Would you say you are luckier or unluckier than most people? Many of us would say we are somewhat more unfortunate than most other people and this is a cognitive bias. Professors Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai recently published a paper about this called The Headwinds/ Tailwinds Asymmetry which I discovered through the Freakonomics Radio Podcast (this is a remarkable episode, and it’s worth the quick half-hour listen). Essentially, their work says, we are wired to notice headwinds because they are preventing us from doing what we want or need to do. The tailwinds we take for granted because they are not getting in our way. Since we strongly perceive headwinds but not tailwinds we tend to think things are worse than they really are.
Which got me thinking, we fret a lot in the association community but do we have it worse than other industries? Are associations inherently in more trouble than other kinds of businesses? Are associations more stuck in their ways, more constrained, and less technologically adept than other non-association organizations of similar demographics? Let’s explore the headwinds we are fighting against and the tailwinds that are helping us along.
Change shy – No doubt many associations are slow to change. While conducting association industry research on innovation, many respondents indicated this was true. To some extent gradual change is good. Changing slowly helps a culture of change to form. Allowing for slow change makes room for the organization to get proficient at small changes before moving on to bigger changes. While slow change is good for associations, no change is bad.
Associations busy solving the problems members had 50 years ago are struggling, but is this any different than any other business founded 50 years ago, 30 years ago, even 20 years ago? Businesses and industries of all sorts are challenged to reinvent themselves even when they can see now what the future has in store for them. Kodak could not transition to new model years ago, and it appears Apple is on the cusp of the same pickle right now. However, some associations are successfully changing, and they are associations lead by CEO’s dedicated to a long and sustained change effort.
Resource constrained – A large association is about the size of a small-mid-sized company so when we talk about resources we need to ensure we are making an apples-to-apples comparison based on some common, meaningful metrics like staff size or annual revenues. Most associations are small. When working with a small, medium, or even large association it may feel like we are very resource constrained. These budget, time, and staffing limits are real. But they are no less real for similarly sized for-profit organizations, at the same time most associations are rich in the kind of opportunities money cannot buy.
Challenged by competition – Our for-profit competitors want what we have. They see the power of community, so they are trying to earn or buy their own. They think there is a profit in conferences, so they are racing to put on their own users’ conferences. They love the business model of membership, so they are selling mostly subscription models under the member banner. They have learned that content is king and so they are writing articles and conducting research to attract the eyes of our members and build the trust that we already have. Competitors are jealous of what associations have constructed over the decades, and this is only a problem when they out value and experience us. So we cannot let that happen.
Rich in intellectual capital – How often do industry leaders get together to discuss the issues of the future? For most, not often enough but, they often do within the walls of their association. VP’s author articles, CEO’s give presentations, peers meet and share what drives them crazy with frustration and what they have done about it. All over our associations during events, in board meetings, online, and within the staff teams, we are thinking about all of the little and big issues in our professions and industries.
Community-focused – Often our members are the only one like them working at their organization, and this is lonely. They are lonely until they find their association and realize there’s a whole world of people like them. People like them who understand their frustration. People like them who are dealing with the same issues but solving them in unexpected ways or proven ways. Knowing they are part of a like-minded group, whether through an online forum or at a conference, is a powerful thing.
Trusted – While there is an underlying distrust in corporations and government we still do trust non-profit organizations. Members assume that the non-profit status helps the staff running these organizations do things for the right reasons. Association professionals, the thinking goes, are less influenced by revenue and more influenced by serving the community. Members think “they won’t price gouge me,” “they won’t try to sell to me.” Most associations also have a long history of providing answers and opportunities to their community. In contrast, many of our for-profit competitors are working hard to either earn or buy trust.
Sure, we are in challenging times, but we can still celebrate, and amplify, all the ways we have the wind at our back.