Is your association focussed on progress and innovation? How to improve systems and processes, and empower staff to transform employee passion into organisational performance.

Systems & Staff

Associations that align their internal operating departments with their external strategy can breed an environment where progress and innovation can unfold. This chapter reviews how associations can improve systems and processes, and empower staff to transform employee passion into organisational performance.

Look inward for solutions to your greatest challenges.

In the satirical British sitcom Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby defends with dysfunctional logic the impossibility of implementing any change that might threaten the size and bureaucracy of his department. He invariably thwarts idealistic Jim Hacker’s suggestions for reform, blocking all lines of approach and appeases him with a means to cover up his failure. He boastfully elaborates how established processes serve and uphold the status quo as a matter of principle. He charmingly illuminates how innovation of any kind would be considered ‘courageous’, which happens to be his pet word for political suicide.

Organisations with Yes Minister Syndrome can operate well in every respect except the very function for which they were created – to advance progress. They can run smoothly without achieving much for members if they are more concerned with protecting their turf and maintaining existing legacies.

Thankfully, few associations are as dysfunctional as Sir Humphrey would like, but the potential for internal inefficiencies to creep in raises important questions.

  • Are internal systems and processes optimised for efficiency?
  • Are they seamlessly aligned with external objectives?
  • Do they support or inhibit staff productivity?
  • How engaged, accountable and responsible are employees?
  • Are the critical things getting done for members and markets?
  • Is the association achieving all it can, or could it do more?

Unless internal systems, processes and staff culture directly serve mission, vision and objectives, it is easy for bureaucracy to balloon into an administrative burden that saps productivity and morale. The antidote to this is internal innovation.

Associations that get their systems, staff culture and internal alignment right will breed an environment where progress can thrive. Those that don’t will find that this is where major reform initiatives can easily stall. Remember Kodak, they didn’t fail for want of a big idea. They invented the digital camera. It was some of their people who hated the idea and blocked it internally. Their internal systems and culture were not aligned with their external strategy. Perhaps Sir Humphrey was on secondment to them at the time?

One of the most important roles of an association leader is to help employees perform their jobs better. It’s about creating an environment of trust and clarity so that employees understand how they can support the delivery of the association’s mission and vision.

Efficient Systems & Processes

Efficiency and clarity in systems, processes and job descriptions reduces confusion, enhances collaboration and enables staff to fix dozens of things you didn’t know were broken.

Empowered & Accountable Staff

Giving employees the skillsets and confidence to take the initiative in the knowledge they won’t be punished if they try and fail, is the foundation to a culture of responsibility, transparency and accountability.

In comparison to their corporate counterparts, associations and other nonprofit organisations display two peculiarities in these areas that raise additional challenges.

Firstly, in their relentless focus on efficiency, corporates have been streamlining regulation and cutting red tape for decades to make it easier to do business. Consequently, their internal systems and processes have been optimised for productivity through continual refinements to reduce waste and inefficiencies. Associations are now embarking on this journey and prioritising internal efficiencies more assertively than in the past. Associations have a lot to do but the good news is that small improvements in efficiency can have a significant impact on productivity and morale.

Secondly, corporates have fostered an output and results culture. Some may have pushed this too far but associations generally are at the opposite send of this spectrum. Similar to other nonprofit organisations, they benefit strongly from the passion employees have for a cause, but need more effective ways to leverage this into real outcomes and accountability. The well-intentioned activity that comes from passion needs to be channelled effectively towards mission, vision and objectives. While Passion rated highest on Employee Capability in the Australian Associations Research Survey, the scores for Accountability, Adaptability and Innovation were consistently low – despite being essential skillsets in the network economy. Associations will benefit from a more businesslike approach to staff empowerment, culture and accountability – but one that also harnesses employee passion and purpose into delivering real progress for members and markets.

Two subtle shifts in emphasis in each of these areas can create significant gains in internal efficiency, productivity and morale.

Efficient Systems & Processes

These should be designed to serve members first and internal administrative requirements second. This hierarchy ensures that the systems and processes; like the association itself; are member-serving rather than self-enhancing. Effective due process needs to serve performance and progress without detracting from compliance or risk management. Getting the balance right is about maximising performance while minimising administration.

Empowered & Accountable Staff

Similarly, an environment where employees understand the value their role brings to the association and its members will create a more engaged member-serving culture. Supportive management can instil the trust and openness required to encourage innovation, positive change and progress. Adherence to core values, and integrity in internal communications can help staff buy-into the decision making process. They do not need to like every decision, but they do need to understand why and how they are made.

Only when associations have efficient systems and processes supporting empowered and accountable staff can they really begin to advance progress. This internal alignment enables the implementation of strategies to grow members, revenue and impact. Everything internal is controllable and not influenced by undeterminable outside factors – it is what you make it. This means associations can look inward for solutions to many of their greatest challenges.

If only Sir Humphrey would do the same.

