Association 4.0—A Playbook for Success

Every great team needs a playbook—a blueprint that outlines the rules you live by and your strategies for peak performance. At .orgSource we call that collection of wisdom our Association 4.0 framework. It is the product of ongoing research to prepare our clients for success in digital markets.

Many of the characteristics we identified are the same skills that entrepreneurs use to grow start-up ventures. To put our ideas into real-world context, we interviewed leaders who are using this approach to grow their organizations.

Those talks with association CEOs and executives who head businesses that service the association industry formed the basis for two books. “Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption” and “An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.”    

I’ve summarized advice from our contributors to offer practical ideas for beginning to integrate the Association 4.0 playbook into your organization.

Welcome Risk and Change

Entrepreneurs have an intimate relationship with risk. It’s a frenemy they’ve learned how to manage. Sometimes that involves mitigating the downside, others it means taking a calculated leap of faith. Sandy Marsico, Founder and CEO of Sandstorm Design, described the challenge of balancing risk with growth like this:

“You need the courage to take chances and the stomach to handle anxiety. With a growing business, things change, but they don’t get easier. You have to believe in yourself,” she advises. “You’re the one who drives success and encourages others to follow.

 “I have a budget line for risk. These are not contingency dollars. These funds are designated for experimentation. I don’t always know how I’m going to spend the money, but when there is an opportunity, we are ready to seize it.”

Preparing a board to manage risk is a sales process.

Sig VanDamme, the Founder of NimbleUser, GoJectory, and VA2A, offered this advice to bring the board along on those speculative ventures:

“Preparing a board to tolerate risk, is a sales process. To convince you to buy from me, you must believe that I can increase revenue, decrease costs, reduce cycle time, enhance the member experience, and finally, mitigate risk. Leaders must be able to communicate each of those points to both staff and volunteers and to present risk within a cognitive framework.”

Boards that are professionally, demographically, and ideologically diverse are more likely to be open to risk tolerance. Joanna Pineda, founder, CEO, and Chief Troublemaker at Matrix Group International, Inc. recommends looking outside members’ professional expertise to provide a spectrum of opinions among leaders.

“If you don’t have leaders with a range of professional backgrounds, there will not be a lot of new thinking. The average pharmacist, librarian, or dentist has limited experience with the challenges that are involved in running an association. It’s a good idea to include people from outside your organization’s playing field who can introduce a different point of view and push the group forward.”

Cultivate Innovation and Problem Solving

Whether entrepreneurs inherit a gene for invention or not, once they are thrown into the business shark tank, they quickly learn to swim. Association 4.0 leaders imagine the next problem before it surfaces and are willing to test, experiment, and iterate until they find the solution.

The minimum viable product (MVP) is a friend to innovation. Smart developersbegin with a prototype, a product with just enough features to be attractive, allowing customer response to guide the final design. This often means recalibrating to meet evolving conditions. Tracy King, CEO and Chief Learning Strategist at InspirED, always has eyes on the market.

“Allowing for learning through failure creates the freedom to solve problems instead of checking tasks off a list. We must ruthlessly sift the challenges from the temporary distractions and seek the nuggets of truth in every successful disappointment. Incremental innovation is smart. So is listening deeply to the market and using MVPs to recalibrate. These are strategies that allow associations to see a real-time picture of their members’ needs.”

Brent Gibson, Chief Health Officer at the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and Managing Director of NCCHC Resources, Inc. described how he innovates inside a bureaucratic organization like this.

“Deliberately identifying new or additional customer services is one path that associations and other nonprofits can take toward growth. Historically at NCCHC, all technical assistance was based on support for accreditation, and we didn’t focus on margin. It became evident that, due to the complexity of the operating environment, there were services outside our realm of expertise that were not being provided. We were perfectly positioned to contract with experts who could solve these complex problems for our customers.”

Be Agile

The CEO needs courage to cut through the noise.

Reaction, revision, and reinvention are standard operating procedure in the Association 4.0 world. But the typical association model challenges agility. Decisions are made by consensus, volunteer leadership changes frequently, and strategy can be subject to a president’s predilections. The CEO is the person with the power to create an environment that welcomes change. Joey Knecht, CEO and Managing Director at Proteus.co, recommends that leaders turn away from politics and toward business.

“I think a lot of people are tired of the politics that pervades many associations. They see that two percent of the membership are driving the bus and the other 98 percent are along for the ride. Executives need to find ways to make participation more equitable and enjoyable.”

Be Brave

Courage was identified by Meg Ward, Co-Founder of Gravitate Solutions, as the essential quality that enables leaders to govern effectively.

“CEOs need to be courageous to cut through the noise and execute, whether it’s implementing a new program or evolving staff skill sets.”

