Thinking and thriving

Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC

As I wrote last week, this month I’ll be exploring some shifts in association management that some might say are extreme.

To start us off, I spoke with Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC. From what I gather, he’s perhaps one of the most respected experts on new thinking.

After serving as an association executive for more than 10 years, De Cagna launched his company in 2002 to challenge association boards, CEOs and executives to build their organizations to thrive in an uncertain future.

“Simply doing more of what your association has always done definitely is the wrong answer,” De Cagna said.  “It never has been more important for associations to imagine a different future for themselves [while also] gaining a richer, more intimate and more empathic understanding of their stakeholders’ most desired personal and professional outcomes. With this kind of deep insight, associations can break free of the past and reorient their strategic priorities for the future.”

De Cagna is author of the e-book “Associations Unorthodox,” which discusses six shifts in thinking. It lays the groundwork for new strategies and helps association leaders plunge into a future that may seem murky, at best. Associations can no longer rely on membership to survive, and De Cagna explains why.

Below is my Q and A session with De Cagna. For follow up, you can reach him at jeff@principledinnovation.com and follow him on Twitter at @pinnovation, using #assnchat.

Q: What inspired you to write “Associations Unorthodox?”

A: Quite honestly, I was very concerned about the advice being given to association leaders about how to build organizations that will thrive in the years ahead. Much of that thinking remains firmly embedded in the traditional assumptions of association management and fails to recognize the relentless speed and intensity of the societal transformation currently in progress. What’s going on now is not more of the simple linear “change” to which we’ve become accustomed. Instead, we’re experiencing something much deeper, which I’ve come to call “The Age of Transformation.” And it’s not going away anytime soon.

So I wanted to make a strong statement about the need for association leaders to think and act beyond orthodoxy if they want to create the opportunity for their organizations to thrive.

Q: Who should read this book?

A: The primary audiences are association boards, CEOs and C-Suite executives, but I like to think “Associations Unorthodox” is appropriate for anyone who’s serious about creating a more vibrant future for associations. And frankly, given the shifts I’ve outlined in the book, the more stakeholders who read it, the better. We need to continue the conversation about what it will take for associations to grow,  and we need to include as many different voices as possible in that dialogue. That’s the only way we’ll be able to challenge our community’s most deep-seated assumptions and begin to create what’s next.

Q: Among the six shifts presented in the book, you encourage associations to “go all in on digital” and focus less on in-person meetings. Do you think face-to-face events are obsolete?

A: Absolutely not. People still want to make face-to-face connections and that will never change. However, I do think there are far too many meetings. Association stakeholders are much busier and much more protective of their precious personal time. Meanwhile, their employers are trying to control costs, leaving fewer dollars to attend meetings, and those budgets are always among the top targets for reduction or elimination.

As such, association leaders need to give serious thought to having fewer, more meaningful gatherings that are worth the investment of time and financial resources for their stakeholders. Keep in mind that only a relatively small fraction of most associations’ stakeholders actually attend their in-person meetings. To reach more of their current and future stakeholders, then, associations must make more significant investments in the creation and delivery of new value in digital form. These investments are long overdue, and they are an essential part of reorienting association business models for the 21st century.

Q: How do you respond to committed advocates of face-to-face interaction who believe that it can’t be replaced?

A: We need to move beyond the fine debating points and get to a more fundamental question: What can our stakeholders actually afford? And, again, I’m not just using the word “afford” in a purely financial sense. Time away from family, the office and customers are also costs that our stakeholders must bear. So while in-person interaction may well be superior, and our stakeholders may prefer it to other forms of interaction, they still may not be able to afford it. And yet we still need to create value for these stakeholders, even though we may never see them. Going all in on digital is a necessary step in that direction.

Let me add that it’s a long-standing association orthodoxy to view people who attend events as the most loyal and committed stakeholders in our organizations. Indeed, in many associations, stakeholders who don’t show up at meetings are an afterthought, except at renewal time.  As our organizations come to fully embrace their digital futures, however, association leaders will need to flip this orthodoxy and stop thinking of in-person attendance as another test of stakeholder fidelity.

Q: The transition you’re describing will be difficult for many associations to make. What advice can you offer to their leaders?

A: While “it’s an opportunity to network” might be a generic value proposition for a meeting, the value conversation might be something like, “How can we collaborate to make a face-to-face gathering a more meaningful and viable option for you and other stakeholders in your network?” And we should be clear that the value conversation is not about doing another survey. Quite literally, it’s about creating opportunities for direct and meaningful conversations with the association’s current and future stakeholders and their distributed networks of connections. The learning developed through these conversations will help leaders evaluate and choose among opportunities based on an empathetic understanding of stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes.

To fully embrace digital, I really believe senior staff and voluntary leaders need to flip the orthodoxy that technology represents nothing but expense for the association. On the contrary, in today’s environment of social, mobile and cloud computing, thoughtful investments in technology will create appreciating assets on which associations can capitalize to create and deliver new value and capture new revenue streams over time.

Q: You’re speaking at ASAE’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta next month. Will you be discussing any of the issues raised in “Associations Unorthodox” in your session?

A: Indirectly I suppose. My learning lab on Why Boards Are Killing Association Business Models will take place at 3:15 p.m. Aug. 4. The session is based on the article I wrote on this topic for the March 2013 issue of “Associations Now,” and I will explore five reasons why most boards are underperforming as business model stewards for their organizations. In addition, I will share some “next practices” boards can adopt to more deeply integrate business model thinking into their governing work.

In “Associations Unorthodox,” I make the case for building a strategically legitimate board as one of the six shifts. There’s simply no question that embracing a 21st-century sensibility is essential for boards to establish their value to stakeholders.

So while my learning lab at ASAE13 is not explicitly about the book, some key themes from it certainly will come up during our conversation. I know it’s going to be a fun session!

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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