Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Politics of Dancing (and What If Ideas in Associations)

We got the message
I heard it on the airwaves
The politicians
Are now DJ's

The broadcast was spreading
Station to station
Like an infection
Across the nation

Well you know you can't stop it
When they start to play
You gotta get out the way

The politics of dancing
The politics of ooo feeling good
The politics of moving
Is this message understood - Re-flex, The Politics of Dancing

The Short of It
  • I have been inspired by Acronym's Big Ideas month
  • I've read a lot of great blog posts
  • And marveled at the good thinking going into them
  • But I find myself focusing on one thread
  • In the eventual execution of ANY good idea
  • We have to talk about the elephant in the room
  • Which is the political environment we work in
  • And the lack of will to get new things done
The Long of It

Once upon a time I had a brilliant friend who when brainstorming with our group would stop every once in a while, shrug and say, "Ah, once again we've arrived in the magical land of IF."  At first blush that appears to be a rather cynical statement, but what it was meant to do was to keep "what ifs" balanced against "what is" so that we didn't lose track of the sometimes dirty, political work involved in actually reaching our goals.

I have heard those words echoing in my head over the past few weeks reading all of the terrific "big ideas" blogs focused on answering, "What if...." questions.  Great blogs, great thinkers and lots of enthusiasm.  But at this point I am tempted to stop and ask, "What is?"

To my mind, the one recurring thread in any of these "what if" ideas, which is addressed at differing levels in each post and subsequent comments, is an acknowledgement of the political environment in which associations operate.  More important than the politics inherent in the association governance structure itself is the chief staff executive and the politics they personally choose to play.

We need to remain mindful of how the beast operates to give any "what if" a chance to see the light of day. No big idea can be implemented without a concentrated effort of all players with the chief staff executive in any operation holding the keys.  We can't lose sight of the fact that many of us due to the political environment we work in are programmed to avoid actually implementing the new ideas we say we are looking for.

The elephant in the room is this little piece of logic - Political environments are generally about protecting the status quo.  Innovation in the governmental and/or non-profit arena is generally seen as a threat to the status quo. Chief staff executives are generally seen as protectors of the status quo.  Ergo, innovative executives are generally seen as a threat to the organization.

Look at this another way.  One of the political tightropes any executive walks is the facilitative role between ensuring everyone is heard while not being seen as letting any one person unduly influence the outcome.  It's the skill of allowing every volunteer leader to contribute, but not promoting one contribution as any more or less valuable than any other.  It's the skill of allocating staff resources equitably to committees while not appearing to champion any one committee's work.  (It's "everybody gets a trophy" taken to its eventual conclusion).  Not one of these skills, seen as so valuable to survival in a political environment and so well practiced on a continual basis, translates well into executing a "what if" scenario.

Many executives who are immersed in these political games will not admit they are.  It's much like telling a fish that the water they breathe is really unduly influencing them and wouldn't they rather live on land?  The fish will simply tell you that you are being ridiculous.  (Hey, has that plastic castle been here the whole time?  Let's just get another one of those!)

The "what is" question we need to ask is this - in the political environment in which we operate, does the heart of innovation and "big ideas" really lie with the chief staff executive and how many of us are equipped to carry it out?

For the sake of politics perhaps it is problematic to direct all of our "big ideas" charges at the chief staff executives themselves.  Just by the nature of the beast, chief staff executives may not be the best persons to shoulder the banner of lead innovators.  Boards are uncomfortable with change being directed straight from the top and they have an innate suspicion of any executive who is "doing something new" because it seems like that executive is working independently from the board.  (Innovate = power grab in some circles).  Executives themselves become paranoid about making new changes for fear their operations might appear "unstable" and the predictability of hitting budget next year by doing the same old stuff year, after year, after year is almost irresistible.  Even budgets in DECLINE with programs that are on life support are maintained for the sake of predictability (and don't tell me you haven't seen this in action, I know you have).

Perhaps we need to shift our perspective. If chief staff executives are marginalized in directly leading change, maybe we need to leave the ego-centric position of control and learn to embrace "driving change" instead.

Executives have a "what if" responsibility as well as a clearly demonstrated business imperative to foster innovation within their staff and volunteer leadership. However, we have to change the "what is" environment first. The executive who wants to let their team take quantum steps forward must learn how to stay above the creative fray and fill three key functions - find resources, remove obstacles and sell improvements to the volunteers.  The chief staff executive must act as a translator between the creative elements of the staff and other staff members as well as volunteers who are responsible for implementing incremental improvements.  (Note: not one of those tasks includes second-guessing, re-working and bossing.)

Joe Rominiecki made some great points on his recent blog post - "Innovation with Boundaries" which are great ways to change "what is" to align a little more with "what if."  What IF boards set aside funds purposefully for new ideas and what IF time allotments were given a la Google to "new ideas?" Both of those actions would give an executive a "what IS" - political cover to actually encourage their pursuit.  What IF you appoint a "Chief Innovation Officer?"  This could provide a "what IS" to an executive who wants to "drive" the change they can't be seen as leading.  (Of course, if executives simply pay this idea lip service with titles and "amplified" job descriptions you will soon find an undermined Chief Innovation Officer curled up behind the recycling containers, picking arrows out of their back and slowly drinking themselves into oblivion.)

I don't mean to close out 2010 on a downer note here at Association Subculture.  I'm certainly not advocating that we stop generating "what if" scenarios.  But let's have some more "what is" discussion so we can see those "what ifs" actually happen......

Beware -

The politicians are now DJs.

The politics of dancing....the politics of oooo feeling good.....

Don't fall for it.

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