Keep the Mission, Change Everything Else

Encyclopedia Britannica's story has a few lessons for leaders who need to know what to change—and what not to.

For years there’s been an active movement in the association world to “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. (Indeed, there’s a book with that very title.) But there’s a reason why that conversation still happens. Truth is, most associations’ overall structures tend to be fairly rigid: Familiar governance and membership models, familiar nondues revenue streams, and familiar big concerns in the C-suite.

So it’s easy to understand why many association leaders are hesitant to make modest changes, let alone transformative ones. Association management can at times feel like a zen koan: How do you affect change without changing anything? But reading about Encyclopedia Britannica’s experience has been an eye-opener for me—its story is evidence that you can hold fast to your legacy while actively changing the direction of your organization.

When your entire industry is being reshaped, identify what it is that gives your organization its integrity.

As Britannica president Jorge Cauz explains in the March Harvard Business Review (preview-only for nonsubscribers), last year the company killed off its most visible product: The 32-volume print encyclopedia set. And it did so without thinking twice. After all, Cauz writes: “[B]y the time we stopped publishing the print set, its sales represented only about 1% of our business.”

Cauz goes on to explain the various ways Britannica managed to pull this off and remain profitable, largely by tailoring online products for the education market. But the lesson for association leaders—at least the lesson I’m taking—isn’t that you need to focus on digital in order to survive. You probably do, but Cauz explains that it was a just as important that Britannica held fast to the integrity of its core product:

“With our business declining, we could easily have justified eliminating long-tenured editors from a cost perspective. But editorial quality has always been intrinsic to our value proposition, and we knew that it would continue to differentiate us in a growing sea of questionable information.”

I admit I have a bit of a personal bias toward anybody who publicly supports not eliminating editorial staffers. But his sensibility is widely applicable: When your entire industry is being reshaped, identify what it is that gives your organization its integrity, its quality, and its point of differentiation. Then feel free to change everything else.

There’s a good example of that approach in the case of Erin Fuller, FASAE, CAE, president of Alliance of Women in Media. Yes, as an Associations Now feature explains, she made “sweeping changes” to the organization, most notably shifting its membership to a “freemium” model. But AWM’s core mission remained the same: to increase the visibility and opportunities for women media professionals. Indeed, all the changes the organization made were done to better fulfill that mandate.  “Our philosophy is radical inclusiveness,” Fuller says. “We want to include as many people as possible.”

I hope that sounds liberating and not intimidating to association leaders, because a philosophy of radical inclusiveness actually means you get to have it both ways. You can keep the mission you’ve always had, and feel free to change just about everything else.



Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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