Does Your Association’s Structure Stifle Success?

A startup mentality can help an association generate new ideas. But success has less to do with "failing fast" than knowing how your organizational structure stands in your way.

Silicon Valley is the last place you’d look for hard-core fans of challenging Irish playwrights, but in recent years a few lines by Samuel Beckett have become a cliché in the startup culture there: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The appeal of the line is obvious (even if it’s taken out of context): It promotes taking risks and not assuming that screwing up is a death sentence. The corporate world tweaks the mantra slightly to promote a “fail-fast mentality.” Either way, there’s still a problem: You’re failing. And if you’re not getting anything out of all this noble failure, you’re just imagining exciting and innovative ways to put yourself out of business.

And all this talk of failure can be especially counterproductive in the association world. In a white paper titled “Innovate the Lean Way,” Spark Consulting’s Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, and National Council of Architectural Registration Boards information systems director Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate point out that boards will pay lip service to high-risk initiatives without actually making them happen. “Because association board members also tend to serve short terms, there is a ‘not on my watch’ temptation,” they write. “That is, everyone adheres to the gospel of ‘failure that you learn from is a good thing’ and ‘fail fast,’ only not when I’m on the board. The association needs to experiment, fail, and learn under someone else’s leadership.”

Associations can often be clogged with decision-making hierarchies that’s sometimes it’s best to just set up a mini skunkworks.

In the white paper, de Zarate and Engel point out a few practical ways to avoid the kinds of failure that you might outwardly celebrate but bemoan in the boardroom. Don’t launch a program without gathering data. Don’t gather data that’ll just serve as confirmation bias—look for information that reflects actual member experiences and needs. Don’t make a big bet because you feel you need to. Instead, look to produce what The Lean Startup author Eric Ries calls the “Minimum Viable Product”—a prototype or small-scale version of a product that can be made quickly with relatively low risk and can adjusted quickly.

They cite a few case studies of associations that have made that strategy work: streamlined processes at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a training program in India launched by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and so forth. All of them are worth reading about. But the sharpest insights in the paper speak to the ways that the association structure sometimes stands in the way of launching a new idea, even of the Minimum Viable Product type.

For instance, de Zarate cites an example at his own association, as NCARB launched a real-time contact feature on its website. The trial version wasn’t quite ready for prime time, but it worked for what it was. More importantly, it caught the attention of a small but influential group of members. That distinction isn’t a small one. Leaders can have a bad habit of thinking of “membership” as a monolithic mass whenever a new idea is on the table—“What will the members think?”—when in truth you may just need to get the attention of a smaller group that can persuade the larger one of a product’s value over time. As de Zarate puts it, “In associations, we tend to worry that releasing a half-baked program will negatively impact the brand. I would argue that doing the same thing year after year without changing also negatively impacts your brand.”

The paper also points out a few other cultural roadblocks that hamper new ideas. All the finest planning and careful testing in the world, de Zarate and Engel write, won’t matter if the chief staff executive or volunteer leader with the most clout won’t get behind you. And tucked toward the end is a recommendation that’s quietly provocative: Screw the org chart, they write.

Well, they put it a little more politely than that. But associations can often be so clogged with decision-making hierarchies that’s sometimes it’s best to just set up a mini skunkworks and hope you’re doing it at a place where getting forgiveness is easier than permission. “When you’re trying to experiment with a new way of doing things, it’s much easier to do so if you don’t have to convince four other layers of stakeholders to approve it,” they write. “Nothing persuades as well as success, and if you’re able to demonstrate the success of the lean startup method quickly in your own areas of responsibility, authority, and influence, you will have an easier time convincing your colleagues, senior leadership, and volunteer leaders to try it.”

Not every association will be game for that. But if you’re running an organization where staffers and volunteer groups try it, that may be a signal that it’s time to loosen the reins of authority when it comes to new ideas. Your people want to do new things to help members, so let them loose. But let them have the resources to see their idea through. Don’t just let them fail.

What do you do to stoke new ideas from your staff, and how do you make sure your association’s culture and structure isn’t standing in their way? Share your experiences in the comments.


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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