Improving Processes

Processes are the sequence of planned conceptual actions that enable staff to perform their roles effectively. Systems are used to execute this process as efficiently as possible. Together, they have a net effect on an association’s performance – either driving it positively towards key objectives, or hindering progress through inefficiencies, confusion and/or distractions.

Every association can find improvements in internal systems and processes, because it is a continual process. Each improvement frees up quality time to help employees do their jobs better, get the important things done. Efficient systems and processes stimulate greater productivity, higher morale and a more engaged workforce – to deliver better outcomes.

So how do you know if your systems and processes are optimised for efficiency? One way is to compare it with the best. I’ve been fortunate to work for Australian divisions of two of the largest and most professional media conglomerates in the world. Both had impeccable systems and processes devised by expert global practitioners and implemented locally with full support. I must admit that at times, I took all this for granted but have now learned how to recognise it – things just click, happen seamlessly, everyone knows what’s expected, collaboration is high and progress is fast. Unless that’s how your association operates, it may point to a need to improve your systems and processes.

Of course, seamless efficiency and progress doesn’t happen by itself. You have to create the systems that underpin it, and this can be difficult for associations without best practice support or sufficient resources like time and budget. However, this does not negate their critical importance or the need to develop them regardless.

Another clue that systems and processes are hindering performance is forthright feedback from staff and members, and lacking that – continual evidence of confusion and conflict over roles and responsibilities. When employees start blaming each other for not following processes, it can be a sign that the processes themselves may be at fault. And when supposedly simple things go round endlessly in circles without resolution, you can be fairly certain the cause is a problem with systems and processes.

Too Much Grey

Grey is the enemy of clarity. The allies are black and white. Too much grey leaves everyone with a different interpretation of the same process. This wastes time, creates confusion, reduces accountability and can lead to conflict.

Black & White

Black and white is crystal clear. Clarity enables everyone to get on with their jobs with detailed roles, responsibilities and expectations they can understand and implement in a unified way. It reduces stress. The time and energy saved on employees not needing to second guess each other can be reinvested into more strategic and beneficial work. It empowers them to do more.


Clarity is often about simplicity over complexity. Steve Jobs said ‘Simple can be harder than complex, but you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple’. The best systems and processes are those that have been stripped down to the barest, essential rules that make sense.

Associations can have a tendency to add complexity over time through scope creep – when well intentioned people keep thinking of extra things to add, it can blur the lines of simplicity. Clarity is often a process of reducing, not adding. Think about the complexity within your association and the impact this has on your productivity.

A world without rules would be anarchy but a Deloitte report suggests we have overdone it in Australia. It highlights how red tape is choking productivity, with self-imposed rules and regulations eating up $250 billion a year in profits and productivity¹. Entitled Get out of your own way: Unleashing productivity, it estimates that management spend 8.9 hours a week complying with self-imposed rules, with other staff spending 6.4 hours a week. With self-imposed rules accounting for 16% of resources, it means almost one in five employees work solely on that! This may be an insight for associations caught in a vicious cycle of insufficient resources.

Clarity is great in concept, but how do you get there? Associations need to spend quality time to think though their systems and processes, and identify potential improvement points. The answers are readily available through the experience and feedback of both staff and members, and need to be channelled with a planned structure on how they are to be tackled. This may be through a sequential hierarchy of processes to be reviewed, with the most critical or easiest to fix prioritised. It may be through creating working groups headed by particularly analytical staff members who love flow charts and enjoy systematic thinking. It may be through established frameworks that provide benchmarks and checklists to drive best practice. Whichever structured approach is chosen, it will require SMART objectives with measurable targets on streamlining touchpoints, reducing double-handling, enhancing the member experience and improving operating efficiency. Once revised, it needs to be tested robustly internally with the staff working group or externally with members. If board directors are members, they can provide excellent feedback on process improvements in their roles as both customers and governing stakeholders.

Systems and processes must serve the needs of members. There is no intrinsic benefit to systems and processes unless they drive progress – the association is not there to serve itself. When the needs of members are put first, employees will design systems and processes to enhance the member experience, not detract from it.

It is still an arduous task for associations to reinvent, reengineer or continuously improve existing systems and processes. Some initiatives will be quickly accepted, while others can be met with resistance. Here are three examples of different associations all intent on reducing complexity to drive member engagement.

