(Photo by Javier Allegue Barros)

One of the quickest lessons you learn when you get into the association industry is about just how slowly any change happens. 

It’s one of the things that was told to me, over and over again, when I first attended the American Society of Association Executives’ annual conference just weeks ago. Having joined AssociationSuccess.org just days earlier, my initiation into the industry was more of a jump right in. In those several days in Columbus, I met a number of association pros who pointed me in the right direction (literally and figuratively) and gave me the elevator pitches on what it’s like to work in this industry. 

“No one expects you to know anything about the association industry because we all came from other industries.”

“Everyone is SO nice!” 

“It’ll take years for anything to change.” 

That last one made me pause. Why? Why does it take so long for anything to change? 

I started asking, and the thing that came back most often pointed to how long it can take to make the decisions that actually prompt change. 

Turns out, it’s a pretty common problem in every industry. 

In an essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2015, Steve Scheier wrote of how the people who work with nonprofits recognized “the inefficiency of their organization’s decision-making process.” He joined what was then called Commongood Careers to undertake a survey of how decisions get made (or not) at 218 nonprofits, and the results were staggering. The data showed that 78 percent of managers said they were confused about the decisions they could make, and 92 percent said this increased operational inefficiency. 

In Scheier’s review of the data and the stories that came with them, he pointed at two key points that kept the organizations from evolving: Fear of failure and of conflict. 

“It’s simple. Most nonprofits live close to the edge, with an inherent fear that failure is just around the corner,” he wrote. “This constant fear usually results in a situation where a very small cadre of people hold tightly to substantive decision-making.” 

The key, Scheier argued, is in openly discussing power and decision-making, as well as creating a “transparent process” for those decisions. 

Troy Holt has spent the last 30 years worked for another industry often known for moving slowly: Local government. 

When it comes to creating a more nimble organization, he said, you have to ensure the culture allows people to focus on getting their jobs done, that they’re motivated and not worried about internal politics. 

“If people can’t get beyond the little squabbles and fairness issues, or they don’t relate well to other folks or their status in the organization is not what they feel it should be, they can’t think and be nimble and do all the things you need to do,” said Holt, who currently serves as the local government manager for the city of Roseville, California. 

Any culture change has to come from and be lived by the leadership. 

“You can’t just pass an edict and say, ‘work together nicely now,’” Holt said. 

Living by and leading through a culture change resonates with Mike Moss. 

Moss, the president for the Society of College and University Planning, has been in association management since 1992. But even with all of his experience, Moss acknowledges he’s still learning about how to get an organization to move more quickly. 

“It’s rooted in what drives me absolutely crazy after having done this almost 28 years now,” he said. “It’s probably the most obvious thing to everyone but me, but the thing that needed to change was me.” 

SCUP is deep into its own culture change, and it all started because Moss wanted the organization to be more nimble. With a staff of 20 people, Moss hoped to empower his staff to create change, not be afraid of it. 

Moss points to the old adage, “Listen. Learn. Help. Lead.” 

“I used to be the leader trying to drive the change all the time and sometimes, obviously, I wasn’t listening well,” Moss said. “… I certainly sometimes start trying to lead people into things before I help them get there.” 

The culture change work is still underway at SCUP, but Moss is confident things at the organization are better off than they were a few years ago when he started the process. To make sure, he still does a gut check every now and then, bringing in an outside firm to survey the staff to confirm things are going as smoothly as they seem. But it’s important that he remain committed, too. 

“Now, I’m living and supporting the culture that works best for the 19 people in my organization,” he said. 

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

Chelsea Brasted is the writer and editor who serves as content manager for AssociationSuccess.org. A former reporter and breaking news editor for The Times-Picayune, she lives in New Orleans with her husband and two rescue dogs.

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