Strategy

Just Say STOP!

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk looks at association performance from another perspective: what if it was all about stopping some of the things you do and not chase novelty at all costs?

Most advice on improving performance focuses on the new: new initiatives, freshly-minted business models, novel event formats, under-exploited market segments, implementing the results of a research project on what new benefits members need (right now!), and of course, new technology. Our natural curiosity and inbuilt love of novelty drive us inexorably towards taking on ever-increasing mental workloads and tighter-packed activity programmes, personally and enterprise-wide across our associations. But at the same time, our habits, our Board demands, our business cultures are seemingly hard-wired to prevent us from jettisoning any of our existing programmes and priorities.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Instinctively we understand that less can be more, that reflection time isn’t wasted time, that neither success nor progress can be measured by the rotation speed of a hamster wheel. But at the same time, we underestimate the range and volume of what can be stopped, and the enormous opportunities that can be opened up by adopting a more comprehensive “just say STOP!” philosophy. To illustrate this point, I reached out to a couple of dozen friends in the association community: chief executives, strategy specialists, and a few consultants, to get their perspectives and advice on this issue.

Common threads

There were some common threads: stopping something can be both really simple and really hard to do; it can be really simple and really powerful; it is typically quite boring to propose (especially compared to a shiny new project) but can lead to very exciting and surprising outcomes; and there was a unanimous consensus this is a universal challenge in the association world that we can all profitably engage with. Their suggested “stops” encompassed mental models, unthinking habits, a wide range of typical association activities, and a few radical big-picture revolutions!

With thanks to ISTH – Int’l Soc for Thrombosis & Haemostasis; IES – Int’l Ecotourism Soc; Going International; IWTO – Int’l Wool Textile Org; IxDA – Interaction Design Assoc; MCI Global; ESSKA – Euro Soc for Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery & Arthroscopy; ECA – Exhibitions & Conventions Alliance; UITP – Int’l Union for Public Transport; ISPIM – Int’l Soc for Professional Innovation Management; Assoc Laboratory Inc; UFI – Global Assoc for Exhibition Industry; ESTRO – Euro Soc for Radiotherapy & Oncology; EASL – the Home of Hepatology; EuropeanIssuers; ISSA – Worldwide Cleaning Industry Assoc.

As association leaders, we should “stop finding excuses why something can’t be done or changed” (Tom Reiser, ISTH), “stop stressing about what you can’t change or influence” and “stop thinking that taking breaks of time for yourself is not efficient” (both from Jenny Ennis, ESSKA). 

Switching from mental exercises to practical actions, we can “stop sending out newsletters which have ever-shrinking engagement” (John Bruno, IES – who still hasn’t managed to stop producing his, even though he knows he should!), or more broadly, why not “stop maintaining legacy products that are no longer profitable or relevant” (Nikki Walker, MCI Global), or push the boat out and “just stop your association’s autopilot: its navigation system is outdated!”(Kai Hattendorf, UFI). Want to be really radical? “Stop charging for membership! We did and it worked” (Iain Bitran, ISPIM).

Unsurprisingly, Boards were in the firing line: “Stop reporting to Board meetings, this precious time should be for discussion (but still we keep on reporting!)” (Bonny Koenig, Going International), “stop saying “yes” to every Board member’s requests” (Mohamed Mezghani, UITP), and even more challenging, “stop the Board trying to recapture where you were three years ago” (Dianna Steinbach, formerly at ISSA).

Language matters, too. “Stop talking about legacies and start talking about impact!”(Alessandro Cortese, ESTRO), and this heartfelt plea (a favourite of mine as well), “Stop saying Hybrid, please!” (Ben Hainsworth, EASL).

A particular challenge is how leaders can model and reinforce the “stopping” behaviour they want their teams to adopt. “Stop sending emails and meeting requests during off-hours (weekends and evenings) to demonstrate your appreciation of everyone’s whole life – family, friends and non-work commitments” (Brenda Sanderson, IxDA), a sentiment echoed by Mohamed Mezghani: “stop sending or reading emails on your smartphone anytime/anywhere”(ironically, this advice was sent and read late on a Friday evening!). 

