Saturday, January 31, 2015

“Sunsetting”—a way to impose accountability on your committees and programs

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Some decades ago Congress introduced a concept that was intended to control runaway costs by pruning bloated government programs of those elements that had lost their direction or outlived their reason for being. The concept was called a “sunset” provision and it was to be made part of every project or program funded by the federal government.

As its name implies, a sunset provision meant that funding authorization carried with it the requirement that the funded program was to terminate or shut down automatically after a specified period of time. Any attempt to apply for new funding would bring with it the obligation to prove why the original funded project failed to achieve its objectives or, in the case of projects that had been successful, to identify and justify what further accomplishments were needed. Too few associations have adopted such a “sunset” strategy and as a result are burdened by projects, programs and committees that continue long after they have ceased to be useful.

Volunteers who might have grown comfortable in their committee roles seek to perpetuate the way they identify with the association even after these committees have ceased to produce meaningful results. Programs that once worked continue to live on past accomplishments despite disappointing results year after year. As a result of these all too human inclinations, associations can find themselves incrementally turned into stagnant old storage rooms filled with dusty monuments to past success.

As an association manager, if you suspect it might be time to do some spring-cleaning, one way to do this might be to introduce the sunset concept into every aspect of your association’s operations. Here is a spring-cleaning checklist:

  • Trim your bylaws of unnecessary structural requirements. Many association’ bylaws contain provisions stipulating that certain committees exist even though they might not be linked to the mission. No association should be burdened by permanent committees. Use your next strategic planning session to rid yourself of all imposed clutter and be ferocious in making sure your organization remains lean.
  • Seek consensus then draft and adopt “sunset” language for all your association’s projects, programs and committees. Such language should include the requirement that measurable, mission-relevant objectives be identified and supported by detailed implementation plans with specified budgets and timeframes.
  • Publicize each of these initiatives and build stakeholder support for success. Create expectations, praise teamwork and recognize achievement. As the saying goes, there is no limit to how much you can accomplish if you don’t mind who gets the credit.
Introducing sunset provisions into your organization likely will produce revolutionary changes – making your whole organization leaner, more focused and more efficient. The sunset concept lends itself well to strategic planning, budgeting and even identifying performance goals for personnel evaluations – including your own!

It is sometimes said that one of the best ways to strategically think and plan is to work backward. When all has been said and done, what is it that you will want to have achieved? The sunset concept forces an organization to constantly answer this question for anything requiring time, labor and money. Difficult? Perhaps, but not unreasonable and not a bad discipline for everyone to follow.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

So You Want to Get Ahead?

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Those who want to get ahead in their careers would be wise to take note that a recent survey showed that a challenging and satisfying work environment — or the lack thereof — was the primary reason why a someone joined or left an employer.

These findings are significant because turnover rates continue to be high. Labor statistics indicate that today's college graduate will have more than 8 employers during his or her working life — not just jobs, mind you, but different employers!

A certain amount of employment change is indicative of a healthy, flexible economy, and this is good. But too much job change is due to dashed hopes and misplaced expectations on the part of both employers and employees. Anyone who has been through such change knows it is not fun. There is a reason why psychiatrists place job change up there as one of the top-3 most stressful life events!

So, how do you avoid such unpleasantness? Better yet, how can you find a career that is right for you? In the box are the portraits of 3 possible staffers. Do they resemble anyone you know? Ross is proud of the fact that "he has a life!" Surrounded by workaholics, 12-hour workdays are not for him. Ross is proud of his work skills, but sees a job as something he does to earn money. He prefers to define himself more by what he does outside of work. So a flexible, limited, un-stressful work schedule is what he wants. As soon as things become too intense, he is out of there! All things considered, he would prefer not to change jobs, but it never fails that over time things become too involved and too messy and interfere too much with his life outside of work.

Rachel is a Type A personality. Money and status are important to her, and she is not afraid to put in the effort to achieve them. "Getting ahead is what it's all about, and you do what you have to get there!" If the person above her is in the way of her advancement, that person is to be stepped over, on or pushed aside altogether. And if none of this is possible or if this just takes too much time and effort, then there are always greener pastures waiting elsewhere!

