Agility or Sociality?

25th May 2021

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk makes the case forassociations as communities in which trust, authentic engagement practices, mission-driven advocacy, and sustainable values have pride of place.

First there came Time and Motion studies, then Total Quality Management and Kaizen from Japan, followed by Enterprise Resource Planning, Business Process Reengineering, 360-Degree Reviews, global consultants’ favourite Six Sigma, and narcissistic bosses’ favourite Management by Wandering Around.  Today, software rules the intellectual and economic airwaves, so it was perhaps inevitable that the language, concepts and techniques from the IT project development world would attain general management-speak dominance.

Because to be clear: when consultants and academics refer to “agility” as a business concept, they aren’t talking about dictionary definitions of common usage, such as “the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness” or “the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity.” If this was the case, it’s easy to unanimously conclude that being agile is a fantastic idea for any organization, simply by considering some of agility’s antonyms: “sluggishness”, “clumsiness”, “rigidity”.  No association or company wants to be synonymous with any of those labels! In fact, calling for associations to adopt this kind of agility is a trivial, non-contestable position.

Let’s look more closely at what is meant by agility as derived from its software development origins: it actually refers to self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their users (or clients), who together determine complex project breakdowns and priorities using “scrums”(please never call these “meetings”), and deliver each component of the project via “sprints”, short-duration time-periods designed to ensure a set of clearly-specified tasks are completed as efficiently as possible. These agile processes should be designed to be non-hierarchical, incorporate super-fast feedback mechanisms to overcome blockages, be delivered in small blocks so as to enable budgets to avoid spiralling inflation (yet somehow no-one I know has ever come across a software project that costs less than twice the original estimate!), and involve large white-boards and hundreds of coloured Post-It notes that migrate almost magically from a “to-do” column to the “completed” side of the ledger.

Asking associations to adopt this more precisely-engineered type of agility is symptomatic of a general trend towards worshiping at the altar of corporate efficiency.  “Customer-focus”(the member as consumer), “new market penetration” (grow, grow, grow), “profitability” (not worth doing if there’s no decent return), and other corporate metrics of success and decision-taking have increasingly found their way into the vocabularies and mindsets of association boards and executives.

I would argue that rather than agility, or indeed any future management theory concept from the corporate world, associations need to adopt and embrace “sociality”, defined as “the state or quality of being social”.

In other words, associations need to double-down on the attributes and advantages that they naturally possess as communities of common interest, no matter whether that interest is intellectual, social, business, or societal.

In our processes, decision-making, and business cultures, the social nature of association enterprises should play the most dominant, front-of-mind role.  We should be talking about concepts such as circles of trust, authentic engagement practices, mission-driven advocacy, and values-led prioritization. Association events should be celebrations of community and petri-dishes for bottom-up experimentation, rather than transactional educational marketplaces. Partnerships with event- and HQ-hosting cities, with sponsors and service providers should be built on shared values and mutual recognition of the societal value that associations and their events have the unique power to create.

And here’s the thing: adopting a business philosophy with sociality at its heart will make associations more responsive to their members’ genuine, long-term interests (including those driven by hugely important member-to-member relationships), it will generate more member-driven projects and innovations, it will allow the association to divest itself of irrelevant or mission-distracting activities. In fact, for an outside observer, any such association will appear to be most amazingly agile!

Martin Sirk is International Advisor to Global Association Hubs, a partner to both Boardroom Media and to #Roadmap2030, the new platform for year-round discussion of the big issues that will shape the future world of associations.

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