  • Reducing Paperwork – To share a personal example, the industry association I was running successfully reduced the paperwork and contracts for members purchasing trade fair stands from five pages down to a single sheet. The success of the initiative was seamless in that it was driven by the board’s intent, started by the commercial manager and improved by the team leaving me only to add a few tweaks. The shorter contracts were also clearer, more transparent and later enabled improvements to the invoicing that followed. Members loved it.
  • Reducing Touchpoints – An education body wanted to streamline their processes and reduce the number of touchpoints new members had with their association to a single point of contact. Previously, members had to deal with a handful of different people which also created duplication in handling and data input internally. All staff agreed this was a good idea but it took over a year to implement as the initiative unearthed some resistances – it became clear that differences of opinion over which CRM fields should be mandatory and who should be responsible for entering data within them had been the source of hidden conflict for years. The team had not been able to agree, and had parked the issue. Once the CEO realised this, all it took was to get all users together, talk through their needs and share openly what would be in the best interests of members for them to come to consensus. The example also illustrates how unclear processes can have a detrimental effect on productivity and staff harmony, without them actually coming to light.
  • Reducing Member Inconvenience – A membership manager in a South Australian association was wedded to his old three page membership application which had an exhaustive list of profile fields to be completed in full, printed and posted (or faxed) back in order for new memberships to be activated. His CEO was keen to increase membership by simplifying and digitising the application form. His view was that potential members would be turned off if their first encounter was complex, difficult and limited to one channel. The membership manager’s view was that there was an existing policy that he thought worked. It took a shift in mindset for him to get more in tune with changing member needs and understand that the old process was no longer member friendly. It also required the CEO to clarify that processes were to be designed to serve members, rather than the other way round.

Similar examples abound across associations in documents written in ‘grey’ that are open to misinterpretation and can lead to implementation in non-standard ways. Partnership agreements that do not clarify service delivery standards or payment terms can create confusion internally and externally. Member policies that are vague can cause frustration and disengagement. Even HR policies can waste time and effort if they are unclear about, for example whose role it is to enter and track sick or leave days into the system, or what happens to repeat offenders who regularly forget to enter the data.

Socialising systems and processes is also critical to ensure everyone has either been consulted or is aware of expectations. Once agreed, associations must ensure 100% compliance, because allowing exceptions breaks down efficiencies and undermines the good work of everyone who has contributed. It also creates ill feeling if certain individuals are allowed to remain exempt. Adequate training is critical, so that all employees are provided with the skillsets and expectations to not only use and implement consistently, but also to understand the purpose behind the systems and processes – the benefits it bring to members, to the association and to individual users internally. It needs to make sense.

Efficient systems and process are not about reinventing the wheel, but setting a best practice standard that combines the optimum efficiency with maximum user engagement.

Decision Making

The association itself needs a clear, transparent and well communicated decision making process. Before debating important issues that may require difficult decisions, everyone benefits when the process is clearly articulated at the outset.

  • What are the objectives to be achieved?
  • Who gets a say and how wide does the consultation need to be?
  • What feedback and input is required?
  • When is the deadline?
  • What are the parameters of the decision making?
  • Who will make the final decision?
  • How will consensus be reached?

Unless this is made clear beforehand, people can bumble along until it gets to a conflict situation – through no fault of their own. Suddenly two people can’t agree because the parameters are unclear. Or the issue gets bogged down in a never-ending loop of re-drafts. By the time draft version 10 is distributed for review, everyone is ready to pull their hair out! People are busy and no-one needs an extra layer of ambiguity.

When timeframes, input and deadlines are clear and adhered to, effective decisions can be made so progress rolls on. Unless it’s a material issue, speed to market should not be compromised because there will always be opportunities to refine and improve in the future – done is better than perfect.


There are no reasons for associations to hold onto manual processes – not time, not cost and not ease. Technology is a proven enabler of efficiency, and a fundamental requirement for all association operations.

A decade ago, members were thrilled to be able to enjoy personalised data, communications and solutions on association websites. Today, it is virtually an expectation without which member renewals and engagement are in jeopardy. A decade ago, an association could be excused for not integrating its membership relationship system with its website, or not tracking precisely which products and services members are engaging with on a daily basis. Today, that has become unthinkable. A decade ago, it was difficult to understand the technical choices available and harder still to absorb the financial costs. Today, the technical choices are easy to understand and the entry costs are low (or simple to justify).

It is now easier to embrace technology than it is to ignore it. The efficiencies it delivers in administrative ease, employee productivity, member engagement and service delivery have become no-brainers. Associations operating without technology not only have a competitive disadvantage, they will simply be left behind.

Process or Pedantry Prohibiting Progress

Due process is critical, and should never be compromised. The values underpinning due process include integrity, accountability, transparency – and efficiency. But when does due process become pedantry that prohibits progress? When does thorough administration transform into bloated bureaucracy? A line is crossed when process serves itself, rather than serving progress.

For example, your footy team is still in the changing room while the opposition is on the pitch warming up with two minutes to go till kick off. Pedantry is continuing to discuss tactics until everyone agrees they are conceptually perfect. Progress is putting your boots on, getting out there and playing to win. The same applies to the deadline to go to market with a new membership acquisition campaign, product launch, conference agenda or training program. Progress is about taking action.

You know the line has been crossed when process has ballooned to create a life of its own, regardless of an association’s key objectives. It always comes back to the same question – is this process supporting or hindering progress? Processes can be robust and effective, while also meeting the needs of members. No member wants their first experience with an association to be laborious, just as no employee benefits from inefficient systems and processes. Everything needs to integrate. That means membership, marketing, events, website, revenue channels, payments, CPD education points and everything in between talking to each other, seamlessly and efficiently. Associations that lose themselves to the burden of process find that it is always to the detriment of the main game – progress towards mission, vision and objectives.

