How to Make Changes Faster

Associations have more data to work with than ever, but that can paralyze decision-making. Many choices made quickly can be worth the risk.

During the pandemic, associations learned a lot about how quickly they can change what they do. From shifting to remote work to building hybrid events, they countered the cliche of the “slow-moving ship” that’s long been attached to the industry. 

But associations are still anxious about how quickly they can respond to challenges, and whether their current value propositions are fit for purpose. A new report from McKinley Advisors found that association CEOs have long-term concerns about their ability to handle shifts in the U.S. workforce, economy, technology, and more. I’ll have more to share about the report’s findings in a future article; for now, know that a lot of CEOs are understandably concerned with how they’ll steer their organizations through the next decade.

There’s no one easy fix for every association, but at the heart of the discussion around it is thinking about your organization’s change mindset, and how resistant your association might be to change. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss point out that organizations tend to develop a lot of false narratives around their inability to change.

Many of those narratives will likely resonate with the association world: “We can do it later” (a slight variation of that old association chestnut, “we’ve always done it that way”), “going fast is reckless,” “our people are stretched too thin.” All of those can be legitimate responses—especially the last one at small-staff associations. But the most pervasive and troublesome one, I think, is “we need more information.”

Some leaders who’ve stumbled were holding out for 100% of the information they wanted.

You do indeed need information—the importance of data-driven leadership has been hammered home to association leaders repeatedly in the past decade. And there’s so much more information that associations have access to now. But that’s both a benefit and a problem—risk-averse staffs and boards can always spend more time parsing the data as a way to punt on making meaningful decisions. 

But data is there for guidance, not perfect clarity. As Frei and Morriss write, “Some of the leaders we know who’ve stumbled in leading change were holding out for 100% of the information they wanted, including crystal ball confidence in the endings of stories not yet written—precisely how employees would react to a decision, for example, or how competitors would respond to a bold strategic move.”

You don’t know the end of your association’s story, except that you’ll never find out if you don’t start writing it. One good modest example of this is the case of the Snow and Ice Management Association, which earlier this year tried out a hybrid conference concept that failed to take off. There were reasons why SIMA reasonably thought it was worth a shot—hybrid is the future, right? But not for its audience. However, the experience delivered some meaningful insights into what its audience does want.

Cautiousness and care are virtues, no question. But only to the extent that you’re not neglecting the kinds of headwinds your association may face in the next decade. Go too slow, Frei and Morriss write, and “you’re putting at risk your chance to make meaningful change.”


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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