Monica is slightly unsure, although she might not show it. She knows what she likes and is not afraid to work hard, but she is also very aware of all she doesn't know. Her lack of experience is a little frightening, but she is smart and hardworking, and she knows it! And she is looking for a place where she can be challenged and where she can learn and grow professionally. Given learning opportunities, guidance and a lot of challenges she will be happy to stay with an employer indefinitely, or at least until the growth and challenges stop.

All 3 employee types represent personalities that have been around for a long time and probably will always exist. But from a manager's point of view, what better employee could you have than Monica? She is seeking a stimulating and satisfying work environment, and she will be dedicated and loyal to the employer who gives this to her.

More associations have been created, merged or disbanded in the past decade than ever before. The marketplace stresses that have inflicted these changes have not gone away. If anything they have gotten worse. In such a highly unstable environment, Ross is not likely to survive for long in any one job, and if he does, he will be disgruntled and will under-perform. Rachel certainly does not help managers through these difficult, uncharted times. Her ambition and lack of respect for those above her only add to the instability.

The reality is that each of us have in us aspects of all 3 personality types. Today's market trends indicate it might behoove us — managers and staffers — as we change and grow as people, to cultivate those aspects found in Monica.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Threat to Trust

By Peter de Jager

How much personal information do associations collect from their members? How well do they safeguard it from prying eyes and accidental loss? As associations seek ways to increase the value proposition as a way of either retaining, or increasing membership, the pressure to use data mining technologies will increase. That increase in data collection, storage and analysis will bring with it an unwanted guest; a significant threat to the trust that members have placed in the hands of their associations.

Reasonable and responsible predictions of the future are never pulled from thin air; they are constructed from the threads of headlines, the rumors of change and the soft whispers of weak signals. Because of this, sometimes we perceive predictions as nothing more than restatements of the obvious. Other times, the predictions push the boundaries of our expectations. We’re forced to ask ourselves, “Does this prognostication make sense? And if so, what will be the impact on our organizations and our lives?” Then of course there’s the very personal question, “What should we do to in response to this turn of events?”

The Global Future Forum ( sponsored a survey, which highlighted so trends driving society towards a crisis in Trust. They invited 286 respondents, comprised of Futurists (81), Academics (40) and Business Practitioners (166), to comment on a variety of business and social future scenarios.

When asked to estimate the possibility that “The use of consumer information and advanced technology will allow products and services to be dynamically priced and tailored to individual consumer requirements.” 86% of the Business Practitioners, 93% of the Academics and 97% of the Futurists thought this to be likely or very likely to occur over the next five years.

Their responses were generated by the following knowledge;
1) Most markets are saturated with fierce competitors, each seeking a competitive advantage. The respondents recognize that the products and services offered by mature providers eventually become commodities in the consumer’s minds. With the possible exception of the stabilizing force of brand loyalty, it doesn’t matter to the consumer which service they purchase, provided cost and quality are comparable.
2) Technology continues to advance in two key areas, data collection and storage. We can not only collect every bit of information about every customer and all their transactions, we can store it more cheaply and use it to create individualized products faster than ever before.

Within the world of associations, these trends might (we’re speculating here) combine to create the following thought process; Our membership issues might be solvable if we knew more about our members and did more to tailor our services to meet individual needs. The downside is that consumers (that includes Assn members) are beginning to consider this information both personal and confidential, and are slowly coming to realize that their data has an intrinsic value. A value they consider worth protecting from indiscriminate distribution and exposure.

When asked if it was likely or very likely that “Concerns about privacy mean that more and more people refuse to share information with suppliers”

The “Likely” and “Very Likely” responses tallied as follows, 65% Business Practitioners, 60% Academics and 64% Futurists.

Combine this growing awareness of the value of their data with recent headlines regarding data loss, and there should be no question that privacy concerns are on the rise, (or at least becoming more visible), consider this handful of news stories and many others that we have seen like them.
1) Bank of America Corp. loses personal information of approximately 1.2 million federal employees.
2) A tape containing personal data on 600,000 current and former Time
Warner employees is lost or stolen.
3) A laptop containing the personal information of approximately 100,000 University of California alumni, graduate students and applicants was stolen.
4) LexisNexis admits that the personal records of 310,000 individuals may have been stolen by criminals.
5) The U.S. online broker Ameritrade admits that account information of up to 200,000 customers may have been lost.