Process that serves itself is like a car spinning its wheels, making a lot of noise, causing a lot of stress but going nowhere. Linking your process to progress is like keying in a destination into your car’s Sat Nav. Immediately you have clarity on where you need to go.

Engaging Staff

Efficient systems and processes also provide the foundation to build a culture of empowered and accountable staff. The success of any association invariably comes down to its people. When employees are engaged, associations can flourish. This makes effective people management arguably the most important objective for every CEO, because without an engaged workforce all the other organisational objectives are likely to remain unfulfilled. So how can you empower staff to thrive but still hold them to account for their performance? This is about ensuring that employees are absolutely clear on the purpose of their role, what their responsibilities are and what is expected of them in terms of output and behaviour. And that they feel their employer genuinely cares about them.

Employees are most engaged when they can see how their own individual purpose links directly to the mission, vision and purpose of their association and how their input directly benefits the output of the association. For this to happen, they need to feel safe, valued and acknowledged in addition to having full confidence in knowing what’s expected of them.

There is a critical moment when employees genuinely feel like they are an integral part of the overall value proposition. This tipping point comes when they realise they have a personal stake in organisational progress – when they trust that their own self-interest is linked to the success of the association. When they understand what’s in it for them, they shift gears from passive to active.

This simple, powerful philosophy is difficult to deliver in practice. The closer associations get to this, the more successful they will become. But to do so, they also need to overcome and transform five longstanding practices that can become roadblocks.

  • Passion into Performance
  • Over-consultation into Action
  • Amiability into Authenticity
  • Gossip into Healthy Debate
  • Victims into Players

Associations that encourage performance, accountability, authenticity and healthy debate can tap into the immense potential of their employees. When employees engage freely and willingly from their own volition, it can spark a powerful culture of success and fulfilment. Here’s how.

  1. Passion into Performance

Associations can incorrectly confuse passion and commitment with competent performance in the people they employ. This trait has also taken hold in other nonprofit organisations like charities and foundations because it is so easy to do.

Passion is a unique attribute of for-purpose organisations, and a major employment attraction for similarly motivated individuals. It is often a differentiator of nonprofit employees compared to the corporate workforce. It can even be an expectation within the job description itself. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that passion alone is not enough. Having employees who care deeply about an association’s cause is a wonderful trait. But passion cannot be used as an excuse for under performance. No amount of passion can compensate for missing attributes such as innovation, adaptability, accountability, engagement, transparency, teamwork, competence and professionalism.

Unfortunately, passionate individuals who have not been used to performing against benchmarks can get defensive when they are provided with performance-based feedback. They can feel they have invested so much of themselves in terms of time, energy and dedication into the cause, that they take a lack of results as a personal criticism. They can think their passion is enough and should be accepted unquestioningly – and can find professional performance evaluation alien and confronting.

The harsh reality is that passion alone won’t create solutions for the causes or members they are trying to serve. Only outcomes create positive change. For passion to be effective, it must be leveraged into measureable performance.

When passionate people realise how important outcomes are they will usually start to care more about their performance. Leaders who help employees get clear on how to get their jobs done better can transform this passion into performance. Outcomes are the logical conclusion to a lifetime of passionate dedication. Leaders need to build trust and resilience so employees can hear performance-based feedback as guidance and assistance, rather than as criticism or a rejection of their self-worth. Effective management coaching, training and mentoring can help employees improve their output to effort ratio – to achieve more for the same effort. And in doing so, they can gain the fulfilment that comes from seeing positive change unfold. That’s what makes passion worthwhile.

  1. Over-consultation into Action

Associations can believe that consulting widely with staff reflects their organisational values of participation and demonstrates a less hierarchical spirit. It is a keystone of nonprofit organisations and a point of difference with the corporate environment. Consultation reflects caring. The aim of a democratic consultation process that is nice, fair and amiable is certainly worthy, but not without its shortcomings.

What constitutes too much consultation? Of course employees need to be consulted, so they feel heard and acknowledged, and can provide valuable input. Most will be enthused by the opportunity to participate in decision making. But how much is too much? At some point, someone needs to make a decision. Associations can cross this line by trying to be nice and please everyone. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get everyone to agree to anything.

The aim of consultation is not to make everyone happy, but to solicit appropriate feedback and then transparently explain the reasons why and how the final decision was made. It is more important for employees to understand, trust and respect the decision making process than to ‘like’ any individual decision. The process of consultation must be clear from the outset.

No amount of consultation can compensate for a lack of transparency in how decisions have been made. When employees enter into long discussions, but the final plan does not include any reference to their feedback, it looks like a dictatorial process disguised as democracy. If you ever want to disengage your workforce, this is how to do it because it fosters resentment through an obvious question: ‘Why did you ask me if you weren’t going to listen?’

