Listen for the Wheel That Isn’t Squeaking

Is your decision making driven by a handful of opinionated members? Construction Specifications Institute CEO Mark Dorsey says that this challenge could be driven by—and fixed by—your board.

Associations have many stakeholders to consider, but not all of them speak at the same volume.

If you’re not careful, that can create a “squeaky-wheel” problem in which those most likely to speak up are the ones guiding the entire association—even if their needs don’t match what the bulk of your members want or need.

Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Construction Specifications Institute, says that the squeaky-wheel issue reaches all the way to the board level, as board members can have direct input on the creation process in ways that a rank-and-file member cannot. In other words, board members’ input—necessary as it is—can leave an outsized managerial imprint on associations’ initiatives.

“That’s often where boards go too far,” Dorsey says. “If they want to get into that level of detail, then they’re managing. And then I would ask myself as a board member managing all this, why did I hire management?”

The antidote, Dorsey says, is a strong understanding of the audience you’re trying to reach, as well as significant upfront research that can help you frame the problem you’re hoping to resolve. This not only helps you align your actions to your members’ needs, but also helps you steer board members in the right direction when they try to get too in the weeds.

“I’ve generally found that people of good will, armed with the right information, will make and support the right decision every time,” he says. “It’s pretty rare that it gets derailed.”

Build Beyond Emotion With Lean Canvas

During an 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting session that Dorsey led with Suzanna Kelley of McKinley Advisors, the duo discussed the Lean Canvas, a product development strategy that aims to help people quickly and clearly organize a business plan.

“Lean Canvas really forces that conversation. It forces a bit of discipline around understanding what your market is,” he says.

This restriction can help organizations stay concrete and data-driven, helping negate the impact of the squeaky wheel. Dorsey says that he’s found success with his board by encouraging them to focus on solutions that speak to this more defined approach, rather than letting emotion and personal interest lead the way.

“It’s almost a reflex now with some of our volunteer leaders,” Dorsey says. “They go, ‘Wait a second here. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? What are the factors around this?’”

Target Your Super Users

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ignore your most vocal members entirely. Instead, consider how to address their needs in a way that doesn’t dictate the direction of the entire organization. One approach is to expand your offerings to include a narrower product that specifically targets your squeaky wheels.

Dorsey compares this to a method used in software development, in which user groups help technology companies target specific challenges.

“Bring them together, use those as listening opportunities,” he says.

It may require some prodding to get vocal members to define exactly what they want in this setting, he admits.

“Ask what-if questions, because I think customers naturally have a bias towards the familiar,” he says. “So wanting to monkey with something that made them successful is often a challenge.”

But these approaches can uncover opportunities beyond the obvious, which can help to extend product offerings in ways that can appeal to different groups of members.

Develop Products Members Don’t Know They Want

Of course, when vocal members are asking for what they want, that means they may be missing out on the things they don’t know they want.

A common reference point for this phenomenon is Apple’s development of the iPod and iPhone, but Dorsey goes further back to an anecdote from the automotive industry: the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

In the years before the Miata’s 1989 release, the convertible had largely died off as a category. But the auto industry decided to give the model another shot, despite broader trends suggesting it would flop.

“Then the Miata came out because the car people said, ‘Yeah, but we still think people want this skateboard-sized car that you can run around in,’ and they had fun, and it blew up,” he says.

Sometimes, finding the right product opportunity requires intuition, along with a willingness to try new things. By building your approach to discussing new ideas with a framing rooted deeper than emotion, you can generate compelling new products—and make existing ones even better.


(DjelicS/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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