Taking It Down to the Studs—Simplicity Streamlines AAHA’s Road to Excellence

 “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

What do Spotify, Robinhood, and HelloFresh have in common?

Here’s a clue. The word “easy” has pride of place throughout all their promotional materials. These companies save their customers’ time and effort. Spotify puts a perfect playlist at your fingertips. Robinhood helps ordinary folks play the market like pros, and HelloFresh gets dinner on the table in a flash.

Recently, I recorded an episode for my Association 4.0 podcast with .orgSource client Garth Jordan, CEO at the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA—the best acronym ever!). We talked about his group’s commitment to helping AAHA members simplify their professional lives. 

That may sound like a goal that every association executive aspires to, but AAHA has made simplicity the driver of their business model. I was impressed by his story of how stripping ideas down to the studs created a strong framework for future success. 

When Jordan joined the organization in August 2020, AAHA was ready to explore new approaches for the future. Design thinking was the methodology they used to launch that process.

Design thinking is a problem-solving technique that centers around developing a thorough and objective understanding of the issues under consideration and intensely focusing solutions on the needs of the people involved.   

Jordan explained AAHA’s process like this, “We adopted design thinking as our strategic planning methodology. To accurately assess our members’ needs, we interviewed, shadowed, and deeply empathized with about 120 individuals.”

Find Your Just Cause

“Clinical excellence is our members’ top priority.”

“What we learned was not surprising,” Jordan notes. “Clinical excellence is our members’ top priority. But they are tired and suffering from the complexity of business operations such as customer service, marketing, and technology that are ancillary to patient care. Our job is to help them by marrying excellence with simplification.”

That challenge resulted in the organization identifying what author Simon Sinek calls their Just Cause. According to Sinek, a Just Cause is:

  • Positive, optimistic, and hopeful
  • Idealistic but achievable
  • Inclusive
  • Resilient
  • Service-oriented

AAHA crafted this eight-word statement to meet Sinek’s criteria and adopt as its North Star: Simplify the journey toward veterinary excellence for veterinary practices.

“Our job,” Jordan advises, “is to improve our members’ lives by helping them to navigate an extraordinarily complex environment more easily. This directive gives us a significant amount of guidance. It will replace our mission and vision statements, which were overly complex.”

With a clear charge, AAHA went on to identify nine projects in support of their goal. The work will be staggered, and the entire initiative should take about three years to complete. Because the sightlines from need to solution were compelling and clear, the board agreed to the entire package of proposals.  As a robust vote of confidence, they also released 50 percent of the organization’s reserves to cover the cost of implementation.

Jordan discovered that synthesizing AAHA’s reason for being to a handful of words created a new sense of purpose. It brings a laser focus to deliberations and provides the authority and accountability to justify allocating significant financial and human resources to the related activities.

Streamline

As the buffet gets bigger, the quality can suffer.

The pandemic year demonstrated the value of simplicity. Everyone was forced to take on extra initiatives. We learned how to organize a virtual meeting and mastered new technology. And, we continue to add initiatives without subtraction. As the buffet gets bigger and our plates become overloaded, the quality suffers, and every dish begins to taste the same. 

“Simplification isn’t easy,” Jordan advises. “At AAHA we think carefully about what we can stop or abandon to improve the lives of our customers. We ask ourselves what we do best so that we can help them as effectively as possible. Members must be able to easily access what they need and move on if they choose to do so. We are not about engagement. That’s not as important to us.”

“Engagement is an idea that generates a lot of churn and fabrication in our industry,” Jordan notes. “We continue creating products and services to get members to interact with the association. That’s not the answer. Building highways won’t eliminate congestion. When was the last time a new road reduced traffic in your city? Producing more doesn’t solve for anything. Engagement isn’t a need, it’s an outcome. When you design around your North Star, you will find engagement.”

Focus on Members

Tradition is a significant challenge to the association world’s ability to simplify. “In any ecosystem, evolution and adaptation take place around the fringes,” Jordan observes. “At the inner circle, entrenched and non-adapting species are doomed to failure because they are striving to maintain the status quo.

“Associations have a long history with the same business model. I understand that it’s difficult to change. We’ve proliferated sponsorships, education, certification, advertising, publishing, multimedia, and more. To me, it’s time to start to strip it away and replace a dated framework with simpler strategies.

“That idea challenges me as a CEO. I can’t be afraid for my job. Instead, I need to play at the fringes – not at the center where it’s safe. My primary responsibility is to be fearless about simplifying the lives of my members, and if I lose my job because I’m fulfilling that obligation, it’s something I can accept.

Jordan faced that kind of career-changing moment when he recommended that the organization shrink to grow. He steeled himself and suggested eliminating a publishing program that was generating $1 million in revenue.

“That’s an example of a situation that any CEO who recommends simplicity could face,” he notes. “But convincing the board to jettison things that aren’t aligned with the core purpose is critical.”

The team did their homework and was prepared with the data to demonstrate that the impact on the bottom line and member satisfaction didn’t justify the effort. “Because we had already developed our eight-word purpose statement, it was easy to conclude that the publishing product line wasn’t achieving our goal,” Jordan recalls.

Leave the Inheritance Behind

When I asked Jordan what advice he has for others who are seeking to position their organizations for success, he offered these recommendations.

“Don’t continue to design around the business you inherited. That’s a model that’s been built upon for years. Instead, focus on your members to identify your just cause. From there, develop five to 10 projects that will help to achieve your goals.”

AAHA is allocating resources to build the next generation of their association. “Our reserves are being used to redesign a business model that was out of sync with our core purpose,” Jordan says.

Put Culture Ahead of Technology

I wrapped up our conversation by asking Jordan how technology figures in the organization’s strategy. His response dovetails with my philosophy.

“Leadership changes how associations operate, not technology,” he observes. “Management teams need to base their business model on a much deeper understanding of the membership. When we design with that level of empathy, it’s likely that business models will change. That’s an indication that your technology probably should also change.

“We realized that our tech stack wasn’t delivering. We were so far behind that it is an advantage. Now we can wipe the slate clean more easily than we could have five years ago. At this moment, IT is actually our greatest weakness and our greatest strength. We’re not beholden to any specific configurations based on our eight-word just cause statement. That is incredibly refreshing.”

Scrutinize Your Business Model

Jordan makes a powerful argument for advice I often give to colleagues and clients. Reexamine your business model. Take it down to the studs, and don’t hesitate to rebuild, if necessary. In the digital marketplace, simplicity equals success.

Listen to this episode of the Association 4.0 Podcast.