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Author: Claude Paul Boivin, CAE

Living in the moment is not the Board’s role

‘The staff manages today and the board manages tomorrow’ is a phrase that captures very well the respective key roles of the leadership of an association that has an effective governance structure. The reality, however, is that far too many association Boards are investing an excessive amount of their time and energy on current operational matters instead of on the future, and on what that future holds for its dues-paying members. With corporate scandals all around and auditors lurking everywhere frantically brandishing words like ‘fiduciary responsibility’ and ‘due diligence’, Boards can easily become fixated on their oversight role and literally trapped in the past and present. This drift away from the association’s essential ‘raison d’être’ of protecting and supporting its members has to be reversed. Association leaders cannot lose sight of the fact that an association does not exist for the sake of the association – rather it exists to help its members be more successful. Associations do this by championing their members’ causes and by assisting them in meeting tomorrow’s challenges and responding constructively to the opportunities and threats they bring.

The Board’s focus must be on the future of its members

Board members that truly want to manage rather than lead, or worse yet, micromanage, must become futurists. They need to adopt a systematic and undeviating focus on the future and make it a strategic priority of the association to understand what is coming down the pike for its members. A very first step to becoming a forward-thinking organization is to insist that an ongoing environmental scanning process be put in place. An annual environmental scan report should be the foundation of the Board’s critical mission of looking after the interests of members. A robust scan will allow an association to forecast and gauge emerging issues, future trends and ‘megatrends’. The ultimate goal must be to serve members by identifying, analyzing and assessing the threats and opportunities that their industry or profession will likely be facing, either imminently or in years to come. Knowing what the future holds for members should be the starting point for the development of an association’s priorities, strategies and programs.

 Organizing the future through Megatrends

One effective way of identifying, analyzing and assessing the future challenges, opportunities and threats facing association members is to assemble these emerging issues into ‘megatrend’ categories. Megatrends can be defined as a convergence of several emerging issues and critical trends that has the potential to lead to major changes in the industry or profession that an association represents. Deciding on what constitutes a megatrend can sometimes be as much art as it is science. Some megatrends can be arrived at instinctively while others can only be identified through elaborate and ongoing data collection, research and analysis. In either case, megatrends need to be organized in a consistent and exploitable manner, and the most effective way of doing this is through an annual environmental scan.

An environmental scan need not be an overly complex exercise. Of course, the more sophisticated the methodology, the greater chance there is of being more precise and reliable in forecasting impactful trends. A thorough scanning report, for example, will include a ‘PEST’ analysis, which summarises the political, economic, social and technological factors of possible influence. A comprehensive scan will also contain an examination of related sectors. But, when resources are limited, an uncomplicated scan that simply identifies a few megatrends can nonetheless be valuable if it generates thinking, dialogue and debate among the association leadership and membership. Starting small and progressively expanding the environmental scan from year to year is a practical approach to consider. What is unacceptable, though, is not making any attempt at all to look at the future and at what that future means to members.

What, so what, now what

The identified megatrends, which are the heart of an environmental scan, are examined and analyzed through three simple questions: What?  So what?  and Now what?

  • What - Highlights the key emerging issues and trends that constitute the megatrend.
  • So what – Summarizes the potential impact of the megatrend on the industry or profession.
  • Now what – outlines options that the association or its members can consider in response to the opportunities or threats brought on by the megatrend.

Preparing a simple chart with the list of a few possible megatrends and answering the above three questions is a first step to incrementally building a workable environmental scanning report over several years. A second step would be to categorize the potential impact of the megatrend under three broad categories: ‘emerging’ (longer-term); ‘escalating’ (medium-term) and ‘critical’ (imminent).

The environmental scan as a central member service

The annual environmental scan with the identification of megatrends should be designed and promoted as the single most valuable intangible benefit that the association offers. For the membership, the megatrends can be employed as an instrument to engage in a collective reflection on the future, and on how to deal effectively with the changes and challenges it brings. This can be done through articles in the association magazine or through dedicated forums at annual conventions or speeches by senior association officials that raise strategic questions and stimulate discussion and debate. For the leadership, the results of the scan should be used as an impetus for realigning and refining the related association programs and services such as advocacy campaigns, intelligence gathering, data collection, strategic alliances and other activities that support the association’s objectives for the future.

Managing tomorrow

Association Boards cannot let themselves be distracted by current operational matters and waste their scarce time and resources managing today. The future of their members deserves more than perfunctory attention or benign neglect. Yes, it is unavoidable that Boards get caught up in the short-term, but it is unforgivable that they ignore the long-term. If the fundamental goal of an association is to ‘help its members be more successful’, anticipating the future and alerting members to major changes that may affect their professional or personal lives must be developed as a prime component of the association’s value proposition. In short, the future must become the association’s priority.

The above is an excerpt from the released book, In Your Face! Canada’s Association Leaders get Candid about Today’s Pressing Issues, published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives.