Is your association future focused? How to create a future vision, what the association of the future looks like and how to accelerate progress.

Accelerating Progress

Navigating the future does not have to be as uncertain as it may seem, because although it is unwritten, it is also what you make of it. This chapter outlines the process of creating a future vision, what the association of the future looks like and how to accelerate progress.

The future is dependent on the decisions you make today.

In the Back to the Future trilogy, Michael J. Fox revs his plutonium powered DeLorean time machine to 88mph and is instantly transported into the future. The insight he gains of the future is the realisation that it is a result of his actions in the present or in the past. Christopher Lloyd, who plays the white haired scientist in the films, constantly reminds Michael J. Fox that the future is unwritten. It is what you make it. So they journey back to the past in order to correct some bad decisions that had inadvertently set the space-time continuum off in negative directions.

The same truth applies to associations today – the future of associations is unwritten, and is what you make it. The decisions associations make today will directly influence the future for better or for worse. The space-time continuum is essentially a force of causality – cause and effect. Every major decision has an effect on the members, the market and the association itself. In turn, this causes another effect to create a cycle of interlocking events. The power associations have to influence the future is in deciding whether this becomes a virtuous cycle or a vicious one.

Admittedly, it would be so much easier if we all had a DeLorean to change the past. However, we all have power over our decisions in the present, and it is surprising how quickly these can ignite positive change for the future. The challenge then, is identifying the potential long-term causality of each opportunity and integrating this into the decision making process.

Here are six steps that link with the 6-Step Roadmap to keep decision making focused on the future.

  1. Do What’s Needed (Tackle Disruption)

Embrace the elephant in the room. Sometimes the most critical threats disrupting an association are kept unspoken because they may seem insurmountable, or because people don’t have all the answers. Scary though it may seem the elephant must be confronted. Doing what’s easy and avoiding the issue that’s blocking progress only makes it more threatening in the future. Doing what’s needed and tackling it will create new opportunities for progress. You don’t need all the answers. You just need to get started. Like every journey, it begins with the courage to take the first step.

  1. Bring Stakeholders Together (Mission & Vision)

Mission and vision includes serving all stakeholders. When the differing needs of members, the market and the association come into potential conflict, look to align them all. It’s easy to take a zero sum approach and prioritise one against the other, but the causality created by this is often negative. When stakeholders start fighting, it can tear associations apart. Again, you don’t need all the answers upfront to bring stakeholders together. You just need to get a healthy debate started, and be open to the feedback and insights this will reveal. Once stakeholders trust the association’s integrity of intent, they become more open to negotiation and compromise in search of win-win solutions. The priority isn’t to meet every single need, but to bring the stakeholders together first and then work collaboratively from there.

  1. Embrace Fear to Manage Risk (Good Governance)

A future strategy necessarily involves some risk. Good governance includes the board clarifying how much risk the association is willing to take to enable progress. Fear is normal, but progress necessitates the courage to take action in spite of it. Embrace fear and manage risk. The risk profile provides a benchmark for future decision making, making it easier to do what’s needed. Embracing fear helps overcome limiting beliefs – for example, that things must always be done in a ‘certain way’, that innovation is ‘too hard’ or that resources are ‘too few’. The board and CEO must overcome the association’s limiting beliefs so the staff can follow suit. The future requires a confident, progressive mindset and the courage of convictions to pursue positive change within the parameters of an appropriate risk profile.

  1. Let Go of Control to Engage Members (External Strategy)

The future cannot be controlled, it can only be embraced. Similarly, the future cannot be held back, it can only be accelerated. So let go of trying to be in control, trying to know all the answers and trying to avoid mistakes. Embrace an openness to enable, care and help members and the market. Try new approaches, be willing to fail and embrace new learnings. The old top down, control and command model has been replaced by an engaged, collaborative approach to engage members. Once an association sets its agenda for the future, it necessarily means it must try new things and move outside of its comfort zone. Letting go of trying to control outcomes releases associations to focus simply on making the right choices, doing what’s needed and what’s good – and accepting where this may lead. It is the integrity of decisions aligned seamlessly to mission and vision that sparks future engagement, trust and confidence in members and markets.

