Current Affairs

Associations & the Uncertainty Principle

Although we obviously can't predict what the world will look like in a few months, Martin Sirk argues there are a few things associations can do to navigate - and make the most of - this age of uncertainty.

We exist in a unique moment in time, and struggle to make sense of both history and what is to come. We have no firm grasp of what the future will really look like, yet in a few months we’ll probably be hard pressed to find anyone who admits they didn’t predict how things turned out. 

Humans are prediction machines. It’s how our ancient ancestors survived long enough to pass on their genes. We have a deep need to feel certain in what we know and what this tells us about the future. But anticipating the behaviour of wild animals, tribe members and potential enemies is massively different from predicting the course of complex, globally interconnected, feedback-looped modern economies, and the mass behaviour of millions of networked groups and individuals. Especially when all our established assumptions and perceptions are shown by an existential crisis to be mistaken!

We are living in the Age of Uncertainty. We have probably already been here for at least 20 or 30 years, but we’ve managed to ignore this fact, by and large, thanks to a combination of self-denial and distraction. We’ve been writing 5-year plans; we didn’t give a moment’s thought to how food arrives on our table; we created complex, detailed narratives to explain past successes and failures, as well as to map out our hoped-for futures. 

Let’s consider just a few of the things we definitely DO NOT know right now: whether the price of oil will approach $10 or $100 a barrel in twelve months’ time; if the position of hotel receptionist will be extinct by 2022; who will be allowed to fly where, when and how, and who will even want to; what the global supply chain will look like, or whether there will even be a “global” supply chain in the relatively near future; whether international collaboration or national authoritarianism will become the dominant model; whether increased working from home will lead to more freedom or more surveillance; what will be triggered by the simultaneous, unimaginably large levels of national, corporate and individual debt in the world; what and who are going to be insurable, who will be liable for what, and even whether the insurance industry remains viable.

And, of course, how many of our individual association members will still have their jobs next year, and how many of our company members will exist in three years’ time.

This is really just a tiny fraction of the total number of known unknowns, before we even start trying to imagine the unknown unknowns!

What can international associations do in such an environment? Here are some thoughts

Don’t try to obtain certainty! It doesn’t exist, no matter how emphatically your Board insists that you identify and produce a fully costed report about it.

Differentiate between existential risk and day-to-day risk – do everything possible to ensure your survival no matter how bad things get; BUT be prepared to experiment, launch new products, services and business models, collaborate with the strangest partners. Trying to get back to the old way of doing things or attempting to minimise all risk are the riskiest of all approaches. 

Throw out your Board’s old-school strategic planning model – as long as you’ve got a clear Mission that can guide your direction and a culture that members believe in, you need to embrace maximum flexibility and agility. And exploit every resource within your community to the full – not just financial input, but the specialised skills, knowledge, relationships, etc of your members. Your staff won’t be enough to get you through the coming times, no matter how hard and creatively they work.

Martin Sirk is the owner of the strategic consultancy, Sirk Serendipity, and was previously CEO of ICCA, the International Congress and Convention Association. His clients include Global Association Hubs Partnership (Brussels, Dubai, Singapore & Washington DC), the International Society for the Study of Pain, the content curation tech start-up, Kubify, IMEX, SITE and UFI.

Adopt an output-driven model for your live and virtual events strategy – if you can’t prove to all stakeholders that your activities are going to generate concrete societal or business progress and solutions to important challenges, they’ll start to drift away to events and organisations that can. Don’t be tempted by short-term revenue goals into producing masses of commoditised, generic, webinar-type content.

Respect your members’ time. There’s going to be more competitive pressure than ever before in human history for the sixteen waking hours we all have available: companies desperate to survive screaming out for attention; ever more online replacements for physical services; vastly more “stuff” to read, click-through, or delete; competition from the most unlikely places, as further digitisation and automation open up new channels and ways of packaging content. Carefully pick your time to engage, and when you do, make sure you do so with 100% commitment, offering amazing Return on Time Spent, with unique, personalised value.

Nurture your organisation’s soul. Many members and staff are going to require a lot of help over the coming months and years, and virtues like compassion, empathy, and charity will go a long way towards keeping your community intact. This is where associations have a clear advantage over profit-maximising corporations: think back to the professional or scientific friendships and shared passions that first brought your association into existence, pay attention to today’s powerful member circles of trust and the many collaborative projects that they have launched into existence. In the Age of Uncertainty, these bonds will provide the energy and sense of belonging that will keep your association afloat.

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