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Deconstructing the relevance fallacy: part I

Posted By Jeff De Cagna, Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Editors Note: Many thanks to Jeff De Cagna, founder of Principled Innovation LLC for being our first guest blogger.
 

As I travel around the country for both client work and public presentations, I hear a growing number of association decision-makers staff and voluntary alike - repeating a very familiar refrain: we need to make our associations relevant. Whenever someone expresses this point of view, I have a decidedly mixed reaction. On the one hand, I feel genuine empathy because relevance thinking usually is shared as a sincere, well-intentioned response to the complicated challenges created by a volatile and uncertain marketplace.  

 

On the other hand, I almost always feel a strong wave of frustration wash over me whenever I hear the word “relevance” used in this context. As a long-time association contributor who is committed, as a matter of both purpose and passion, to building 21st century organizations, it is difficult for me to view the relevance mindset as anything other than a serious threat to the real work of building associations to thrive in the years ahead. 

 

To better understand why relevance is a dangerous fallacy that associations must immediately abandon, I will use my guest posts on this blog to examine and deconstruct the fallacy by applying the three core questions that underpin long-term association thrivability: 

 

1. What will it take for your association to thrive over the next decade and beyond? 

 

2. What will your current and future stakeholders need to thrive over the next decade and beyond? 

 

3. Why should your current and future stakeholders want a relationship with your association over the next decade and beyond? 

 

Legacy organizations of all kinds are asking themselves the same questions, even if their versions use different words. For association decision-makers, these three questions provide a helpful structure for encouraging both greater discipline and greater creativity in their thinking about the future. 

 

What will it take for your association to thrive over the next decade and beyond? 

 

Over the last 25 years, the comparatively stable experience of linear change to which we have all grown accustomed has been supplanted by a profound, intensifying and accelerating experience of societal transformation, driven primarily by the relentless impact of technology on every field of human endeavor. In 2015, we are still closer to the beginning of this transformation than the end, and associations must act now to prepare for even more significant developments yet to come. 

 

Thrivability is about creating an association that can flourish in a world experiencing transformation. To be thrivable, associations need to be both adaptable to rapidly shifting conditions and resilient in the work of co-creating distinctive new value. While thrivability is about nurturing the development of new organizational capabilities for the future, the relevance mindset leads associations to limit their thinking about the future in (at least) three important ways: 

 

The relevance mindset is tied to membership. For the most part, when association decision-makers speak of making their organizations more relevant, what they are really talking about is making membership in the association more relevant. The focus on thrivability, however, challenges decision-makers to think beyond the sacrosanct orthodoxy of membership and act to develop meaningful relationships with distributed networks of stakeholders, including those who will never join, to collaborate on the creation of value. 

 

The relevance mindset ignores resistance and risk. Many decision-makers honestly believe that diminished relevance explains their organizations’ inability to realize their full potential. The work of thrivability acknowledges the true problems - the unchecked influence of internal resistance to transformation and the misplaced fear of the external risk of innovation - and focuses organizational attention on addressing those problems directly to build adaptability and resilience. 

 

The relevance mindset is not generative. In my experience, association decision-makers see relevance as something that can be addressed with a combination of fairly incremental programmatic and promotional initiatives. Thrivability, in contrast, demands a truly holistic and generative approach and, as I have previously written, “[w]hen we focus on being generative, we can create new dimensions of success both organizationally and for our stakeholders, but only if we’re willing to think differently about how we do our work. 

 

In Part II of this series, I will look at the relevance fallacy through the lens of what association stakeholders will need to thrive over the next decade and beyond. 

 

Jeff De Cagna FASAE is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, located in Reston, Virginia. He can be reached at jeff@principledinnovation.com or on Twitter @pinnovation. 

 

Tags:  engagement  relevancy 

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