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On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversityWe all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trust, safety, and learning at meetings

Trust safety learningIf people come to meetings to learn, how can we create the best environment for them to do so? It turns out that trust and safety are prerequisites for optimum learning at meetings. Let’s explore why.

How we learn at meetings

For over twenty years, we’ve known that adults learn 90% of what they need to know to do their job via informal learning. Only about 10% of adult learning involves formal classroom or meeting presentation formats.

Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.

At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.

Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and to learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.

Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.

And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.

The importance of trust

[A tip of the hat to Harold Jarche‘s post trust emerges over time, which provides the quotes for this section.]

Harold quotes philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss:

“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.
—Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?

Why people may not share their knowledge

Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:

“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.”
—Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge

So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.

Trust safety learning

This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.

Designing for trust, safety, and learning

In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.

So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.

That’s why I:

  • introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
  • create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
  • provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
  • give people the right to not participate at any time.

The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.

[For more on creating safety at events, see Chapter 17 of my book The Power of Participation.]

Image attribution: Young girl learning spring board diving at outdoor pool by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

The four meeting professionals you meet in heaven

essential characteristics meeting professionals

The essential characteristics of meeting professionals

If there is a heaven on earth in the event industry, there are four essential characteristics of successful meeting professionals you’ll meet there.

These four characteristics are essential because event professionals who possess and embrace them have what’s needed to thrive in our industry. And, perhaps even more important, they will love what they do.

Attention to detail

essential characteristics meeting professionals
Every successful meeting involves thinking about, planning for and executing countless details. You can create the most original, beautiful event in the world, but if there’s no coffee available on the first morning, attendees are going to complain and remember. Late buses, missing or confusing signage, poor quality A/V, and a thousand other annoyances will mar an otherwise superb event.

Details matter.

So, good meeting professionals obsess about details. Obviously, we make big detailed lists about things that are supposed to happen. But we also think about details of things that could happen. We even think about circumstances that are very unlikely—but they have happened before, so we keep them in mind. We plan for planned and unexpected eventualities.

Good event professionals are seldom late, because they hate to be late. Our lives are sometimes crazy, but we mostly have things together. (Even when they’re not, we have plans on how we’re going to get back on track.) The one career my parents tentatively suggested to me I might want to consider was…wait for it…accountancy. Because they could see I was a detail person.

We are detail people. Paying attention to details is vital to create and execute successful events. It’s an essential characteristic for meeting professionals. But attention to detail is not enough…

Creativity when things don’t go according to plan

essential characteristics meeting professionals
Any experienced meeting professional will tell you that the chances that everything will go according to plan A — what was supposed to happen — for an event is minuscule.

That’s why good event professionals have plans B, C, D… that cover the things that they know from experience might go wrong.

Many times, when things don’t go according to plan A, a backup plan is put into place, and the event goes on smoothly (at least as far as the participants are concerned).

And then there are the times when something completely unexpected happens. The wrong winner for Best Picture gets announced at the Oscars. A hurricane prevents timely delivery of your beautiful signage. A Thanksgiving Day Parade giant Barney balloon explodes.

A pandemic.

However much we plan, experienced event professionals know that completely unexpected “stuff” will happen.

And that’s why good event professionals need to be creative when things don’t go according to (any) plan.

It’s not a coincidence that a surprising number of folks in the meeting industry have a theatrical background. Live theater, whether you’re on or behind the stage, provides a nightly opportunity for things to go wrong; things that need to be fixed or smoothed over right now. The show must go on.

I am rarely responsible for the logistics of the meetings I design or facilitate. And I have been awed and impressed by the creative solutions devised by the poor souls who are responsible in the moment for fixing something out of kilter. I’ve surprised myself with the creative approaches that popped into my head when a session I was facilitating went wonky. But the brilliant ways I’ve seen event professionals respond when faced with the unexpected — well, I’m glad it wasn’t me in charge.

Attention to detail, and the creative ability to solve unexpected problems get you a long way towards being a great event professional. But there’s more…

Great communication skills


I’m indebted to veteran event professional Dan Cormany for adding “great communication skills” to this set. He was kind enough to tell me I possessed this quality when I spoke to a class he was teaching at the Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. He also said he thought it was essential for good meeting professionals.

I agree.

To have great communication skills, you need to be able to listen well, and have empathy for the people you’re with. You have to pick up on the verbal and non-verbal clues they provide about how your conversation is going. And you need to be able to respond appropriately, in ways they can hear you. People have written books about how to do this. It’s a difficult skill, but one that can always be improved with practice.

And it’s a great skill that will positively impact every aspect of your life.

I’m still working on it.

We’re almost there, but there’s one more characteristic that is, in my opinion, the most important of all…

Love being with people


If you don’t love being with people, all sorts of people, it’s going to be hard to be a great event professional.

Yes, everyone is flawed. We all have personality aspects that are sometimes hard for others to deal with. And there are people around whom it’s best to avoid, if you have a choice.

Although many meeting professionals are extraverts who get energy from interacting with others, there are many who need introvert-style downtime in their lives (including, during meetings). Regardless, both extraverts and introverts can love being with people.