As associations increase their attempts to collect more and more data from their membership, the question arises, or rather it should arise. How adept are they at preventing themselves from appearing on a future version of this list? What will be the cost to their reputation when a membership list is exposed, lost or stolen?

How secure is your member data from accidental loss? Would your members agree that is good enough?

Monday, January 12, 2015

So You're Trying to Build an Int'l Association?

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

A number of years ago we were asked to assist a US-based association in overcoming problems associated with its growing international membership. Its problems were complicated, far reaching and -- as the consultants have since found – virtually identical to the problems faced by many other associations.

If you are the executive of an international association or an association with a growing membership base on either side of the Atlantic, you may find it reassuring to know your problems are not unique and in fact probably not even of your making. What are these problems, where do they come from and what can be done about them?

Let’s call this "association X." Association X is a trade association representing a rapidly growing sector of the professional services industry. As is the case with many trade associations, association X became international through the expanding international operations of its members.

However, many of the overseas operations of their member companies were separate legal entities. While they shared names and had certain other arrangements with their US counterparts, they otherwise were autonomous. Because of this, they felt they needed to have a separate presence in the association. Little by little, the involvement of these overseas affiliates drew other companies from their markets into the membership ranks of what had been a primarily US dominated trade association.

Almost before they knew it, one half of the association’s members were from outside the United States. Problems began surfacing almost immediately. The Europeans-- recognizing the force of their numbers--demanded an equal presence on the board and the transformation of a US-oriented association into one that was more international, if not global in outlook and structure. The Americans welcomed making a place at the table for their European counterparts, but there were a couple of fundamental problems that needed to be addressed.

The first was that the Europeans were not paying as much as the Americans in supporting the international association. The Europeans did not deny this but pointed out that their national and regional structure created two levels of activity and management that needed to be funded, whereas the Americans had only one. When taking all this into account the Europeans noted that they were paying as much if not more than the Americans for activities that were just as valuable to the association as what the Americans were doing. The feeling of the Americans was straightforward, if not very understanding--if the Europeans wanted to participate in the association they should pay their fair share for international activities.

The second problem related to the nature of the relationship of the American multinationals with their own European affiliates. The Americans saw them as an extension of their US headquartered corporate operations, but the European did not see themselves in the same way. When it came to deciding matters relating to professional standards, dues payments and other professional priorities the European affiliates felt more at ease siding with their European competitors than with their American colleagues.

As we tried to devise solutions to these problems there were many times when it looked like the association was simply going to fall apart. At first we thought these problems stemmed from the peculiarities of the personalities involved. But as we have worked with other associations in the fields of healthcare, manufacturing, accounting and auditing, and others we have seen a repetition of the same problems and frustrations. 

The problem begins with unrealistic expectations. We have heard so much about the global economy that we risk minimizing the very real linguistic, cultural, legislative and regulatory differences that exist between countries. Charles De Gaulle called America "the daughter of Europe." Indeed America is largely an offshoot of Europe, but we who live here know just how diverse and different we are compared to Europe. However, that does not stop us from jumping to our own erroneous conclusion that there are no problems or differences that cannot be managed. We are surprised and possibly slightly wounded when we learn that the Europeans like--even cherish--their differences. They do not want to be made into Americans--even for the sake of greater efficiency!

Taken as a whole, Europe is the most economically powerful region of the world--yet the United States continues to define cutting edge thinking and research in most areas of professional activity. If you are part of an association, it is inevitable that you too will find yourself embroiled in your own trans-Atlantic tug of war over issues of governance, standards and sharing of resources. There is no way to avoid it.