Over consultation can inadvertently breed frustration, bureaucracy and stagnation – the very opposite of what it was intended to do. Over consultation causes employees to lose the desire to work harder and make a contribution. Too much consultation is not only a poor use of time it gets in the way of employees doing their jobs. One of the greatest enemies of impact is duplication of effort. Doing things once and doing them properly is the essence of efficiency. The implicit message that employees receive from over consultation is that it is acceptable for things to go round in circles ad infinitum, that inefficiency is tolerated, and that striving for progress is not valued. For empowered individuals, this is as disengaging as it gets.

The consultation process sets the tone of accountability within an association. It too, needs to be accountable. I’m not a fan of acronyms but one that I do like is DIFOT – delivered in full, on time. Most often used as a performance delivery metric within supply chains, the words also express an ethos of accountability and responsibility towards others. DIFOT underpins what good consultation should be.

Transforming over consultation into action begins with the CEO and the leadership team articulating a transparent decision making process linked to the achievement of key objectives at the outset. Then defining the parameters and timelines for the consultation process and setting a deadline on which the decision will be made, and communicated. In this way, they take the accountability for DIFOT first. They make themselves and the process accountable to the employees – and then take the action to make a firm decision and communicate it to everyone. In setting an example around accountability and action, it sends a clear message that it is valued and expected from everyone.

  1. Amiability into Authenticity

Association employees often have high empathy levels and amiability. It’s one of the endearing traits of the nonprofit sector – people want to be nice. Of the four major behavioural styles commonly used in management, nonprofits have traditionally been more aligned with Amiable and Analytical personalities than the Driver and Expressive types who are more typically associated with corporate leaders. However, there are dangers in being too amiable.

No-one wants to work in an environment where staff are not cared about or valued. Everyone loves a positive, friendly and harmonious working environment. But amiability becomes a roadblock when employees avoid doing things that might be unpopular. Being too nice can stifle productivity. When the need to be liked develops into a fear of upsetting sensitivities, or worse being the kind of person who always says what others want to hear but doesn’t actually do anything about it.

Amiability can disguise a lack of forthrightness. One sign of this is the employee who sends reassuring messages that say ‘I’m onto it’ or ‘I’ve been working hard on this’ to express agreement with a request, but often fails to deliver on the task itself. When expectations are not delivered, no amount of amiability can compensate.

Amiability can also be a defence mechanism to handle outright fear – whether real or perceived. Employees need to feel safe to raise issues for debate, and to be able to disagree and say ‘no’ openly. Sometimes rather than confront these, employees can revert to amiability as a coping strategy.

It is the CEO and the leadership team’s role to define a culture of authenticity – where every employee feels confident enough to be his or her authentic self. In return, every employee then has a personal responsibility to contribute to authenticity in the workplace, by speaking up for important issues that need to be resolved. The opposite of over amiability is not rudeness. It is the courage to be authentic.

  1. Gossip into Healthy Debate

People love to talk. When employees feel safe in an environment of trust, respect and integrity they are more likely to speak up and share their thoughts openly. This is how high performance organisations think – through a diversity of ideas for healthy debate. It is when talk is driven underground that it can become negative, and cause distrust and morale issues. Gossip is a major cause of lost productivity, engagement and staff turnover. It can incite reactive behaviour to avert responsibility or avoid blame, inadvertently encourage discrimination and cause talented staff to leave.

Gossip flourishes when there is fear and frustration. Fear can be created by a top down, punitive control and command ethos. Frustration can be created by over consultation, and a lack of clear systems or accountability. Associations will do well to avoid both extremes.

The CEO needs to set the tone and lead by example. Once the leadership team presents a united front, they can begin to address the behaviour of specific gossip perpetrators to ensure bad behaviour is not rewarded. Or, where there are issues that warrant employee frustration or fear, to tackle them and create an environment where talk is channelled into productive, healthy debate.

Communicating transparently and clearly so all staff feel they know what is happening will help reduce any gaps in the management dialogue – because gaps feed the uncertainty that negative gossip fills. Encouraging positive gossip by actively listening to thoughts and ideas from within encourages employees to realise their voices are important. The goal is not to shut down all gossip, but to embrace its positivity so people speak up.

Passionate arguments and robust discussions are integral to the success of every association. They enable individual ideas to be shared, communicated and negotiated within a group dynamic so that the optimum outcomes can be revealed. Disagreement is critical for different perspectives to be reviewed. Extroverts and introverts will express their contribution in different ways, and both need to be heard equally for true diversity of thinking to be revealed.

Associations too concerned with upsetting sensitivities can find it hard to bring issues out into the open. Paradoxically, this can have the opposite result and foster negative gossip that has a far more disastrous effect. Some association employees who rely on gossip can perpetuate an insular and individual culture that makes open collaboration almost impossible. This is especially true of those who haven’t worked in environments that encourage open, healthy debate – they can find the process intimidating and incorrectly diagnose healthy debate as hostile because it is so overt.