Add your own advice

Martin Sirk’s article triggered some reactions from other association leaders:

+ Ella Robertson, One Young World:“Stop overengineering content – people get bored of gimmicks. Instead aim for truly excellent story-telling and clear, memorable information.”
+ Genevieve Leclerc, #Meet4Impact“Stop thinking that just because you are having a meeting (or any activity), it has value by default.”
+ Tracy Bury, World Physiotherapy“Stop thinking that a conversation isn’t action.”
+ Sarah Johnson, International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery“STOP focusing on ‘what we do’ – spend more time on ‘why we do it’!”
Sarah Fleming, SFA Connect: “Stop assuming that your members understand and believe in (and agree with) your purpose and objectives just because they are members.”
+ Mike Morrissey, ESAE President & European Cancer Organisation: Stop any early signs of internal conflict (and start facilitating a positive, constructive culture to build consensus)” 
+ Octavio ‘Bobby’ Peralta, Philippine Council of Associations & Association Executives“Stop being cooped up indoors and constantly looking at your computer screen. There’s a world out there waiting for you to explore and enjoy life.”
Anything you want to add? Just email editor@boardroom.global

Magda Mook from ICF credits her Marketing & Communication VP who challenged the entire management team to come up with five things they wanted to or could stop doing every month, after which each person attempted to stop one thing for the following month. More times than not, it worked, and fascinatingly, most of the time “nobody even noticed!”Experimentation and “temporary stops” can be very effective at getting buy-in!

Focus on the mission

It always helps to focus on the association’s mission. “Especially when staff resources are stretched (but even if they aren’t), ask if projects genuinely contribute towards the association’s long-term success. If not, stop them!” (Florence Bindelle, EuropeanIssuers), while Tommy Goodwin from ECA and Dean West from Association Laboratory Inc both advise: “Stop trying to be everything to everyone”.

Global strategy can strongly benefit from one particular “stop”: Jon Bruno advises, “Stop imagining a single office with team members in one city”. This has a particular resonance for Global Association Hubs partner cities, Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC, as we see more and more associations setting up regional hubs, empowering their geographical chapters with more responsibility, and embracing the growing mega-trend of remote working: more and more people are going to stop commuting, and associations will be able to stop recruiting only people who live within 30 km of one particular city.

My association friends have only revealed the tip of the iceberg of valuable “stops”. Association CEOs can stop involving themselves in every project, stop looking too far ahead, stop being paranoid about what their competition are doing. Associations should stop running so many in-office meetings, stop so many back-to-back Zoom calls, stop making so many assumptions about members, and stop hiring so many consultants. The list goes on and on.

But why is it that with so many opportunities for positive cutting and pruning, so many associations find it incredibly difficult to stop almost anything. There is a range of very difference reasons, each of which require different solutions:
*Ignorance
*Inertia
*Bureaucracy & rules
*Habit & comfort
*Wrong frameworks
*Procrastination
*Fear

The greatest of all these is fear: fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of upsetting vested interests, fear in some cases of success (and thereby showing up previous actions, decisions, and programmes as being inefficient or flawed). 

Perhaps the strongest solution is to build-in “stopping” as one of the centrepieces of your strategy and business culture, empowering all your management team to constantly be on the lookout for any opportunity to challenge and stop, rewarding “stops” that turn out to add value. Keynote speakers from the recent Dubai Association Conference Bo Kruger and Jason Thomson respectively advise: “Use the SKS framework – What should we STOP doing; What should we KEEP doing; What should we START doing” and “follow Jim Collins’ recommendation: You probably have a “to do” list, but where is your “to stop” list?”.

But the final, very wise words should go to Amanda Millard from IWTO: “Just STOP……and think”.

This piece is part of the exclusive partnership between Boardroom and the Global Association Hubs, which comes as an innovative response to the increasing decentralization of international associations as they look to develop their activities globally. More information at www.associationhubs.org

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