A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Association of the Future

One of the most interesting sessions at the Great Ideas Conference last week was “The Association of the Future” – but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

It’s a project of ASAE and the Center, where young staff and volunteers invent and try to improve a fictitious association in a kind of test kitchen. Its mission was to improve the professional development opportunities of young professionals.

It had a four-part mantra: Members come first. No silos. Listen and then talk. Go techno.

So far so good.

After developing their initial model, the members’ early feedback was that the volunteer opportunities for this faux association weren’t meaningful. OK, stuff happens. So the staff went to the drawing board and came back with solutions sounded decidedly old school, including:

  • Restructure councils
  • Invent new councils
  • Create ad hoc groups and task forces
  • Develop partnerships with other organizations.
  • Develop new incentives and recognition programs

These recommendations all rely on tweaking governance an infrastructure, instead of questioning whether they were actually addressing what members want and need.

To several of us in the room, these were surprising and disappointing remedies, especially since the people doing the work were millennials and Gen Xers, supposedly immune from these old-school tactics!

Not surprisingly, the “member” feedback was less than enthusiastic. Among other things, they said they were overwhelmed by the number of suggestions. The “staff” admitted they used a throw-spaghetti-on-the-wall approach – see what sticks. As an experiment, this might be defensible. But in real life, it usually isn’t.

Was this project a failure? No! It was actually incredible instructive. It demonstrated that:

  • Reinventing yourself is deceptively hard work
  • Your age and generation guarantees nothing
  • It’s really easy to lapse into the familiar
  • It’s hard to re-examine fundamental assumptions, even if the association is new and it’s not even real
  • Crowdsourcing might have produced a different result. Doing things the same old way usually produces the same old result.

The staff and volunteers who presented this session have to be commended for their courage in subjecting themselves to this kind of public autopsy. I love the way they took it as a learning opportunity – one that we can all learn from as they move forward.


2 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Association of the Future

  1. Thanks for writing this up, Frank! I was one of those in the audience who were pretty shocked by the results of this experiment. I spoke to a few people about it afterwards and there seemed to be a few lessons (all generalizations, but food for thought):

    – this entire project was run by Millennials (no GenXers!) and the opinion of one Millennial I spoke to was that they need structure, similar to Boomers, and don’t have the urge to “blow everything up” in the way Xers tend to.
    – their goals of 1) supporting the professional development of Millennials and 2) being innovative and “of the future” are not the same thing; they did concentrate on #1 but not on #2
    – they did not consider how changing the PROCESS of the project might spur some out of the box thinking
    – consequently they did not crowdsource any part of the project, for example, which may have been a reason their results were so far “in the box”
    – perhaps they had no real life experience of traditional board leadership, and therefore no desire to change that structure (despite questioning from at least one participant about why have this traditional structure at all)

    These conclusions may or may not be true, but these reappeared in every conversation I had about the story. One interesting question was raised about whether it would have been helpful to have “advisors” from other generations to help with the “out of the box” thinking, and it was deemed that that might influence the outcome so they chose not to do that. I can see both sides of that idea.

    I do agree with you that their willingness to have us dissect what they did was brave, and I am interested to see how they approach the next scenario in this experiment.

  2. Thanks Maddie – great thoughts.
    I’m especially intrigued by the idea that the PROCESS sets up everything else.
    Association professionals tend to go crazy about process, since it is often becomes a substitute for actually getting things done. But in this case, a little more focus on process probably would have made a world of difference!

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