Consultants see everything—from organizations that make Dunder Mifflin look like a tight ship to associations that could teach us a thing or two. We focus attention on what the most successful groups do right.

At .orgCommunity’s June 9 Innovation Summit, Kevin Ordonez, .orgSource President and Managing Director of Digital Strategy, and I gave a presentation on excellence. Our recommendations were based on the paper that outlines .orgSource’s framework for success, “Pathways to Organizational Excellence: The Journey to Association 4.0™.”

We began by asking participants to share their opinions on what it means to be an excellent organization. As you might expect there were a variety of responses.

Our answer was this: Excellence means providing value to customers and members, industry, and the public. Our presentation outlined seven steps that organizations can take to deliver what those constituents will want and need both today and in the future.

Before you take that journey, there is an important leap to make. This story illustrates my point.

Be Courageous

I was working with an organization that had experienced a recent leadership change. The previous CEO was a “traditionalist” (that’s a euphemism). His management style was reflected throughout the organization.

Although multiple redundant and outdated work practices begged to be addressed, a small thing immediately caught my attention. Several times each day, someone tripped over an area rug that was in front of the door to the conference room.

When I suggested that it might be a good idea to get rid of the dangerous obstacle, I was surprised by the resistance to this insignificant but important change. Staffers questioned who had the authority to make this decision? They worried that the boss would be angry and thought there might be other unforeseen consequences. The fear about moving the rug was real. It belonged to an era when the status quo ruled and the CEO was keeper of all decisions.

I parked the accident waiting to happen in a closet. There was a huge sigh of relief when the new CEO never noticed anything different. With the literal stumbling block gone, other changes came more easily.

The courage to do things differently is a fundamental quality of excellence. Once you accept that reality, these seven attitudes can help you to become an organization that sees each challenge with fresh eyes and removes anything that stands in the way of success

1. Understand the Imperative for Change

Forward thinking leaders make monitoring their place in the business community routine.

Business as usual was never a good option. Even when the disaster on the front page isn’t in your backyard, technology, the market, and customer preferences constantly evolve. Jamie Notter, Co-Founder at Propel, who also presented, got it right when he said, “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” We can’t look back. Reaching for excellence means studying the future.

Forward-facing leaders make monitoring new professional developments and their place in the business community a routine process.

From the top on through the organization (Notice I don’t say down—acknowledging the value of staffers at every level is another component for success.), staying in tune with the latest trends and technology will help your association maintain the lead.

2. Organize the Effort

Change is difficult when ideas get buried in layers of bureaucratic wool. A complex governance structure or outdated management model keeps associations from taking an aggressive and agile approach to opportunity.

Don Dea, Co-Founder and Owner of Fusion Productions, made a comment about the future that has stuck with me. He said, “Associations will need to find and hire terrific athletes. Talent who can quickly build new models and leverage data to create products and services that didn’t previously exist.”

To innovate, solve problems, and manage change, you need the right people in the right seats. The CEO, as chief change officer, along with members of the management team sets the example. 

Create a leadership framework that is right for your organization but be sure that it is cross-functional and includes diverse thinkers, perspectives, and opinions.

3. Ask Questions

Ask compelling questions.

Questions are the seeds for change. Sharon Rice, .orgSource Managing Director of Business Strategy, believes we’ve got it backward. “Business transformation doesn’t start with a strategy,” she says. “It begins with asking the kind of compelling questions that trigger innovation and drive growth.”

Challenge yourself and your team by exploring fundamental questions about your operations and business model, such as:

  • Why does our organization exist?
  • If our association did not exist, would industry leaders create it?
  • If not, why not?
  • Should our business model change over the next 5 years to be relevant? 

Consider what your organization can do to deliver new value. What services, products, and intangibles attracted members in the past and how can those benefits be updated? Ask whether you can extend the boundaries of membership beyond current constituents.

The fact that a curious approach to business is rare among associations suggests the challenge may be greater than simply overcoming habit. Sharon notes, “We’re reluctant to ask big, compelling questions because we imagine that we don’t have, or can’t access, information that would help us to discover answers.”

