We think of technology as the good guy or the bully. It’s a silent partner in our work; and if things aren’t going well, that uncooperative software platform often takes the wrap.
My business revolves around digital initiatives. When people call me to discuss a new purchase, I ask lots of questions. During those conversations, I frequently discover that technology is only a bit player in a larger drama.
Kevin Ordonez, .orgSource President and Managing Director of Business Strategy, explains the issue like this, “Most of the time, a broken system is only a small part of the picture. There is usually a mystery hiding in plain sight. Finding the right solution requires research, observation, psychology, and logic. As a compulsive problem-solver, this is a place where I love to hang out.”
The issue could be people, processes, strategy, or a wicked combination of all three. My colleague Joanna Pineda, who is CEO and Chief Troublemaker at Matrix Group International, Inc., told me a story that illustrates how complex the difficulties can be.
Unpeel the Layers
“We were helping an association client with meetings issues,” Joanna recalled. “In the process, we learned that their conferences were a great source of new members, but retention was a problem. Attendees were automatically given a 12-month membership. When we introduced the idea of an onboarding program to boost engagement, another aspect of the drop-off was revealed. People who attended a meeting in the fall didn’t officially become members until January. By that time, the great educational experience was a vague memory. At the core of this counterproductive practice, was an outdated AMS that made ad hoc invoicing impossible.”
Dawn Briskey, .orgSource Vice President of Client Services, frequently encounters similar situations when she is helping our clients. “Sometimes the staff are frustrated because a tool doesn’t seem to support an important activity. They may be substituting awkward manual workarounds. Digging deeper, we might find that that particular need was never shared with the vendor and/or staff weren’t trained to use that feature.”
These examples highlight the need to examine your business practices with fresh eyes. Sometimes obvious answers are invisible because we’ve trained ourselves to see only one solution. It’s important to look beyond everyday perspectives toward a more creative vision. “Why” is a good word to remember. At every step in problem-solving, try to see through the layers and ask yourself “why do we do it like this.”
“People like predictability. We are drawn to continuing activities we are accustomed to, sometimes even, when they aren’t working.” Dawn advises, “It’s important to check the nagging little voice saying ‘We have always done it this way.’ The organizational culture needs to include a path for staff to suggest changes and/or improvements to processes.”
I will issue a warning here. Change for the sake of change isn’t the point. The objective is evolution—adaptation that improves. People gravitate toward complexity, believing that what is difficult is inherently better than something easy. This is especially true in the digital world. In my view, the simple solution wins every time. That multi-module AMS that promises to capture every bit of information about your members including their shoe size, might also require mega investments in human and financial resources. And there’s the likelihood of a steep learning curve for your staff.
Scale toward simplicity in problem-solving, purchasing, and member engagement. Keeping distraction at bay and training attention on what actually needs to be fixed or improved delivers a more effective result.
Take It Personally
While I am a big believer in using technology to solve problems, sometimes a human solution is the best option. Two recent examples of organizations doing something the old fashion way come to mind. Gail Rutkowski, Executive Director at the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council, believes that member engagement is one area where a low-tech approach can be very effective.
“You cannot underestimate customer service and personalization,” Gail observes, “People will ignore emails, voicemails…but if you can connect with them on the phone, which makes a difference. I call and talk with two to five members each week. Many are people whom I’ve never spoken with before. I’ve been able to get them more involved and to agree to volunteer through these phone conversations, more than through any other strategy. I personally help them register for events and participate.”
Similarly, When the Country Music Association confronted a shrinking member base, the organization made it a priority to develop an intimate understanding of their constituents’ needs. Tiffany Kerns, Executive Director of the Country Music Association Foundation and CMA’s Vice President of Industry Relations and Philanthropy, shared the strategy they used for getting in touch and establishing relationships.
“A personal interest in your well-being creates a powerful incentive to belong. Our team watches the data and member behavior,” Tiffany advised. “Then we pick up the phone and called people to find out why they weren’t participating and learn what they might need. It’s an intentional effort to develop influencers, brand ambassadors, and member loyalty.”
Listening is also a powerful problem-solving tool. I mentioned earlier, that I ask a lot of questions. When you want to find the underlying cause of a tough challenge, really hearing the answers is another non-tech skill that’s even more important. Tim Ward, Co-Founder of Gravitate Solutions, is a tech wizard who, over time, has learned the value of hearing what the team has to say.
“The importance of being a good listener is one of the things that is not so obvious,” Tim advises. “As an engineer, I’m trained to solve problems. I’ve discovered I need to stifle the impulse to rush to a solution. In situations where there is disagreement, it’s best to wait until everyone has had their say. If you try to force a solution, people become defensive or withdraw.”
Tim, and his wife Meg, promote creativity and innovation at Gravitate by creating a culture of openness. “We strive for no drama and no ego,” says Tim. “We encourage everyone to speak their mind and to identify what is not working. It’s a good strategy for getting engagement and buy-in.”
Listen Across the Landscape
The habit of listening across your association can help you to have a more accurate picture of your impact and identify challenges before they become problems.
.orgSource is frequently engaged to guide associations through business transformations. These activities involve significant shifts in operations, administration, and culture. One of our most powerful tools is a Transformation Readiness Assessment. The assessment is a deep listening device. It digs into the nooks and crannies of an organization by soliciting feedback from employees about the association’s strength across these nine domains of activity:
Although the results are not always as rosy as we would like, an objective evaluation puts everyone on the same page. This information is an X-ray view of the organization. It helps us see where we can expect smooth sailing, where to prepare for roadblocks, and how critical the need for change might be.
Organizational listening builds this type of feedback and assessment into ongoing operations. It makes hearing the collective and individual opinions of employees, volunteers, and members a strategic priority.
The last two years put the focus on digital solutions. But technology isn’t always the main character. When you’re considering change or challenges it’s good to be reminded that getting to the heart of the problem requires us to listen carefully, ask questions, and seek the answers that often lie beyond systems.