Dan Stevens, President Association TV/WorkerBee.TV observed that being a reactive leader is untenable in the digital era.

“CEOs need to be change agents. They should be servant leaders who empower the front line. I understand that CEOs must travel and learn, but I worry that their knowledge isn’t passed on to the team. There is often a gap between the CEO’s vision and the way the front line operates.”

Study Business and the Marketplace

Reading and networking widely were common habits of our contributors. Roy Chomko, CEO of Adage Technologies, credits a book with helping his business to run more smoothly.

“Gino Wickman’s book, Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, and his other writings outline a simple process that entrepreneurs can follow to ensure that any organization is being run effectively. Companies with between five and 250 employees are the target market for this system. I’ve often thought that the model could work effectively in an association environment.”

Don Dea and Hugh Lee, Co-Founders of Fusion Productions, are committed to observing the market and responding quickly to its cues.

“When we started the company, we had over $1 million worth of business doing slides. But I was reading about how these things called personal computers and laptops were going to change the industry. I sat down with the staff and told them we had to be out of the slide business within the next 18 months. We changed our entire model. You take a lot of risks, and you’re never really positive that you’re right. But you have to believe in yourself.”

Value Talent

Entrepreneurs realize that their business is only as good as their people. Many of our contributors have extensive vetting processes to ensure that they put people on the team who contribute to their culture and values.

Put people on the team who contribute to the culture.

Kevin Hostutler, President, CEO, and Co-Founder of ACGI Software, is passionate about shaping a positive atmosphere where innovation can flourish. Giving employees voice and recognition are a high priority. He developed several programs, which are interactive and fun, to achieve those goals.

“Recently, we added a Shark Tank component to our company meetings. It gives any employee with an idea a platform to present their innovation. The concepts can range from technology tools, to work environment and process improvement, but the request must be specific. The goal is to get one or more executives to sponsor the initiative. We work with submitters on their pitches to help them consolidate their thoughts, articulate their proposition, and have the courage to defend their idea in front of the entire company.”

Developing people is as important as expanding his business for Amith Nagarajan, Chairman of Blue Cypress.

“When you grow people, the by-product is that you grow your business. That’s really where the fun is. Your purpose statement and core values become the foundational layers of culture. They provide an agreed-upon set of behaviors.”

Understand Your Customers

Using data to develop a deep and empathetic perspective on members/customers is at the heart of digital transformation. Teri Carden, Founder of Review My AMS and 100 Reviews, explains how some of her association clients are using their data to address member needs.

View customers as individuals.

“We’ve seen several associations exporting data from their online communities and analyzing it with artificial intelligence tools to extract member sentiments and find fresh solutions to problems. Instead of playing a guessing game. They’re allowing the members to drive the conversation. Doing more listening can also generate ideas for products and services.”

Adele Cehrs, Co-Founder of When and How Agency, cautioned that organizations need to move beyond viewing constituents as a group and begin treating them as individuals by offering customized services that speak to personal preference. Cehrs urges leaders to use technology to improve the public’s ability to experience their brands on multiple levels.

 “If I want a coffee at Starbucks, I can order it on my phone and pick it up without interacting with anyone. On the other hand, if I want to sit by the fake fireplace, have a chat with the barista, and hear some easy-listening jazz, that’s available too. I can relate to the brand on my own terms. Starbucks is not dictating my behavior.”

Use Data to Drive Decisions

The fancy graphics and charts that technology makes available aren’t show ponies. Statistics and analytics form the basis for decision-making. Objective information takes the politics out of the dialogue and gives leaders a rationale for strategy. Design thinking, which Garth Jordan used to help the Health Care Financial Management Association develop its Netflix-based business model, is a problem-solving methodology that incorporates the intimate knowledge that data can provide into action plans. (Jordan is currently CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association.)

 “After multiple rounds of research and loops in the design process, our solution modeled on the successful Netflix formula emerged. You can access us on any platform—whether you are in your home office, on your phone at Starbucks or searching your tablet during a meeting—it doesn’t matter. Members can view one webinar, become certified, contribute to our online community, or utilize our entire experience portfolio for an all-inclusive price. We’re also watching the statistics carefully to ensure that the content we roll out is relevant.”

See Broadly

Our books highlighted themes that are important for success in our consulting business as well as for our clients in the association community. The behaviors and attitudes overlap and intertwine. As a whole, these characteristics represent qualities that we believe are essential for associations and all other businesses to operate successfully in an evolving technological environment.

Stepping up to Association 4.0 requires the courage to never stop being a pioneer, a student, and a risk-taker. It demands the humility to ask questions, to experiment, and to make mistakes and start over again.

No one executes all of this perfectly. But perfection is far from the point. The joy is in solving problems and bringing ideas and initiatives to life that didn’t exist before.