Our industry, by definition, is people-centric. People can be amazing, frustrating, fascinating, challenging, delightful, and, once in a while, frightful. Good event professionals are capable of finding and connecting with the positive aspects of even the most difficult folks they meet. And, yes, loving them as people, even in the midst of turmoil.

I try to do this.

I don’t always succeed, but, nevertheless, my heart is there. And I know many great meeting professionals who strive to wear on their sleeve how they love being with people.

Yay for us!

My journey is our journey

Twenty years ago I was a successful, independent information technology consultant. If you had told me then that I’d leave that career (my fourth) to write a book about meeting design that would catapult me into the heart of the meeting industry, I’d have said you were crazy.

What has surprised me during this journey is meeting so many meeting professionals I like along the way. Those of you who are passionate and committed to this industry will know what I mean. I am like you, and I like you, because we share the fundamental joy of the experience of bringing people together in ways that work.

We don’t usually enjoy all the backbreaking preparation needed to make the meeting happen. It’s the excitement and pleasure we get from creating a great experience for people, in the moment, that makes it all worthwhile.

You folks who share this joy with me are my tribe. We are lucky to be in this heaven on earth community of meeting professionals.

I’m glad I know some of you, and am always happy to meet more. Feel free to reach out to me if you feel the same way.

Do you agree with this set of qualities? Are there other essential characteristics of meeting professionals you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Distracting ourselves from what matters

distracting ourselves from what mattersWe spend too much time distracting ourselves from what matters. Distraction is fine, up to a point. But when we spend two trillion dollars annually on entertainment, I’d say we are well beyond that point.

As Seth Godin puts it:

Marvel spent $400,000,000 to make Avengers: Endgame. Because there was a business model in place that made it a reasonable investment choice.

What if we wanted to cure river blindness or address ineffective policing as much as we wanted to watch movies? The business model would shift and things would change–in a different direction.

I’m not sure there’s an intrinsic reason that watching a particular movie is more satisfying than solving an endemic problem. We’ve simply evolved our culture to be focused on the business of amusement instead of the journey toward better. [Emphasis added]
—Seth Godin, In search of amusement

Seth points out that our business models have shifted away from those that satisfy needs, towards those that satisfy wants. These growing businesses make money by selling distraction from work, work that is needed to make things better.

Pandemic distractions

As I write this, the COVID pandemic has been raging for a year. We’ve had even more reasons to distract ourselves from the additional turmoil the pandemic has brought to our lives. Online streaming consumption has soared (while live event attendance has plummeted). The rise of online makes it possible to choose exactly the kind of distraction we want with a click or finger tap.

It’s hard to believe that in a (hopefully) post-pandemic future, we’ll spontaneously give up our newfound distractions. Especially since businesses are hard at work creating more distraction opportunities and temptations, making it even easier to avoid what matters.

After all, that’s where the money is.

Or is it?

A different choice

Each of us can make a different choice.

It’s going to need to be a conscious choice, because businesses craft their distractions to be as addictive as possible. They will continue to do their best to make us want things that aren’t what we need.

There are so many unmet basic needs in this world. Here are some important ones:

  • Shelter
  • Food and water
  • Healthcare
  • Safety
  • Adequate income
  • Education

None of these needs are impossible to satisfy. The human race is capable of significantly improving access to all of them right now.

Working to meet these needs is a global effort. No one person can singlehandedly satisfy these needs. But each of us can do something.

You can make a difference

Individually, you can make a difference. Each of has unique talents and energy to devote to issues that matter.

We can choose to distract ourselves a little less, and use our freed up time to make the world a little better.

Because, for our world to become a better place, we can’t keep distracting ourselves from what matters.

You get to choose. Reduce weekly Netflix watching? Stop solving quite so many crossword puzzles? Don’t play Solitaire so often? (Those are some of my choices.)

Use your freed up time to make the world a little better. (I choose to help run non-profits that provide support for healthcare and education, and to support other non-profits that work on improving the world.)

Make a conscious choice that works for you. One that supports a “journey towards better” for the world we live in.

 

 

Ask Me Anything—a better alternative to guest lectures

Ask Me Anything

Recently, I’ve been appearing as a guest at college event planning and hospitality courses to talk about meeting design. (I love to do this. Teachers, please contact me, it’s free!) Rather than lecture for an hour, I’ve been using an Ask Me Anything (aka AMA) meeting format.

Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.

I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)

But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?

Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.

Read the rest of this entry »

No, I do not hate in-person meetings

hate in-person meetingsI’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:

“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”

“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”

” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”

Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.

The tension in the meeting industry

As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.

Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.

I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.

The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now

Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)

1) Posted safety protocols are not followed

Seven months ago, I explained why, in my opinion, in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment. I assumed that in-person meetings could, in principle, be held safely if everyone:

  • meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
  • could safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • eat and drink safely.

Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!

In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.

Orlando, Florida, OCCC Together Again Expo, July 2020

This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where masks have to be temporarily removed. It’s understandably hard for attendees to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.

2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems

Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.

A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.

I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!

Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID positive attendee shedding at a safe level.

Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID droplets to travel far further than 6 feet.

In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?

P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.

3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing

Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)

Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:

“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.”
—Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed

Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
hate in-person meetings

4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not

In fact, some in-person meetings quietly acknowledge that they may not be providing a “safe” environment. One meeting venue held an in-person meeting that required waivers that forever bind attendees and their family members, and “heirs, assigns and personal representatives” not to sue if they contract COVID-19.

“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.”
—Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver

I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not even know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…

So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?

For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.

Do I hate in-person meetings?

By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:

“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE

And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:

“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”

I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.

I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.

In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.

Work on *what* to change, not just managing change

what to changeIt’s tempting and understandable to concentrate on trying to manage change. After all, we are constantly experiencing change, and attempting to manage it is often unavoidable. But never lose sight of the importance of working on what to change.

Read the rest of this entry »

Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog?

association culture Wag_39390835_03119780de_b
Who’s responsible for association culture? The association staff, or its membership?

[Association culture? Here’s a definition by Jamie Notter.]
“Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.”
—Jamie Notter, Definition of Organizational Culture

To explore this question, let’s be clear about which culture we’re talking. I view an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the organizational incarnation of a community of practice. Every association has an internal culture, formed by its staff, while existing in an external culture, its members’ relationships with each other and the industry or realm they inhabit.

In a dynamic association, these two cultures constantly interact with, inform, and influence each other. This leads us to the question.

Who’s responsible for external association culture?

Is it an association’s staff, or its membership? At first glance, internal association culture is the direct responsibility of its staff, usually steered by the board, which (hopefully) includes and represents members.

But who’s responsible for external association culture, which determines how members learn from and work with each other, and how the association impacts and influences the wider world?

Here’s how Joe Rominiecki, writing for Associations Now, describes what external culture can look like:

“It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.”
—Joe Rominiecki, Where membership and culture meet

Later in the same article, Joe says:

“If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do.

I disagree.

I think the primary purpose of an association is not to change “external culture”—i.e. the culture of its collective members—but rather to support and strengthen the culture. If you see associations as multi-purpose tools for communities of practice, then it’s the community itself that determines what kind of supporting and strengthening capabilities the association builds into its toolkit.

The internal culture then becomes the way in which the association structures and organizes itself to best support the external culture embodied in its membership.

Healthy external association culture

I’ve consulted with hundreds of associations over the last three decades, have served on numerous boards, and been a member of many non-profits. In my experience, healthy associations foster continual conversations between staff and members. These conversations develop the association in response to the wants and needs of the membership, the resources available to the association, and the pressures and challenges posed by the association’s commitment to its mission in the context of its changing external environment.

Such conversations can involve questions like:

  • What should the association be doing that it isn’t (or what should it do less of)?
  • How political should the association be?
  • How much member and societal education should the association provide or support, and what kind?
  • What useful things can and/or should the association do that individual members can’t and/or won’t?

There are no “right” answers to such questions. What’s important is that association culture allows and expects staff and members to ask them. And, of course, that there are mechanisms in place to:

  • Support the resulting conversations; and
  • Create appropriate organizational and programmatic changes when needed.

The devolution of responsibility from association members to staff

Finally, we get to the title question asked by this post: Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog? One unfortunate trend I sometimes see, especially with larger associations, is that responsibility for the external culture swings towards the staff at the expense of the membership. This is understandable. As associations grow, individual members tend to assume that the association leadership will “handle” the external cultural issues. (“Hey, I’ve got a business to run! That’s what my association’s staff gets paid to do!”) But that doesn’t mean that the staff should take over this important responsibility.

Instead, it’s vital that staff maintain a leadership role supporting how an association defines its external culture. That includes staying in close touch with member needs and wants, and the external political, social, and cultural environments. How an association responds to wants, needs, and external events, must always involve the entire association community — staff and members — so the organization responds and changes in a healthy way.

Photo attribution: Flickr user itsgreg

Don’t be a hero — solve small problems!

When’s the right time to solve small problems? The right answer is almost always “as soon as practically possible!

Why? Because small problems often become large problems if we don’t work on them in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, people don’t appreciate the value of promptly solving small problems, because (see cartoon below) we love to acknowledge and reward heroes — people who solve big problems, aka emergencies — rather than the folks who proactively solve small problems and prevent emergencies in the first place.
solve small problems

“Prevention is better than Cure. But which one makes a better story?” by @workchronicles

Two societal examples

Here are two examples of the value of solving small problems early, and the consequences when you don’t. The first is one where solving small problems in advance averted major world disruption. During the second, world leaders delayed solving small problems, resulting in millions of avoidable deaths.

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Playing games, gamification, and the gulf between them

games and gamificationMy post on gamification last week garnered plenty of comments on LinkedIn. Many responses exposed the vague ways people use the word gamification to imply, well, something good about a service that some companies provide. Like advertising’s liberal use of  improved! without explaining what’s improved, the genius of the word gamification is that it can be applied as a plausible sounding selling point to all kinds of products, without ever saying what gamification is, or specifying its benefits. So let’s explore the gulf between playing games and gamification in the world of events.

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