  1. Socialise Change and Learning (Internal Alignment)

Empower your employees to align their thinking and actions with the future, by socialising the benefits of change and learning. Many may be fearful to try new things. They will take your lead when you encourage initiative and innovation, and normalise change as an inherent part of the journey into the future. Once they trust that they won’t be punished for trying new things, they will be less fearful of change. This confidence opens up so many opportunities because once employees feel comfortable igniting change, the possibilities are endless. It is always people, not associations who create change. Encourage them to learn, and strive for more.

  1. What You Think About Expands (Future Focus)

The more you think about the future, the stronger it gets. The more your decision making is focused on future outcomes, the better it gets. It becomes easier to see the long-term causality of decisions when you purposefully look for them. Each future focused decision reinforces the next, improving the efficacy of the process through time. The implicit messages of not focusing on the future is that tomorrow will always be the same as today, that member expectations won’t change and that the association will live on forever. All are dangerous assumptions. Becoming a futurist may sound difficult, but becoming more future focused with each and every subsequent decision is really quite simple. The future is unwritten and your journey there is a process.

You don’t need a DeLorean time machine to see the future. You only need to be aware that you are writing your association’s own future with every decision you make in the present. A slight shift of emphasis can make all the difference.

Just hold onto the steering wheel.

The Future Association

So what does the association of the future look like?

Purpose beyond profit is a force to address the world’s problems. The best nonprofit associations excel at this with passionate, well intentioned people working towards an important vision through centrally planned and administered programs and services. The downside to this model can be complacency: without accountability, measurable objectives or responsibility for outcomes, it’s easy for associations to imagine they are performing well. Bureaucracy, outdated systems, inertia and resistance to change are all signs of complacency. Some associations get so confident of their position, they become dangerously comfortable.

Commerce is a force to create prosperity. The best corporate sector companies excel at this with efficient governance and operational systems supporting commercial strategies to deliver growth, progress and prosperity to free markets. But unchecked, the downside to this model can be greed: the greed that caused the global financial crisis and the greed that led VW to emissions-cheating diesel engines. Some companies get so obsessed with growth, they cross ethical lines to achieve it.

The association of the future is a fusion of the best traits of each sector, melding the purpose (mission) of the nonprofit sector with the prosperity (growth) of the corporate sector. This hybrid model provides the added benefit of checks and balances to mitigate the two worst traits of each sector, by transforming greed into stakeholder alignment, and complacency into innovation. Greed can be kept in check by the overarching purpose – to create good for members and markets. Complacency can be addressed by a heightened expectation of real outcomes – to deliver financial and non-financial targets on all mission critical objectives.

The melding of sectors has already begun. New models of capitalism that blend the best of each sector are already emerging, and the corporate sector is colliding with the traditional domain of associations. To argue over whether corporate motives are inherently good or bad is to miss the point. The perspective of some nonprofits dismissing corporates as greedy or money focused does not prohibit them from spreading their wings. The counter view of some corporates who underestimate nonprofits as inefficient and complacent is similarly self-serving, but can create the impetus for them to encroach even further into association territories. Associations that believe corporates should not intrude on their territory, does not stop them from doing so.

A new battleground is emerging. Some companies have realised that customers (read members) want them to deliver more than just profits and are now behaving like associations in embracing purpose – creating communities, benefiting markets, helping society. All the while, they are growing profits by delivering competitive products at the expense of associations themselves.

Compounding this threat for associations is that these very same customers (members) also want their own associations to become more efficient, effective and innovative. It now matters less whether an organisation is a company or an association. What matters more is the value they offer and the loyalty they inspire. This is the new battleground for relevance, and associations must deliver if they want to thrive in the future.

