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10 TOOLS: How associations should be planning for an uncertain future

Kahan

March 17, 2017
By Seth Kahan

Now, more than ever, the landscape around us, political and cultural, is uncertain. Trends arise abruptly. Unintended consequences mix with unanticipated forces. The game changes—sometimes in a dramatically short space of time. In this environment, it’s important to have a set of tools at the ready when traditional strategic planning is too slow or not nimble enough to get the job done.

1. Keep current with developments in your business model
You must stay abreast of new developments that impact how you carry out your business. Pay special attention to breakthroughs and innovations. Consider keeping a journal or list of these to analyze them for trends.

Identify peers known for pioneering experiments. Make a point to contact them. Take them out for breakfast or a coffee and ask them what they are doing, what results they are getting and what conclusions they are drawing. Build a personal brain trust of effective innovators and stay in touch.

2. Keep current in your members’ sector
Do you know the state of your industry or profession? Actively gather new developments. Read industry journals. Find and call the data collectors and analysts who make a living studying your field. Poke around on Google periodically. Identify the large forces at play and study how they interact with each other. Seek out your most knowledgeable volunteers to engage in deep conversation. Become an expert in the state of your sector.

3. Monitor the well-being of your members
Your sector could be flourishing, yet one segment of your membership is languishing. Know how to segment your membership and watch each for stresses and successes. Take the time to interview members in each. This will lead to new ideas for products and services.

I once worked with an association that was riding a great wave of industry investment. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being poured into their space by eager investors as the market expanded. But many members were not prepared for this kind of growth. Working together with the chief learning officer, we contacted Franklin Covey, Gallup and Dale Carnegie to develop leadership training. Profits were shared with the learning companies. Although the sector was flush, members needed assistance, which they received.

4. Build your personal future-oriented think tank
Pull together the people who do strategy to help them think together and produce results. Include the board of directors, your senior leadership team, forward-thinking volunteers, thought leaders and analysts even, if they are outside your organization, and any staff who have job responsibilities that scan and collect emerging trends. It’s not enough just to interact with each of these yourself. Bring them together for a day designed to get the most from their minds.

5. Lead a special day about the future
Convene your staff. Ask everyone to identify the trends they are watching, then, together, map out the likelihood of each trend’s coming to fruition and how fast it appears to be maturing. These two observations can be combined to give you an idea of where to watch for impact. Then ask people to combine trends on similar timelines and speculate on the combined impact. At the end of the day, ask, “So what? What has real consequences for
our association, sector or members’ lives?”

6. Build a culture of productive curiosity
You probably have occasional conversations with staffers about interesting developments. Imagine a work culture where interesting ideas are targeted as a matter of course! Hold a special all-staff event to focus on staying ahead in a disruptive world. Kick off with a short educational presentation, followed by activities where everyone can speculate on how their roles might be transformed. Include games and prizes, like recognition for imagining the most outrageous breakthrough in member engagement. At the conclusion, introduce a way for ideas to be collected and shared monthly.

7. Invest in strategic foresight
For decades, the private sector has explored how far it can see into the future, and figured out ingenious ways to do it. Resources are allocated to identify trends and their impact, and ask, “How can we use these for competitive advantage?” Why not do the same for your mission? Consider the value of maintaining your edge in a world where uncertainty is the name of the game. This starts with a presentation to the board on strategic foresight—what it is, and how it works. This leads to a conversation to determine if it should be a priority for your organization.

8. Go fishing. Create experiments
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Test new ideas and learn what’s capable of traction. Bait a hook, drop it into the water to see if anything bites. Don’t pretend that thoughtful contemplation can take the place of actual trials, where the possibility exists to learn something unanticipated. Stay engaged with your market. Provide inexpensive prototypes to gauge interest and test hypotheses.

9. Take a portfolio approach to experimentation
Rather than spend all your time and money researching and trying a single initiative, keep several lines in the water. For every 10 experiments you fund, the likelihood is that six to eight will flop, one or two will break even, and one may pay for all the others. A portfolio approach spreads the risk while increasing your knowledge by multiples.

10. Keep an eye on the private sector
Silicon Valley remains keen on membership models. Watch for trends that can be easily transposed to your member-based organization. Next time Netflix or Bed Bath & Beyond introduces a new membership model, learn the details and see how they do. Their work might provide a good idea for you.

Seth Kahan is a consultant specializing in organizational innovation and strategy. In addition to assisting clients of his firm, Visionary Leadership, he is building a learning community of executives exploring the concept of strategic foresight.