We've Always Done it That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change
From what I can tell, the impetus for this book was that the folks who wrote it, Jeff De Cagna, David Gammel, Jamie Notter, Mickie Rops and Amy Smith, were “concerned by the instinctively conservative approach to organizational stewardship that far too many association executives and volunteers continue to pursue in the early years of the 21st century.”
I took notes throughout the book, and now I realize they are far too extensive to make a very good book review. And I am definitely the choir that this book is preaching to. However, I really, really liked the problems these folks addressed and they pretty much slaughtered and butchered several sacred cows.
This book is not extensive narrative or heavily footnoted, but it is based on the collective experience of 5 people who together have worked with many different organizations, and the collective themes will be familiar to anyone in the field.
On a meta level, this book takes observations of what’s happening in the larger world and does the translation necessary to make it appropriate for association leaders.
So, we must change some things about associations. They are organized around these themes:
Changing the way we think
Upshot: We aren’t protected from societal shifts just because we have such a traditional model. We have to lose some of that tradition and start thinking entrepreneurially—because sooner or later we won’t have any choice.
I really liked Mickie Rop’s piece on not letting uniqueness stifle growth. We’re different, so all the research and best practices and bold thinking don’t apply doesn’t cut it; I agree wholeheartedly. Also, the rousing questions asked by De Cagna at the beginning form a good, broad sketch of the climate we currently face in associations.
Changing the way we lead
Upshot: Renovating governance models and structures. Strategy vs. Strategic Planning. The necessity of outcomes and evaluation. Providing staff leadership and not throwing up your hands when the next volunteer leader comes along. Ensuring diversity among the membership and leadership of organizations.
I especially liked the piece “Outcomes Orientation for Everyone,” by David Gammel. It’s that whole “what do I want to happen here” step that sometimes gets overlooked in the face of little emergencies, but in reality, is the only reason the little emergencies exist.
Changing the way we manage
Upshot: Don’t be incompetent!
Seriously, this section was my favorite. I think every single point I’ve wanted to scream over at some point or other. I liked Amy Smith’s “End the Wild Goose Chase,” where you don’t get bogged down in these vertigo-inducing intrigues between board, committees and staff; I also liked her piece “Organizational Dashboard,” where she talks about keeping track of the metrics that really matter. JNott’s advice on handling silos is imminently sensible, and his piece on building teams is as well. Jeff De Cagna’s piece on “What if there were no dues,” borders on the heretical, YET if people don’t think that way they’re going to have some surprises coming. Mickie Rops’s “Stop Rewarding ‘Hard Work,’” had me nodding in agreement so hard I need to visit the chiropractor. If I recapped all the tidbits in this section, I’d just have to type the whole thing in here and that just wouldn’t be right. Besides, you can go see it on the blog.Changing the way we execute
Upshot: It takes us too long to do the things we do, and we have to get better at being relevant to our members—especially on the educational side of things.
I especially liked the first piece, by David Gammel, talking about the six-month meeting planning lag. This is kind of emblematic of the sea changes that we’re seeing all over the place.
Changing the way we work together
Upshot: People sometimes are difficult and cause problems that need to be solved. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Issues of cultural and generational diversity.
This is the difficult section, which dredges up all those pesky people problems. Why oh why can’t we all just get along? This section will make you think in healthy ways about what to do when you see dysfunction in the association workplace. These are critical problems when you think about it because we mostly work in relatively small organizations. Bad blood can really cause problems and you can’t just ignore it. People problems need to be addressed, so take a look at this section.
Changing the way we involve others
Upshot: This is the R&D advice for associations. How to read your members’ minds and make them happy.
My fave from this one is Amy Smith’s “Your members are subject matter experts.” In organizations I’ve worked for in the past, I’ve wanted to shout this from the rooftops. They know a lot about what’s happening in the field and so any professional association would be wise to tap into that knowledge by selectively picking people’s brains and crafting cool program components.
I know this review is pretty long, but I wanted to write down my takeaways so I can reread them. The book is very much worth reading, and I wish there were more writing so tailored to the kinds of problems associations face. You can buy the book here.