4. Analyze the Situation

Actually, associations have a wealth of data to draw on. The right technology makes this important resource available. An efficient tech stack will produce analytics and dashboards to develop key performance indicators and allow you to set goals based on real-time information.

These are areas where data gathering and the related KPIs can help to assess and predict performance:


  • How are our demographics changing? What does their behavior indicate about future needs?


  • What is being purchased? What is trending up or down?

Distribution systems

  • What are the trends for face-to-face activities? What are the trends for virtual activities?

Organizational efficiency/operations

  • How are employees meeting their individual goals? What is the staff retention rate?

Financial performance

  • What are our gross and net profit trends? What are our cash flow trends?

5. Plan for the Future

Use KPIs to predict future scenarios

In addition to solving current challenges, KPIs can be used to predict future scenarios. Responsibility for the decisions that make or break an organization is the tough side of leadership. Selling a solution to everyone who must agree can be even harder. One way to avoid the most challenging calls is to stay ahead of them.

Tools like scenario planning and decision trees help you to see around the corners. At .orgSource we talk a lot about the value of adaptability—or the willingness to pivot when plans are derailed by the unexpected. Scenario planning allows you to develop short, mid, and long-range strategies with flexibility baked into the design. It can also help gain traction in a crisis. It is a critical competency for change management.

Membership is a good example of an activity that every organization can use data and scenario planning to study. Online education and social platforms put membership in a trade or professional association squarely in the eye of disruption.

In the past, new professionals were motivated to join by example. If their colleagues and supervisors participated, it was a given that they would as well. Organizations willingly paid their employees’ dues and other fees involved in membership. More recently, younger professionals have multiple options to choose from. They are looking to belong to a group that mirrors their culture and interests. Associations must learn to provide cross-generational engagement.

6. Create the Roadmap

Directors and managers operationalize initiatives,

After you’ve asked questions and analyzed data, strategy is your roadmap to the future. But here’s a common scenario. The board goes on a three-day planning retreat. There is a substantial output of financial resources and volunteer effort. The product is an elegant document. Whether the plan:

  • Disappeared in the cloud
  • Missed the major disruption on your association’s horizon
  • Or frustrated the staff so thoroughly that they tore it into confetti and dropped it at your feet
  • The bottom line was, your association didn’t get where you needed to go.

This problem results from a narrow planning process. A holistic approach is better suited to manage volatility and disruption.

“An integrated planning process allows the board to do what they are best equipped for—setting the vision,” Sharon advises. “Identifying business strategy falls to the executive leadership team. Then, directors and managers are responsible for operationalizing initiatives. The process cuts across the entire organization, and there is constant communication among staffers and departments to ensure alignment. The CEO is the hub that turns the wheel. That leadership commitment is critical to ensure that the work becomes an organizational priority.”

The final step is the board’s approval of the budget.   

7. Foster Innovation

Innovation is a distinguishing characteristic of every Association 4.0 organization. When I talk about innovation, I can see people asking themselves these questions.

  • Why is innovation so important? Aren’t associations mission-driven?
  • What association has the resources to produce a constant stream of new products and services?
  • Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on operating efficiently and delivering quality customer service?

The short answer is without an innovative approach it will be challenging to perform at the level the marketplace demands. The consumer environment is filled with options and opportunities. Buyers increasingly control what, when, and how they make a purchase.

The longer response is that innovation is about more than making new stuff. It’s an attitude that constantly seeks opportunity and advantage through problem-solving. Rolling out a new educational podcast because that’s what is trending is far from the point. But if the initiative answered a challenging question or delivered greater member value and you used research, data testing, and iteration to guide the decision-making, that process puts you in the right zone. Promoting intellectual curiosity and giving creativity the encouragement and recognition to thrive are defining characteristics of an innovative organization.

Innovation is continuous quality improvement. It is the willingness to be deliberately uncomfortable. You can take a moment to relax and bask in your accomplishments, but you can never stop raising the bar or asking how you can meet new goals more effectively.

Remove Obstacles

Don’t let fear of moving the rug be an obstacle on your journey to excellence. Change incrementally. Pick simple projects with a goal of learning. Test, evaluate, and determine what fits best for your group. Success has its own momentum. Once the ball starts rolling, it’s difficult to stop.