I recently read an article in an association publication that dismissed the concept of disruption and theorized that instead associations should maintain business priorities consistent with current trends, and that perhaps the key to success for associations is to be boring.
It quickly became obvious my idea of disruption and that of the author were quite different. As the author put it, association leaders are told to “shake things up and be different for the sake of being a good leader.”
What if the author of that article and many association leaders have the wrong vision of disruption?
Bringing chaos to an organization is not leadership! Disruption for the sake of causing a disturbance, interrupting events, activities and processes would seem to be the opposite of what we know about true leadership.
We’ve all known those managers who seem to get bored when things are running smoothly and interject grenades of sorts into otherwise smooth operations. Even if positive change does come, these organizations go through significant turmoil and staff turnover can be quite high. Even for those of us who identify with the fundamental principle of disruption, this is not a vision for leadership.
When an organization is in chaos, as the City of Detroit was going into bankruptcy, or when major changes such as new leadership come to an association, the major disruptions already occurring in those situations can be turned into opportunity, a catalyst for real change and reform. But, would anyone purposely create such a dramatic shift for the sake of “shaking things up?”
This leaves a few unanswered questions. Is disruption important for associations and if so, what should the process of disruption look like for associations?
A Roadmap to Disruption
As a professional communicator, I have learned to naturally gravitate toward a four-step process in my work that begins with research and ends with evaluation. When applying this process to the management of our organizations, it is in these moments we are presented with opportunities for change, to align our processes to best meet the needs of our members, our customers.
The four-step process used in communications is simple: research, action/planning, communication/implementation and evaluation.
Research: Member surveys, communications audits, environmental scanning, trend analysis, reading industry publications and participating in continuing education; we are consistently provided with information on what our members – our customers – want and need. It’s what we do with that information that matters.
Action/Planning: In the action stage, we dive into the data and carefully plan. What adjustments need to be made to our meetings, conferences, communication efforts and other programs to meet the needs of our members? What will our benchmarks be to measure success? How does the program help meet the organization’s strategic objectives?
Communications/Implementation: Implementation is the part of the process our audiences see. It’s ultimately what we’re judged by. Programs must run smoothly and accomplish their strategic goals, advancing the mission of the organization, but in reality this part of the process is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The hidden hours spent preparing and later evaluating the product are the big chunk hidden below the sea.
Evaluation: The only way to continually improve upon programs is to take the evaluation process seriously. Are we reaching our audiences, serving our members’ needs, reaching desired metrics? This is in many ways the most important part of the process because it gives you the information needed to know what changes to make for the future.
There are likely many organizations that use this process of research, action, communications and evaluation in their public relations departments. Is there commonality within other disciplines and departments of an association as well?
Consider the ADDIE model used by many associations to design professional development programs. This program was initially created for use by the United States Army for instructional system design. It has been adapted slightly in this example to be used for designing educational training programs.
Analysis: Conduct research to determine the learning needs of the audience.
Design: Specify the learning objectives and plan how content will be delivered to achieve objectives.
Development: Develop learning materials and content to support learning retention. (planning)
Implementation: Put the plan into action. (communication)
Evaluation: Collect and evaluate data to determine effectiveness in meeting learning objectives.
A version of the four-step process is likely at work in all areas of an association. Even the preparation for taking the examination for Certified Association Executives teaches the use of S.P.I.E. – Scan. Plan. Implement. Evaluate.
While the vernacular differs between departments, the commonality is important. As association professionals we are continually faced with opportunities for growth and change within our organizations.
While it may be easier to ignore the calls for change and stick with the status quo, does that best meet the needs of our members and encourage their professional growth?
Let’s be honest, change isn’t always comfortable. It’s easy to do things the way they’ve always been done; to dismiss opportunities for growth because we’re all busy and stretched, to seek excuses instead of creative solutions.
But, if we stick with the status quo and fail to adapt to the changing needs of our members, we lose relevancy and eventually a bigger and often more uncomfortable disruption will be the result. Forced changes in leadership, significant declines in membership, loss of key staff; failing to make purposeful disruptions can lead to the same chaos in an organization as shifting course just to “shake things up.”
Employees may fight changes that change their work flow. A few members may be stalwart supporters of outdated programs that are no longer effective. But failing to disrupt the status quo isn’t an option. Our job as association leaders is to communicate on why the changes need to be made and how they will benefit the organization and our members in the long-term. We must lead and manage disruption in a responsible, purposeful manner.
Disruption isn’t optional! Our only choice is if we want it to come in small doses or all at once.
Look At The Facts
In the reinvention of Detroit, there are many examples of failed leadership and missed opportunity for change that led to massive disruptions. Let’s look at the Cobo Center. Conditions of the building were allowed to deteriorate, needs of the vendors were not met and overtime organizations opted not to give their return business to the Cobo Center, a significant economic loss to the City of Detroit. Despite the impossible to ignore signals, action wasn’t taken until the last remaining client, the North American International Auto Show prepared to find a new home.
We have come to expect hotels and conference centers to follow up on events with detailed surveys to ensure the needs of their customers are being met. Leaking roofs, lack of cleanliness, poor food quality, audio visual problems; unless corrected even a small problem can cause hotels and conference centers to lose business.
Our members – customers – expect and deserve this same level of attention and responsiveness from their association leadership. We are expected to stay ahead-of-the-curve in meeting the evolving needs of our members.
The Power You Have
Are we going to manage the disruption or let it manage us?
As a learned disrupter, and someone who inherently avoids conflict, I’ve found engaging in purposeful disruption to be a tool to effectively manage change.
A truism that has been immortalized by Star Wars, “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” Change is going to happen. We can either manage the change by listening for the needs of our membership and making course corrections or we can ignore the signals until we have no choice but to respond.
As association leaders we should engage in a continual process of research, evaluation and course correction, causing purposeful disruptions where necessary to improve the services we offer to our members.
The author of the article and I both came to a common ground– it’s all about remaining relevant. I believe the author had missed an important point. Can we expect to remain relevant in a constantly changing environment without purposeful disruption?
While it may push us to move outside of our comfort zones. Engage. Disrupt. Adapt. Repeat.