All those Zoom calls have kept your organization running, but plenty of challenges remain. Two association experts share some keys for managing through the pandemic and beyond.
Remember all the concern in organizations about silos? Then along came the pandemic.
“If there were silos before, they’re canyons now,” says Maddie Grant, cofounder of the association and workplace consultancy Propel. Grant and Propel’s other cofounder, Jamie Notter, have seen that associations have been able to manage through the essentials of keeping things running. But remote offices tend to erode opportunities for collaboration, Notter says. So those silos are still standing.
“You can’t have informal, casual, spur-of-the-moment conversations, and I think people have underestimated the value of those,” Notter says. “They didn’t realize how much information they got passively by being in the office…. From a culture point of view, they’ve had to make a decision: Are we going to slow down our decision making, or are we going to include fewer people? That’s the choice, and you don’t get to do both.”
That distance has consequences. I and others have written a lot during the pandemic about how associations have struggled to preserve their cultures remotely, and some data suggests that boards have effectively remained in a holding pattern through the past year. Grant and Notter have their own take on the matter: Late last year, they published Association Apocalypse, an e-book that drills into some current cultural challenges and some thoughts about what the post-COVID landscape will look like, and much of it involves getting smart about leading with data. To that end, they shared some thoughts about some of the actions leaders should take to adapt their organizations.
We don’t do that dot-connect thing.
Get savvier about goal-setting and the data you need to do it. Association Apocalypse quotes from leadership pro Verne Harnish’s “Rockefeller Habits,” the second of which is “everyone is aligned with the #1 thing that needs to be accomplished this quarter to move the company forward.” That shared sense of purpose would go a long way toward improving an association’s culture. But, of course, that’s easier said than done—people can gather reams of data and talk about strategic goals, but understanding the value of both across the organization is difficult.
“I find that data-gathering and strategy conversations miss a deeper understanding of what drives the success of an association,” Notter says. “I should want to know what members are experiencing and fill a gap for them. But we’re not making connections around experience, internal capacity, and then exceeding expectations with something amazing. We don’t do that dot-connect thing.”
Stop thinking about data as somebody else’s job. Notter and Grant write that “if everyone is doing something to gather data, you’ll end up with a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the problems you should be solving for them.” Problem is, organizations don’t tend to make gathering and understanding data something that everyone takes part in.
“There’s a culture in the association industry, I think, where the people who know about data are the data experts, and everybody else doesn’t touch it because they don’t know enough about how it works,” Grant says.
Build that understanding around actionable goals. Notter says that associations, like any business, ought to have clear targets for success. But too often, they tend to develop goals that are as wide-ranging and unspecific as their mission statements. “Make it a binary-outcome target,” Notter says. “If you’re asking people if they liked a conference, then the target should be something like ‘go from a 4.1 to 4.3 [rating].’ You either did it or you didn’t. What that forces is learning conversations when you don’t hit it.”
Staffers can naturally be anxious about what it means for their position at an organization if those targets don’t get hit—for many, a “learning conversation” can feel a whole lot like blame. All the more reason, Notter says, to get savvier about data.
“If you want to reduce the anxiety, then you need data points that tell you before you fail that something’s off track,” he says. “We’re not as good at that, but I think this is something that you grow into and learn over time.”