Friday, March 19, 2010

How the Mighty Fall - Associations at Risk - Part 4 of 5

(This is the fourth in a five-part series and a break from my normal format.  During times of economic crisis many questions haunt executives, boards, staff members and volunteers alike.  How will we weather this storm? How long will it last?  How are our members being affected?  Will this signal a decline for our organization?  How will we know for sure and what can we do about it?  In his most recent work, How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, Jim Collins posits five signs of an organization at risk of or beginning the descent into chaos, decline and - at the very worst -  destruction.  This five-part series will take a look at each of the main stages identified by Jim Collins and relate them to issues you may be facing as association professionals.)

The Fourth Stage of Decline – Grasping for Salvation

One of my favorite quotes from Jim Collins recent work, “How the Mighty Fall,” is on the back jacket cover, “Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.”  I find those words inspiring particularly in our current economic climate.  Failure is not necessarily inevitable but is often the result of the inability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment or the encouragement of dysfunctional behaviors on the part of association staff or volunteer leaders.

We have already taken a look at the first three stages of decline – hubris born of success, the undisciplined pursuit of more and denial of risk and peril.  All of those stages reflect the journey up the mountain and predict your association’s proximity to the cliffs.  At any point, your association can choose to face the reality and make positive, proactive changes to continue moving up the mountain and away from the drop off points.  However, if you continue on the negative trajectory, Stage 4 can herald the rapid descent into devolution and chaos.  The following are five important signs an association is flirting with disaster.

The Hunt for the Silver Bullet – Ah, if we could just find that one endorsed program, that one member benefit, that one social media solution then all of our problems would be over.  A hallmark of Stage 4 thinking centers on a dramatic and desperate search for the key that will unlock the one door that holds all the answers inside of it. The trouble is - there is no such thing.  Associations are complex organizations with many moving parts.  A single-minded, laser focus on ginning up just one magical solution can often cause staff and volunteers to neglect everything else, allowing the entire enterprise to deteriorate just that much faster.

Churning and Burning CEOs – A corollary to the hunt for the one perfect solution often manifests itself in the hunt for the one perfect executive.  Beware of associations who are lurching from one executive to the next.  Many times a board will assume the current executive simply isn’t up to the challenge and expect someone new to turn things around only to find out the new executive can’t magically “fix” the problems either.  What those boards fail to recognize is the board itself is at least as responsible for the current predicament as the executive.  While they may have changed executives, they haven’t changed themselves.  Some groups even give the head position to someone within their own industry or profession assuming their “insights” into the membership will prove to be the magic answer.  The learning curve associated with being a chief staff executive on top of an already combustible situation is likely to do that well-meaning, newly appointed member-executive in before they even have time to order their ergonomically correct desk chair.

The Vision Kaleidoscope – Association leaders can become obsessed with finding the one perfect vision for their organization.  They believe the organization’s vision just needs to be more powerful.  Bigger.  Grander.  Then all of their execution issues will resolve themselves.  The hunt will lead to multiple planning sessions and retreats galore.   These association volunteers and staff leaders are hypnotized by the vision kaleidoscope.  They put it up to their eyes and see so many pretty colors to fine tune, to watch change shape or to take on entirely different forms.  They will vision themselves to death, and probably leave a number of third party consultants in their wake as they search for the one “right” vision that will transform their entire association/industry/profession in one fell swoop.

The Hyperbole Hustle – New, new, new! It’s all new.  It’s what we’ve been waiting for!  It will revolutionize the industry!  Association leaders who find themselves in desperate times often resort to hyped up language and hyperbole.  Words like re-invented, re-imagined and re-engineered abound among grand gestures and sweeping generalizations.  Much time is wasted on describing a utopian vision of the future but actual documented results are scarce.  Smoke and mirrors is a time-tested tradition meant to distract key stakeholders while the leadership grapples with the fact there is no there, there.

Destroying Momentum – All of the above behaviors contribute mightily to disrupting any momentum that might actually exist.  Grand pronouncements, changes in strategic direction, adoption of programs, churning through executives and leadership teams all lead to lost time and productivity at the very time it can be afforded the least.  Every major lurch serves to confuse volunteer leaders, staff and members and begin to cause a certain nagging feeling that all is not right in Denmark.  Repeated, aggressive moves in no particular direction can be interpreted as panicky and can undermine, disillusion and dishearten.

Stage 4 really is make it or break it time.  All of the stages have a role to play, but once the association goes over the cliff it is a fast ride down.  Staying with a single focus is just as dangerous as multiple grasps at a myriad of solutions.  Flailing for a silver bullet - be it program, person or product - is not an effective way to marshal your resources.  Yes, strong action may be called for but repeated aggressive moves will be misinterpreted as panic, not leadership.

Implementing emergency measures in a rational and thoughtful way can often be the key to cushioning the impact of a stage 4 fall.  A steady hand on the wheel with the focus on preserving the core competencies and assets of the organization, maintaining cash flow and keeping the doors open will be far more valuable in the long run than pie-in-the-sky thinking aimed at attaining unrealistic breakthroughs.  This is not to discount the need for associations to continue to strive, grow and achieve.  But when the cow-patties hit the fan the best strategy is to have a good garbage can lid at the ready as opposed to screaming, ducking or making wild swings that end up knocking the fan clean off the table.

Join us next time as we evaluate the fifth and final stage in decline – capitulation to irrelevance or death.

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