with a few big strategic bets. Just like our own financial portfolio, you need to regularly recalibrate the mix of your organization's innovation efforts among those three layers based on current conditions and your own needs/goals.

Susan: it's a struggle most of us have I think. Personally, I've just never found the word/concept all that helpful. it seems so finite when the reality is more nuanced. I'm more likely to say/see things as "well that didn't work the way we thought it would".