Ideas from our forthcoming book
If, like many of the association executives we interviewed, you are overwhelmed by myriads of new options and paralyzed by the thought of all the hurdles you will encounter, you may be sitting in a familiar no man’s land – between idea and execution—for a very long time. The question most leaders ask is: where do I start?
We have a two-part answer for this. The first is start right now. Not next week or when there will be a new chair in your board; and not until you have a perfect plan for execution and answered all possible questions. This is what thinking and operating in en environment of constant disruption requires. Learn by doing not planning on paper. Change the tone of your conversation with members; shift the focus on daily priorities; run an idea by a small group of members and test it with them–just get change in motion.
This leads to the second part: start with a tough assessment of how your organization thinks, views the world and perceives challenges. Identify and root out entrenched, often hidden, assumptions that may limit creative thinking and options; and develop competencies for strategic thinking that are in sync with your environment and market.
Our research indicated that how leaders perceived their organization’s value, their markets and the challenges facing them was a fairly accurate indicator of their market orientation and potential for growth and competitiveness. Bureaucratic, association-centric executives tended to look at tactical symptoms rather than the larger, underlying problems. As a result, their actions were largely tactical and incremental, e.g. fixing the processes for member renewal and improving communications and marketing as the way to stem attrition, rather than addressing the diminishing value of their programs and services.
Executives in demand-oriented, entrepreneurial organizations uncovered underlying problems beneath symptoms; learned from and synthesized multiple sources of information into strategic solutions, which were of far greater scope and diversity than the more-of-the-same incremental approach.
If you are tempted to discount the importance of strategic thinking as “soft” and see it as a low priority compared to, say, restructuring your membership, preparing for your conference or creating a new program for young professionals, consider what it takes to make companies market leaders.
For example, would your leadership team and staff have the foresight, market instincts, understanding of customers and creativity that led Amazon to continuing growth and transformation from book retailer, to one-stop shopping community to leadership in cloud computing? Would they be able to see the value of current assets, outside their current use, leverage it for a different market and through a different model, and launch a new business? Sermo did. Originally an online network for physicians, it tapped the value of physicians’ case-based discussions for industries that did business with health care to create a new corporate services business line.
How an organization gets from A to Z—from concept to execution and from getting customers through the doors to retaining and growing them—determines results. When organizations run on automatic pilot, primarily maintaining and enhancing strategies and systems that had proven successful in the past, the focus on operations intensifies. Operational details and glitches are elevated into priorities, process changes are debated and slowed down and “business as usual” is driven by frantic deadlines and overwhelming lists of tasks to be accomplished. The organizational energy is consumed by operational efficiency and there are no mental and physical resources left to stand back and look at how the pieces add up to a whole, let along reinvention and innovation. To survive leaders have to extricate their organizations from the downward spiral of operational thinking.
But not all strategy is appropriate for particular situations and environments, and not all thoughtful processes for arriving at conclusions are effective from bringing about the results you want.
Here are two significant market re-alignments that require different types of thinking and solutions to adapt to them and thrive
Transition from Industrial to Knowledge Age: Strategic Intelligence & Systems Thinking
Leadership and strategy expert Michael Maccoby is an expert intelligence capabilities needed in the knowledge workplace. “We are moving from an industrial society where wealth is created by products to a knowledge society that builds wealth through partnering and strategic solutions” he says. The thinking that is required to keep up with and make sense of the complexity of our world and uncover opportunities is no longer linear. It is based on constantly discerning, re-organizing and leveraging “pieces of a puzzle that are constantly shifting.” He calls this, Strategic Intelligence. Strategic Intelligence is not a quantifiable capability, like IQ, but a system of thinking that combines 6 complementary characteristics that have proven to be essential to not only conceptualizing innovative, strategic solutions but to also carry them to execution.
Foresight—the ability to think beyond what is immediate and visible, “ in terms of unapprovable forces that are shaping the future”
Systems thinking—a holistic and analytical way of thinking; “an entirely different way of seeing the world, an ability to synthesize and integrate, to conceptualize the whole rather than see it as a collection of separate parts”
Visioning –not the usual pie-in-the-sky rhetoric but the bridge that converts strategic and analytical capabilities into reality; “ the combining foresight and systems thinking into a holistic vision, then creating that vision in the real world of business”
Motivating—an ability that Maccoby considers to be perhaps the most essential for knowledge age leadership; “to get people—a social system—to embrace a common purpose and implement your vision;” to engage them as “whole persons” in ways that are meaningful to them and, as a result, unleash their potential and harness it to a company’s strategic goals.
Partnering—“understanding how each alliance—personal or corporate—fits into your vision for the company;” looking beyond individual products or your own organization in isolation but knowing what combinations of internal and/or external assets will increase capabilities
Consider if these qualities are represented in your organization and, especially, its leadership team.
Strategic Innovation: When Disruption is the New Normal
“To discover the future,” influential strategy expert, Gary Hamel says, “it is not necessary to be a seer, but it is absolutely vital to be unorthodox.”
By “unorthodox” Hamel refers to the ability to think and create outside the confines of existing categories and the willingness to constantly learn, reconfigure, adapt, experiment and re-invent. For Hamel, the degree of change is so enormous that even change, itself, behaves differently than it did in the past and looks nothing like what we associate with change.
“For change has changed. No longer is it additive. No longer does it move in a straight line. In the twenty-first century change is discontinuous, abrupt, seditious.” (Gary Hamel)
In other words, it is no longer enough to “change” an aspect of your business. You have to innovate on a larger scale, changing the categories rather than fine-tuning products within them. Amazingly, most association executives do not realize the extent of their capability gaps that block the options that will take them to a different future. As a result their efforts focus on developing new products and strategies.
All our established institutions—business, educational and non-profit alike, Fast Company’s Robert Safian says, —are built on assumptions of predictability and made to manage efficiency rather than fuel continuous reinvention. Our challenge is to extricate ourselves from our comfort zone–the constant pursuit of stability– and invest, instead, in building new capabilities for instability. No amount of planning, accumulation of data, investments in new products and technologies or speculations about the future will improve results, for example, if your association does not have the most fundamental capabilities for doing business in the age of flux: innovation, entrepreneurship, speed and agility.
Changes in the outside world have far outpaced the incremental improvements in most associations. The intelligence capabilities needed to perform routine tasks, manage or make product and process innovations within the same model and categories are very different from those needed to perceive and act on opportunities that do not fit in existing categories, or to reinvent entire models. If you channel the pursuit for new ideas and levels of growth through the limited channel of narrow, operational thinking, you will not get to your destination. And if you magically get there, you will not sustain your new position.