Here are some lessons learned:

  • Develop a vision for your association. Among other issues, determine if you wish to be international or multinational and make sure your members know the difference.
  • Recognize and accept the basic differences that exist between the national markets of your members and identify what you have in common.
  • If you are seeing that your regular national members are reluctant to see their dues increase, know that this is even more the case for an international organization. Resist the temptation to build a mini-UN. Keep overhead to a minimum and link payments to products and services. Your members need to know what they are getting for their money, and it needs to be something tangible.
  • Finally, learn to see that diversity is good and that the road to a global economy is hard. If you steel yourself and your members to expect difficulty and differences of opinion, then you may be less discouraged when you actually encounter them

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dancing the Temporal Tango

By Peter de Jager

It is a mistake for any assn to assume that their declining membership problems are unique. Declining membership is a problem for the entire spectrum of associations, from labor unions to political parties, from cartographic assns to the Canadian Fencing Federation. It is a different type of mistake to assume that just because the problem is endemic, that innovative solutions are impossible.

Two well-defined forces contribute to the erosion of the perceived benefits of actively being involved in any formal association: the problems imposed by the increased tempo of professional life, and the solutions people use to dance gracefully to the frenzied beat of the 21st century. If we wish to find innovative ways to protect and increase membership, then we must consider both the rhythms of our time and how people choose to participate in the dance.

While it is sometimes defeatist to take the position that a particular problem can’t be fixed, I feel safe stating there is little any association can do to affect the overall time pressures on a 21st century worker. There is nothing we can do to alleviate the pressures generated by their home or professional lives. The best we can hope for is to carve a niche for ourselves inside the solutions they choose to adopt.

What happens as the pace of life increases? How do we choose to cope? The first thing to notice is that we don’t immediately zoom toward a new status quo; we stumble toward a solution, one painful step at a time.

The first step, and the first pitfall, is “work faster.” The reasoning is that if we take less time to do things, then we can still accomplish everything. For short periods of time, this is often a successful strategy. When it fails, it fails like that long line of dominos. First a small project is late, which delays a bigger one, and then a high priority one.

The next stage is “work longer.” The pitfall here is that home and personal life are sacrificed for professional accomplishments. Despite this, there are more than enough people adopting this strategy.

“Work smarter” is an enlightened step upward, but even this falls by the wayside if the pressures continue to increase. We can destroy even the most efficient engine if it’s operated at full tilt 24/7 every day of the year.

Another stage is “Work more discriminately.” We make decisions on what is important and focus our attention there, to the detriment of everything that doesn’t make the “A” list. It’s at this stage that association activities can begin to fall by the wayside. Simply put, is an association meeting the most important things I could be doing right now?

If we are inclined mathematically, we might even begin to calculate consciously or subconsciously a Return on Time Investment for all our activities. ROTI = (value received)/(time invested).

There’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, with task prioritization unless we’re incapable of taking the big picture into account. It’s very easy to focus on short-term tasks with immediate and certain payback at the expense of long-term objectives.

That failing works against associations because most association activaties are long-term career builders. It is infrequent that they are intended to solve the most pressing problem back at the office.

In truth, any scheduled activity is at a serious disadvantage. The more control we have over when we can perform a task, the more likely we are to accomplish it.

For an extremely busy person, activities that are more flexible and take less time always take precedent over those that take more scheduled time. The result? More people willingly read a newspaper, than participate in a scheduled conference call, than will attend a three-day conference.

People pressed for time will tend to choose to spend their time on immediate high payoff, easily scheduled, short activities.

Without pretending to have any specific answers for association executives reading this, the commentary does lead to a crucial question – what does your association offer members that fits neatly into this three-step shuffle: Step off with the right foot to “immediately high payoff,” slide to the left on “easily scheduled,” and high step on tempo to “short activities?”

Here’s a personal example. I’m a member of a large association. I pay significantly high dues. I attend no meetings, and will likely never attend a meeting. I draw zero benefit, except for one: On an almost daily basis, I participate in the e-mail discussion group. It perfectly fits the above three-step shuffle.

The irony is that this particular solution to the declining membership problem exists totally by accident. Nothing has been done to tailor it to better meet my needs.

Consider the value of an e-mail discussion group that I could “train” to add me only specific threads of a discussion in which I’m interested. Or edited summaries of these discussions. Would it be possible to add more research to these summaries to provide increased value?

One solution to the declining membership problem is to learn from the alternatives our members choose over what we’re offering them. Can you offer similar, but top-class alternatives?