Current Affairs

Creating Safe Spaces to Support Agility

14th June 2021

For Boardroom,Tracy Bury, President, AC Forum, and Deputy CEO, World Physiotherapy argues that agility is critical to avoiding injury when it comes to changing direction – just look at sports. So, in what ways does this apply to associations?

Have you ever googled agility and seen what images appear? Take a look and you will find images mostly of sports people… or dogs! Then take a look at some of the titles for the subject matter associated with these images and you will find things such as, disruption and the pace of change, agility as the currency of success, why entrepreneurs need agility, and success comes from adaptability. So, if sporting images are heavily associated with agility in business why is that, and what can we take from that to the association sector? Or maybe Google is clever and knows I’m a physiotherapist and picks images that fit my profile! 

Many of those sporting images focused on drills associated with obstacles (so do the ones with dogs!), and with activities often associated with change of direction conditioning for injury prevention. In the sporting arena activities that require fast changes of direction are often seen as risky and the way to mitigate risk is to develop agility through practice, reflex conditioning and adaptability. 

Over the last 13 months, many of the successes that have ensured associations remain relevant and connected to their members, have been delivered because of agile approaches to leadership and agile ways of working. So were those organizations already rehearsed in agile working to be flexible and adaptable to foresee and manage risk? Whilst there might be a qualified yes for some – where that mindset and approach already was part of the culture of the organization, few would own up to foreseeing the major obstacle of a global pandemic and being rehearsed to avoid the potential injury that could result.

The needs of members

Reflecting on AC Forum, as an association of associations, and our response to what happened, we quickly focused on the needs of our members and the requirement to stay relevant and deliver value – to be there for them when they needed us. We had already set out on path of transformation as an association. We’d be working to advance our governance and business sustainability. We’d reviewed our bylaws and the requirements of membership, with members approving in January 2020 a move that opened up membership to international organizations headquartered outside of Europe. We had a new permanent secretariat just starting. We had engaged members and a strong sense of community already in place. Critically, for a small association with limited resources, we had a Board fully committed to evolving the way we worked and our activities to do what we did best – staying true to our values and purpose, connecting our members for peer-to-peer support, shared learning and co-creation of solutions. We played to our strengths – individual associations and their teams could learn and adapt faster and with greater agility by learning together.  

How did we learn together to support agility? We created safe spaces to share success stories, advice and guidance, but perhaps, more importantly, those safe spaces allowed for honest reflections on what didn’t go so well. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have… was a valuable way to frame experiences and share learning. Not only to avoid wheels being reinvented, but to move those wheels in new directions faster and with greater effectiveness and impact. We could all advance and be more agile if we didn’t work in our own association silo. 

In essence, we already had the right culture and organizational intent to evolve and with that provided the platform and environment to bring our membership together as an agile team. Whilst as an association it is important to make every member feel valued in their own right, and to respect and embrace the diversity in your membership, as AC Forum we see every one of our members as partners. By associations for associations defines who we are – we are better together. 

Adaptative responses

Independent teams, our member associations, had the freedom to collaborate with ease across our membership in creative ways that were flexible, innovative and able to respond at speed – something that has been essential over the course of the last 13 months. This has allowed our organizations to be agile in responding to the changing needs of their associations and members, supported through our strongly connected community with meaningful and trusted relationships and shared data and insights. 

Within associations good governance is important for trust and accountability, but often governance structures, such as multiple layers of committees, don’t necessarily make for fast decision making. What we have seen over the last year has been a desire to ensure that some flexibility and a review of approaches supported effective and timely decision making, including a review of appetites for risk. This was best achieved with management teams and trustees/board members worked with fresh approaches to agile leadership. 

Thinking back to the sports arena, whether a team-based sport or a solo activity, the ability to deliver personal bests and avoid injury is often associated with agility. That agility is closely associated with adaptive responses to respond to rapid changes of direction. The same applies to associations. What we have had over the last 13 months is a rapid transformation period with many successes coming from the opportunities created, supported by greater agility in the way we get things done – let’s hold on to that and we’ll stay at the top of our game! 

For associations wanting to learn more about AC Forum and membership, please visit

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