Fear of change and fear of failure are the evil twins. In business, being afraid to fail is a safe strategy. Mess up and you could lose that bonus, kiss your raise goodbye, or maybe even get fired. That’s why it can be hard for people to change. The pandemic neutralized both those barriers. We all tried things we’d never done before. The fact that there was no choice made even the boldest moves seem less risky.  

Lately, I’m sorry to see that gutsy attitude waning. Leaders seem ready to return to “same old—same old.” On my recent podcast, Vivian Abalama, IOM, CAE, and I discussed the importance of innovation and change and how the pandemic created room for her group to grow.   

Vivian is the director of managed societies at the International Anesthesia Research Society. She oversees the activities of two subspecialties, the Association of University Anesthesiologists and the Society of Critical Care Anesthesiologists. She is also a veteran who served as a petroleum laboratory specialist in the United States Army.

AUA promotes excellence in academic anesthesiology through mentorship; diversity and inclusivity; and professional growth. The organization serves educators, academic leaders, and researchers. SOCCA  is dedicated to the support and development of anesthesiologists who care for critically ill patients. The association fosters the knowledge and practice of critical care medicine by anesthesiologists through education, research, advocacy, and community.

Seize Opportunity

As I write this post the annual meetings of the three organizations are being held virtually. I was interested to see that some significant content is offered free of charge and that the participants will have complimentary access to all presentations for up to three months following the meeting. Nonmembers who registered are also invited to participate in the online member communities for one month. Strategies like these are a great way to generate interest in the organization among new groups of constituents.  

During our conversation, Vivian described other recent developments that have helped both associations to grow. “AUA completed a strategic planning initiative that totally changed the organization’s focus,” She advises. “Before the pandemic, AUA’s purpose was primarily honorific. The association was created to recognize leaders in academic anesthesiology. Their new mission, vision, and goals shift the objectives to developing and mentoring practitioners and sustaining academic anesthesiology. That is quite an about-face.

SOCCA changed the focus during the pandemic.

“SOCCA, on the other hand, had begun planning before the pandemic, but the disruption pushed them to be even more creative and innovative. They changed the focus from recruitment toward activities that are specifically designed to promote engagement. As a result, membership increased from 646 to 1,135.”

Transformations like the ones Vivian described demand that boards and staff stretch in ways that may be uncomfortable. Over the last two years, I have watched several organizations act quickly to avert severe pandemic fallout such as losses in revenue or members. I was curious to hear what Vivian thinks holds people back and prevents them from making those critical pivots.

“The 3Ps are the primary roadblocks,” Vivian notes. “You have to be able to match people, processes, and procedures to the current situation.”

I asked Vivian how she would advise leaders to help them approach the future with greater flexibility and willingness to innovate.

“I have heard that some associations simply want to return to their pre-pandemic habits,” she observes. “I wonder if we are going to see a lot of backsliding. Listening to your members–discovering what they are thinking, understanding their challenges, and keeping an open mind will be critical.”

Promote Stability

I agree with Vivian’s assessment, but close observation and speedy reaction is also a difficult assignment. Members aren’t living in a bubble. They are impacted by all the disruptive forces in the market and their professional and personal needs are changing rapidly. Keeping pace means that your organization must constantly reevaluate strategy and be willing to engage in ongoing creative problem-solving.

Promote stability to help teams deal with fear of change and failure.

These are tactics leaders can use to promote stability and help teams overcome the fear of change and the accompanying worry about failure.

  • Provide the tools that boards and staff need to adapt to new circumstances. Update technology to market standards and ensure that everyone has the training to use systems effectively.
  • Build trust through transparent and frequent communication. Eliminate hidden agendas and political influences. Provide ample background, context, and data for objective decision-making.
  • Be predictable. Make good on your promises and fulfill obligations. Don’t force people to guess how you will react to a situation. You’re not playing poker. Wear your heart on your sleeve.
  • Work incrementally. Don’t tear down the house. Renovate one room at a time. Create space for everyone to get comfortable with the remodeled decor.
  • See the bright side and share your optimism for the future. Be an artist. Paint a vivid picture of where you need to go and why you want to get there. Share your vision for your organization’s success and celebrate creativity. Reward innovation and accomplishments. 

These are small moves that create stability and prepare teams for the larger shifts that will certainly come. To survive the fast pace of digital markets some groups will be required to rethink their core revenue-generating activities. I asked Vivian whether she sees association business models changing to address the new environment.

“Yes, I do,” Vivian agrees. “For my entire professional life, I’ve heard that we’re not in business to make money. And I totally disagree. Associations need revenue to give back to their members. You need resources to keep members engaged. It’s also important to have reserves to fall back on in the event of another disruption.”

Membership structure is another area where Vivian sees a need for change. “For example,” she notes, many organizations offer a young professional level that’s based on age and inexperience. But now we’re seeing people coming into the association community who already have credentials like their CAE and a master’s degree. They don’t want to be treated like a junior member. I’d like to see more open systems that focus on engagement.”

Vivian has an important point. Without adequate resources, your mission can’t move forward. Along with the organizations that made positive shifts during the pandemic, I also saw groups become frozen by the evil twins. They either refused to acknowledge that change had to occur or they were afraid that new ventures would fail. Consequently, now those associations are questioning whether they can survive.

This is not the time to retreat.  The pandemic opened a door toward a culture of innovation and adaptation. Open that opportunity wider. Start exploring options and taking steps to get rid of those evil twins and become a bolder, more risk-tolerant organization. Follow the example of AUA and SOCCA and prepare to use disruption to grow.