However, some have taken things too far in blurring the lines between sectors. Two lawyers and a Canberra lobbyist who represent Australia’s ultra-rich in disputes with the Australian Tax Office set up ‘The Family Office Institute’ in August 2015, which despite having no members, informed large parts of a Senate report recommending the Government shield privately owned companies from increased transparency². Fairfax Media reported this example of astroturfing, which is the use of artificial grassroots to create an impression of widespread support.

This is not to say associations should be run like companies, certainly not. There are clear limits to commercialism for associations. Commercial initiatives must serve an association’s mission and vision, and not run counter to them. Associations must never lose sight of their purpose. But they can learn from corporates to be more businesslike in structure, operations and strategy – while maintaining their overarching purpose.

Associations are grappling with commercialism in the same way that communist states are grappling with capitalism. China and Russia are unrecognisable from a mere 25 years ago, both economically and socially. Cuba is now on the verge of massive systemic transformation, modernisation and commercial growth. These nations are being pulled towards the globally connected free enterprise capitalist model that delivers prosperity.

In the same way, associations are being pulled towards the businesslike operating systems of their corporate counterparts. And yet, they can and they must maintain their critical points of difference as they adapt to create a sustainable future.

The association of the future has the purpose and values of a nonprofit organisational mission, coupled with the enterprising and businesslike nature of a corporate – to create prosperity, growth and progress for members and markets, as well as its own sustainability.

Every journey of change and progress begins with the courage to take the first step. With all associations agreeing that disruption is here, the question is how many will take that first step of action. The PricewaterhouseCoopers book Five Frogs on a Log poses a riddle: ‘Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? Answer: Five. Why? There is a difference between deciding and doing’.

Creating A Future Vision

Now you’re ready to create the future of your association. It’s not a giant leap – it’s a process.

Imagine three doors adjoining your boardroom – one to the past, one to the present and one to the future. How much time do you usually spend in the first two doors? I’m guessing it’s the majority of your time, as it is with most organisations. However, the keys to unlocking future vision are in the third door – the door to the future.

Gary Hamel, widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential business thinker posits three questions to every organisation wanting to build future focus:

  1. What percentage of your time is spent looking outward versus looking inward?
  2. Of the outward time, what percentage is looking forward five or more years?
  3. Of the outward and forward time, what percentage is spent debating and testing a shared perspective of what that future looks like?

When you focus on the future, you create a vision. You need a broad vision that leads you generally towards the future and allows you the flexibility to make changes to strategy along the way. No-one can be absolutely certain, in exacting detail what the future holds. But that doesn’t mean you can’t point your association in the general direction, and respond to changes in market conditions and outcomes as they arise. The solution is as powerful as it is simple.

The difficulty arises because most associations are so busy, they may not have time to focus on the future. The day-to-day operational demands are so high, it gets hard to peek out above them and even look at the horizon, let alone the blue sky for inspiration.

That’s why the 6-Step Roadmap is so important. Because when you respond to disruption, refine your mission and vision, optimise your governance structure, accelerate your external influence and align your internal systems and culture … you will create a little space and time to focus on the future. You will instil an innovative mindset and improve your capability to discover your next big thing, product, service or program. You will begin to write the future.

That just leaves one question – where do you want to start?

Pick any of the first five steps of the 6-Step Roadmap because they all lead to future focus. Pick the area holding you back the most. Or pick the area you can influence the most.

Decide which one that is … and get started!

Your Legacy – Association Leader

All great leaders leave a legacy. What will yours be?

Organisationally, what are the three most important things you want to achieve for your association, and after you have moved on, how would you like to be remembered? Personally, what do you stand for and what is the vision you want to fulfil for yourself? How strong is your commitment and how bold is your ambition to achieve great things?

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, said ‘There is one point in the history of any company when you have to rise to the next level – miss that moment and you start to decline’.

That time is now. The future is unwritten.

It’s your move …