Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

After opening in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof held a 10-year record as Broadway’s longest running musical, and is still playing to Australian theatre audiences in 2016. In it, the poor milkman Tevye defiantly sings ‘Tradition!’ to preserve the age old customs of his village against the massive outside forces of change that seek to destroy it. Also challenging his traditional ways, his three young daughters yearn for the growth, progress and relationships of a new generation.

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Tevye’s notion of holding onto a previous time rather than moving forward into an inescapable future is just as salient for Australian associations. Associations have long maintained the traditional formalities and rituals that define proud histories. Tradition can acknowledge the past and create unity in the present by teaching respect and caring for one another. But tradition cannot provide leadership into the future. It cannot overcome consolidating markets, digital disruption, increased specialisation, intensified member expectations, reducing relevance or combat fierce new commercial competitors undermining membership offerings and retention rates. Old ways won’t open new doors.

Tradition or Innovation?
The pace and ferocity of the outside forces of change are too powerful for any organisation to even consider not innovating with the times. Simultaneously, the expectations and demands of a new generation of young members are firmly focused on future value, not past glories. Associations need contemporary tools to tackle modern threats. An association’s single most important leadership decision regarding its mindset for the future, is whether to choose to be a Traditionalist or an Innovator.

Conservative and close, traditionalists prefer familiarity, and are resistant to new ideas or change. They are supply driven in preferring to run the affairs of the association in isolation of outside events, and favour implementing the same centrally considered programs from the top down. They see their association as permanently integral to the market, maintain a position of control over all issues and fiercely protect its reputation at all costs. They believe they know what members need. They are cautious and routine. They are relaxed about growth. They avoid taking risks, protect established methods and have a business-as-usual attitude. They dislike being challenged and downplay competitive threats.

On the other hand, innovators are liberal, progressive and open. They embrace change, diversity and new ideas. They are demand driven, aware of emerging trends and alter strategy to meet the changing needs of members and markets. They initiate from the bottom up, and engage grass roots participation to build fresh initiatives. They know they must always deliver new value to maintain relevance, and operate with transparency and efficiency. They ask what members want. They are visionary, collaborative and inspirational. They are commercially savvy and ambitious. They are willing to take managed risks to grow. They relish challenges as opportunities, and tackle competitive threats head-on to find creative solutions.

Illusion of Stability
Paradoxically, traditionalists may feel safe, comforted by familiarity, but it is the most dangerous position an association can take for the future because it provides an illusion of stability. Members and markets are undeniably changing, so any association that chooses to stay the same creates a vicious cycle that will erode its relevance over time. There is no standing still, either you are moving forward or you are moving backward.

Comfortingly, innovators don’t have to be revolutionaries. Innovation is simply a commitment to continuous improvement, and adapting to new circumstances with each association choosing an appropriate pace of progress and change that’s fit for their own purpose. Innovation doesn’t discard tradition – it just stops using it as a strategy for the future. This choice to move forward is leadership, and it can begin with some simple questions:

  • Membership Needs – How well are we meeting the needs of our members or coping with disruption in our markets?
  • Internal Systems – How aligned are our systems and culture to critical mission and vision goals?
  • External Influence – How relevant is our value proposition and how influential are we?
  • Good Governance – How effective is our board and structure in respect of governance, risk and strategy?
  • Commercial Sustainability – What are the opportunities for new income streams?

No matter how successful an association, these questions will always reveal performance gaps. Innovators find solutions to answer them, while traditionalists find reasons not to. The mindset that says there is always room to improve, creates a virtuous cycle for success.

No Guarantees, But …
No individual organisation can control every threat, but each association can prepare its own ‘response-ability’ to tackle disruption and manage the inherent risk in innovation. There are no guarantees. However the downside risk of not innovating is far greater. Asking stakeholders what they need, investing a manageable amount of resources, and knowing when to pull the plug make innovation a little less scary for traditionalists. The idea is to consult widely, begin small and fail fast if necessary.

Ranked by The Wall Street Journal as the world’s most influential business thinker, Gary Hamel has this to say about innovation: ‘It’s the only insurance against irrelevance. It’s the only guarantee of long-term customer loyalty. It’s the only strategy for out-performing a dismal economy’.

Business as usual is over. Associations must innovate to deliver the contemporary products and services that the market now demands. They must innovate to tackle disruption, to create clarity in objectives, to increase income and influence, to optimise board and governance structures, to empower internal cultural change and efficiency, and to accelerate progress and future focus.

Tradition acknowledges the achievements of the past, while innovation creates new successes for the future. This is the future of associations.

Tevye’s refusal to let go of tradition caused him enormous pain and suffering. He also never achieved the other great dream he sang about … ‘If I were a rich man!’

This article first ran in Third Sector magazine, and is featured in The Future of Associations.

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