October 20, 2020

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The Reinvention Mandate: Part I

Note from Jeff: This column is the first in a three-part series on The Reinvention Mandate. You are invited to read my columns on The Next Six Months Part I (August) and Part II (September) for context. Also, I believe that Black Lives Matter.

On December 31, 2029, the final day of The Turbulent Twenties, the senior decision-makers, staff and stakeholders of associations across the country will look back on this decade and ask themselves a question. Which question that will be depends to a large extent on whether boards and chief staff executives are ready to reinvent their associations going into 2021.

In an interview with author Chunka Mui earlier this month, Dr. James Madara, the current CEO of the American Medical Association and former dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospitals at the University of Chicago, offered a sober assessment of how long it will take to end the COVID-19 pandemic: three to five years. Dr. Madara added, “[t]here are no magical solutions and that includes vaccines.” We may be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is nowhere near done with us.

After more than seven months, we still have not come to terms with the full magnitude of the global pandemic’s human tragedy. As of 10/19, more than 40 million people worldwide have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1.1 million lives have been lost. The United States, which is home to roughly four percent of the world’s population, has 20 percent of its positive cases (more than eight million) and almost 20 percent of deaths (nearly 220,000). These numbers are devastating in every respect and, along with the recent dramatic surge in positive cases across the country, speak volumes about our complacent national response to a deadly disease that is still inflicting significant suffering every day.

In important ways, including the quest for racial equality and justice, 2020 has been a time of long-delayed and necessary reckoning for our country and its institutions, including associations. Unfortunately, in other ways, some association decision-makers appear to be resisting the idea that their organizations require fundamental reinvention because of the deeply-detrimental impact this year’s myriad crises, and their endless ripple effects. Even though we are only at the beginning of the serious challenges we will experience in this decade, I am concerned that our community’s return to pre-2020 complacency is already underway.

The Complacency of Relevance

The knowledge that there will be no quick and simple resolution to today’s painful challenges should inspire association decision-makers to reject the misguided belief that it will be possible to return to the pre-2020s world. What we are seeing instead is an ongoing commitment to the notion of relevance as the most important indicator of association success. Before and throughout the 2010s, I sought to persuade association decision-makers to reject relevance as their primary strategic focus. As recently as last summer, writing in this space, I repeated my warning to let go of “the relevance fallacy,” which I deconstructed [PDF] in detail in a series of blog posts in 2015.

With 2021 on the immediate horizon, we must continue to deconstruct this fallacy. Over the last seven months, working under the considerable stress of radical uncertainty and risk, associations have admirably handled the transition to full-time remote work and the delivery of most offerings on digital/virtual platforms. Many staff and voluntary decision-makers report these shifts have generated a renewed level of interest among both current and new stakeholders, which they consider to be evidence of their organizations’ relevance. To be clear, associations finding more meaningful ways to serve their stakeholders is a good thing. Treating these developments as a reason to celebrate relevance is not.

Let’s consider an alternative view of what has happened this year by looking at it through the wide-angle lens of this century’s first two decades. Over the last twenty years, associations have struggled to adapt to accelerating societal transformation driven by the dynamic interaction among potent social, technological, economic, environmental and political forces. The pace and intensity of societal transformation offered associations an opening to discard orthodox beliefs, abandon outmoded strategy-making approaches and invest in business model innovation. Instead, many associations chose to focus on increasing relevance, leaving themselves and their stakeholders mostly unprepared for the turbulence unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its follow-on consequences. Only after being compelled by the impact of this year’s rapidly-unfolding events did associations more fully adapt themselves to the unforgiving conditions of the broader environment, and it is the immediate beneficial effect of this urgent creativity and innovation, rather than a long-standing commitment to relevance, that is generating a favorable stakeholder response.

Continuing to perpetuate the relevance fallacy is a serious mistake because it creates a clear pathway back to complacency. After all, if association decision-makers see their organizations as relevant, it could undermine their intrinsic motivation to take the courageous and self-sacrificing actions that will be required to build their organizations, stakeholders and successors to thrive for the rest of The Turbulent Twenties. To prevent what could be very damaging outcomes for associations throughout our community, it is my fervent hope that we can unify around a different mindset from this point forward: the race for relevance is over, and the responsibility for reinvention is now at hand.

The Responsibility for Reinvention

For several months after the pandemic began, I made a conscious choice to not use the word, “opportunity” in my speaking and writing because it felt inappropriate to address how associations might capitalize on a situation during which innocent people were becoming sick and dying, both at home and around the world. While I remain uneasy with these deeper considerations, I have tried to adjust my perspective by concentrating on one applicable definition of opportunity, which is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” This definition captures well where association decision-makers find themselves less than 75 days before the start of the new year.

The current set of circumstances in front of association boards and chief staff executives makes doing something not just a possibility, but an absolute necessity. We know there is no going back to the pre-2020 world. While we also understand that there is no “new normal” ahead, human nature will still drive us to create one, nonetheless. Despite its obvious appeal, there are multiple reasons why we must reject the temptation of false normalcy, not the least of which is that we will not be normal going forward. We will begin 2021 not only with an irrevocably-altered world, but with ourselves forever changed as well. No matter what we think we want at this moment, there has been far too much suffering and we are far too vulnerable to believe that a return to normal is what we need, even if it were within our grasp.

The only viable path forward, then, is the comprehensive reinvention of our institutions, systems and society for our collective benefit. The events of 2020 have already set processes of societal and systems reinvention in motion, and this is the moment for association decision-makers to initiate their work. These reinvention efforts are a solemn responsibility to current stakeholders, who need confidence that they can trust their associations to guide them through The Turbulent Twenties, and a moral obligation to successors, who need reassurance that their predecessors care about what will happen to them throughout the rest of this volatile decade and beyond.

To create an intellectual and ethical context for their reinvention work, I want to challenge association boards and chief staff executives to pursue three complementary initiatives:

  1. Develop and guide the advancement of their associations’ reinvention intent,
  2. Negotiate and design a “next covenant” with stakeholders and successors, and
  3. Adopt stewardship, governing and foresight (SGF) next practices.

I will discuss these three generative approaches in greater detail in Part II of this series next month. Please stay safe and well.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at jeff@foresightfirst.io or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

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