Similarly, if employees choose to work within a certain association, they need to take personal responsibility and make a contribution to good culture. This means disengaging from negative gossip and standing up for integrity and truth. Once employees start perpetuating negative gossip because they see everything as a problem, it may be time for them to leave. Not only for the association’s wellbeing but their own. Employees who are deeply unhappy in their jobs and cannot change their perspective harm themselves by staying, as well as infecting others to become similarly discontented. Gossip is a virus.

Turning negative gossip into open, healthy debate is one of the most powerful things associations can do to ignite positive change internally. Promoting soft skills like teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, adaptability and conflict resolution throughout the workforce can enable employees to enhance their communications and become more comfortable speaking out openly. These soft skills and values need to be instilled, embedded and encouraged on a daily basis.

  1. Victims into Players

Fred Kofman, author of the best-selling book Conscious Business conducts a wonderful experiment in his seminars about unconditional responsibility. He defines it as ‘response-ability’, or our ability to respond to a situation. He picks up a pen, lets it drop to the ground and then asks his group, ‘Why did the pen fall?’ Gravity is usually the first answer, and then people also point out that he dropped it. Both answers are correct, but the gravity group seem to be saying there is nothing they can do about it because it wasn’t their fault – it was gravity. They have abrogated their ability to respond. However, the other group that said Fred dropped the pen are clearly articulating they can do something about it. They can hold onto to the pen, negating the effects of gravity. Fred goes on to define the groups respectively as ‘Victims’ who pay attention to factors they cannot influence, or ‘Players’ who see themselves as being able to respond to external circumstances. I know which group I’d rather have on my team! The good news is that you can help some victims on your team to become players. Once they realise they have the power and ability to respond to any situation, they can start being more pro-active in the workplace. It’s a slight mindset shift that can have a massive impact on staff culture.

Core Values

Every association needs a set of guiding principles that dictates organisational behaviour and employee actions. There are hundreds of core values to choose from. They can be any of the virtues such as integrity, honesty and courage; attributes including innovation, customer focus and collaboration; or aspirational goals like sustainability, caring and positive change.

Core values align employees, management and the board with the overarching purpose of the association in order to move towards mission, vision and objectives in a consistently progressive, fair and effective way. They keep board strategy consistent rather than discretionary. They focus the CEO on agreed outcomes. They drive staff accountability and responsibility. Together, the core values provide a robust foundation for effective decision making by setting clear parameters of behaviour and action that everyone can understand and adhere to. They act as benchmarks and priorities and avert the need to re-think or crisis-manage every situation separately. And, in the long run, core values improve engagement, productivity and efficiency by reducing stress and confusion.

A handful of carefully chosen core values can keep an association on track. They are more than statements of intent displayed on office walls. They must be lived and used consistently for them to influence behaviours. Employees (and members for that matter) are only influenced by what an association does, not what it says it does – so core values must be lived in action. When employees see management living and upholding the core values, they become more inclined to follow.

This makes the process of actually choosing the top (say) four or five core values as difficult as it is important. What are the specific values that are perfectly fit for purpose for every individual association? The answer is different for every association and links to their mission, vision and objectives – and what they need to do to deliver it. The process is similar to deciding which key metrics need to be measured. The list must be simple, clear and relevant. To get there requires a well-defined process of consultation with employees, and a clear understanding of member needs. Often core values work best when they address or are balanced across three broad characteristics – integrity, competence and benevolence. These three characteristics are frequently mentioned as essential ingredients that underpin trust.

A Google search will reveal a choice of templates, examples and a comprehensive list of potential core values. The process must be bespoke and tailored to the specific needs of each association, so there is no one size that fits all. However, some of my personal favourites include Zappos.com, Joie De Vivre Hotels and Grameen Bank.

Core values are most valuable in times of crisis and when important decisions need to be made. Any decision made on the basis of carefully considered core values is likely to be robust and effective. The added benefit of decision making within the parameters of core values, is that it provides an added layer of confidence and reduces the need for second-guessing. The foundation that core values provide to important decisions is that they can be communicated to employees in a way that will be understood. In terms of engagement, the rationale and justification for decisions is often even more important than the intrinsic worth of the decision itself. An unpopular decision based on core values is more likely to be respected than a slightly positive discretionary one.

Change Management

Core values can also help associations manage change.

A distinguishing characteristic of change management is that things often seem to get worse before they get better. Because many people fear change, or are intimidated by it, they can meet it with resistance – which makes conflict a necessity to be managed. Once committed to a change management strategy, boards need to hold their nerve through this process. It’s not so much that change management makes things worst initially; it just brings latent issues to the surface where they can be dealt with. The problems were there before, except they were subverting progress covertly rather than openly. Core values can provide an important constancy of behaviour while transformational change is in motion. Resistance to change can be lessened when people see it is in line with core values.

The purpose of this section is not to provide a comprehensive review of change management models, but to reinforce the point that associations must go through the difficult short-term process of change, in order to transform and reap the benefits it provides for the long-term.

The Kübler-Ross² change curve tracks morale and competence over time across seven stages, including a steep initial decline before an even steeper upward trajectory kicks in. The stages are self-evidently defined as Shock, Denial, Frustration, Depression, Experiment, Decision and Integration. Once employees get through their natural resistances (shock, denial, frustration and depression) and start learning how to work effectively in the new situation (experiment, decision and integration) they can thrive and succeed far more effectively.

Similarly, the Change House model based on the Four Rooms of Change Theory³ has four states, moving from the past into the future. The Contentment Room is the starting point until some shock, disruption or event moves the organisation and staff into the Denial Room, and then the Confusion Room before a powerful new vision created together leads into the Renewal Room – which is then sustained by fresh challenges and more support.

Any kind of positive change management requires conflict. But when conflict arises, associations can try and look for ways to smooth things over. This is an error and boards need both patience and resilience to endure the open conflict necessary to create positive change. Transitioning through uncomfortable times is part of the process, and essential for the association to reap the benefits of change.

As more associations are affected by disruption, or need to reinvent themselves to better serve the changing needs of members, change management skillsets will become increasingly important for CEOs and boards. Similarly, understanding the benefits and stages of change can equip employees and members into the future.

Everyone is affected by change. The stress is caused by a feeling of not being in control, and it is the CEOs role to help employees by instilling an understanding, tolerance and appreciation of change. Change management often links back to the delivery of clear objectives, and getting staff buy-in to the strategic plan – so they understand how they fit in, and how their input makes a contribution. When this sense of purpose outweighs the challenges of change, empowered employees make the association unstoppable.

John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change is used widely as a best practice model, but there are others.

Case Study: Internal Systems

Association: Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA)

Size: 3,800 Members, 8 Staff & $3.5 Million Annual Revenue

‘If a good system is in place, you can focus on other things,’ says Chris Champion, reflecting on his 15 years as CEO of the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA). Chris makes a direct link between the implementation of efficient internal systems and the growth in membership at IPWEA, transforming what started out as an operational initiative into an engagement driver.

IPWEA’s ‘Integrated Systems’ project was designed to integrate membership, website and events registrations with financials and marketing all using one single database. Previously, the different IPWEA divisions making up the federation each had their own databases and websites making a cohesive national strategy problematic. Chris established a robust central system for the then national office, and gradually encouraged the divisions to opt-in. The aim was for single-sign-on across the various platforms to provide a professional interface for members.

The central system provided the foundation for all the divisions to adopt one membership fee and structure across IPWEA. This standardisation facilitated the development of a common automated online ‘member join’ system, which replaced the previous system(s) where potential members had to download and fax back application forms in order to join.

Chris then facilitated a simple solution to membership barriers that many associations face – tedious and time consuming application forms. The burdensome requirement of a full, detailed member profile to be completed prior to joining was replaced with a simple online page form. All prospective members had to do was enter their name, contact details, date of birth, gender and credit card payment. The system then automatically sent the application and the funds to the respective division. Complicated back office arrangements were replaced with a simple user interface. Serving the needs of members first made it easy to join.

To comply with constitutional and administrative due process, this was defined internally as an application. A second email was sent welcoming the new ‘member’ and advising that their application was being processed by their local division. It also requested that they go online immediately to complete their profile and interest areas to maximise the benefits of their new membership. IPWEA secured almost 100% take up on this, with members perceiving this as a valuable and engaging on-boarding email.

Previously the very same information had been a bureaucratic burden because it was presented to prospective members before they had decided to join. This one seemingly innocuous shift towards an external customer-centric focus greatly benefitted both prospective members and IPWEA, and maintained due process.

Syncing the database with one main website enabled IPWEA to create private online communities. All prospective members were auto-subscribed with free access to IPWEA’s community network and forums, which have grown to become arguably the largest in the public works sector globally. ‘Many associations only market to their members, which necessarily entails a loss of potential influence,’ says Chris, adding ‘the market is not just your membership so you also need to engage with non-members’.

After engaging with the forums, many prospective members took advantage of the new ‘easier to join’ process to become fully paid-up members. From 2012 to 2016, through a number of initiatives, IPWEA membership almost doubled to 3,800.

This growth included IPWEA’s sister association in New Zealand wanting to explore buying access to the Australian system for their own needs. This led to merger discussions, and the successful creation of a larger Australasian body – all stemming from the original operational initiative.

The focus on integrated systems led to a three pillars approach for IPWEA: ‘Integrated Systems, Integrated Content and Innovative Staff’. The new systems facilitated a smarter content management and marketing strategy channelled into magazines, e-newsletters, forums and subscription products that have grown the revenue base. Revenue diversification and expansion has enabled IPWEA to take on more staff that has reduced the risk of resource and knowledge loss when people leave a small organisation, and increased innovation has also been an outcome.

The new challenge is to keep a pipeline of products and services rolling through to constantly refresh the offerings provided by IPWEA. The plus is that they can be rolled out using the established integrated systems platform. IPWEA’s business model is to have a cycle of two or three new income generating publications each year, which then form the basis for new training workshops that add further revenue – with some also rolling into annual subscription products.

Chris exemplifies a successful approach to internal systems and customer-centric processes in the knowledge that it is good systems that serve good work. IPWEA invested in systems and then made sure they worked to directly serve member needs, not organisational bureaucracy. In doing so, IPWEA has leveraged growth in membership and engagement to create a virtuous cycle of innovation and progress.

After 15 years as CEO, Chris has moved to a part time role at IPWEA as International Director, and now also consults to associations in sharing his expertise.

Case Study: The Case for Technology

Organisation: Internet Vision Technologies (IVT)

Size: Over 160 Association Clients, Over 30 Modules & 2.6 Million Association Members Linked

‘Technology can make life profoundly better for associations once they address the five most common reasons for resisting it,’ says Lloyd Grosse of Internet Vision Technologies (IVT) who has worked with dozens of associations to transform their member services.

The top three resisters of modern cloud-based solutions are associations who feel their members are not technology savvy, staff or management who are technologically afraid and those who want to embrace technology but have no money. The second resisters are those who have already spent heavily on server-based legacy systems and are scared to scrap such a large investment and daunted by managing the change. The third are those with partly integrated technology across departments and are trying to make do.

‘Your technology partner is as important as an accountant or a lawyer, as a professional you need walking beside you all the time,’ says Lloyd. IVT is also the Australian Association Management System partner of the Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE).

Technology solutions are designed to reduce the administrative burden so that associations are not bound by it. The problem is that associations generally don’t like to fund administration. Integrated systems allow for an association to grow without the strain of an expediential administrative burden. Staff employed to do more events or recruit and retain members can find that the successes they achieve can result in them getting swamped by more and more administration. By definition, good project staff might not have good strategic administration skills and can inadvertently add to a burdensome system by creating new procedures that do not address the association holistically. The question then arises of who handles this burden and ensures it links with all the other systems? Paradoxically, wanting to avoid administration can create the very bureaucracy associations are looking to avoid. Technology can create structural efficiencies by moving everything online with an automated system that does all the thinking itself in line with an association’s needs, both as a best practice generalist solution and customised individual options where required.

Any fear around whether members are ready for technology or staff are capable of handling it can be mitigated by the knowledge that digital transformation is already here and growing. The simple truth is that associations will be left behind if they don’t embrace technology and change. However, caution is still required. Certainly organisations have been burnt in their quest for technology. Nothing beats due diligence, and getting real references from others who have used a system being recommended to you is critical. An even better way to mitigate risk is to engage with an established, trusted system that is already being used by other associations, who are similar to yours. If the technology has worked for so many others it means you can make yours work too. This creates a technology or software community in your sector, so that your organisation is not exposed alone. Joining an established community also provides your board more reassurance, but get references from others who have successfully embraced technology to increase your confidence.

With bespoke systems, you ‘Get what you spec,’ says Lloyd. Most providers are tech companies who have some understanding of associations but if the provider doesn’t intimately know what you need, as well as what you have said you want, this can cause problems of integration down the line, or if you grow. A community of like-minded associations sharing best practice solutions provides you benefit of the thinking of other organisations. When other associations convince the supplier to create future module updates, they may be accessible to you as well.

Ultimately, most of the processes shared by associations are the same. After all, the process around membership acquisition is the same, even if membership benefits or prices are different. The process around event management is essentially the same, even if the topics, speakers, delegates or exhibitors are different. The same is true of education, payment systems, marketing, engagement, content management and every other aspect of professional association management. The message is you are not unique. No matter how different you think your association is, it isn’t. There is nothing that any association can say about their individual needs that couldn’t be translated into universal association best practice and solutions – which is why technology works so well in transforming organisations for the future.

Cost should not be a deal breaker either. The cost-benefit analysis is always about value, not price. Say that an entry level standard association system costs $20,000. Amortised over three years, this reduces to less than $7,000. Comparing this against the cost and time savings for existing staff productivity is one way to assess the return on investment. Another is to estimate the opportunity cost of the growth inhibited by the current system, and how the technology can be leveraged to increase revenue and member engagement.

However, technology still requires a leap of faith. Associations require a technology partner that understands them well enough and also has the modules to cover growth for the future. No organisation wants to change systems in a wholesale fashion too often. The key is finding one that can be upgraded and tweaked, with a professional service level agreement that meets your needs in terms of support, training, price and response times. Every potential partner should present you with a plan that includes full back up and a test site prior to going live. Test, test, test is the motto. And don’t push the go button until you are 100% confident, by seeing a live test site and fully testing it like an outsider. Get some members to test it for you. If the board are members, insist all of them test it as well.

There are no more valid reasons for any association not to embrace technology. The efficiencies technology provides in making life easier for associations far outweigh any possible resistance to it. Questions to get started include an understanding of true cloud based thinking, the discussion of proprietary versus open source, and how to best go about the competitive process in requesting proposals and quotes.

In today’s hyper connected network economy, technology is no longer an option. It is a fundamental requirement for association best practice.