Embrace the Opportunities in Disruption & Reimagine Your Association’s Future

Disruption is uncomfortable, but don’t let it get the best of you—look for the opportunities in disruption. Maybe you work at an association that dragged its feet on allowing staff to work remotely. Look at you now!

Or, perhaps your association never gave enough attention (and budget) to online learning. But now, with associations seeing an increase in attendance for virtual conferences and other programs, you have a stronger business case for dedicating more resources to online learning.

Despite these pandemic silver linings, we’re still living with uncertainty about the future—and it’s not the usual uncertainty. Usually, we can speculate with some certainty about the next six months, but we can’t even do that now. Instead you’re dealing with a persistent pandemic, struggling economy, and increased competition for your members’ attention from other organizations.

Living with all this disruption isn’t easy. But, Molly Marsh, director of education and engagement design at AMR Management Services, provided some guidance during her #ASAE20 session, Seize the Disruption. She said disruption isn’t a choice right now, so we might as well embrace it and look for the opportunities it brings.

6 tactics to help you deal with disruptions

Molly talked about what you can do to help your organization embrace new opportunities in the midst of uncertainty and disruption. First, it’s important for you to understand the physical and mental impact of disruption.

Disruption triggers a threat response in the “oldest” part of our brain, the amygdala (aka the lizard brain), where the fight or flight response originates. When you start thinking about the implications of disruption and change, the amygdala causes your heartbeat to accelerate and your hands to get clammy. Next time this happens, here’s what you do.

#1: Pause and breathe. This isn’t woo-woo, it’s wisdom. When you take a few moments to focus on your breath and take steady, equal inhales and exhales, you stop the amygdala from hijacking your thoughts. Your executive brain function takes back control. Your heartrate slows back down to normal. You can think clearly. If all this sounds like meditation, you’re right, it is. It’s that simple.

#2: Recognize what's happening. You need to recognize what’s happening in your brain. Disruption is not a physical threat like the amygdala wants you to think. Focus your energy and attention on problem-solving so you can go from anxious sweaty palms to clear thinking about the challenges ahead. This self-awareness allows you to take a productive and opportunistic approach to disruption.

#3: Acknowledge the reality. Acknowledge the distress you feel. Analyze it for what it is. This process will help you take thoughtful action.

opportunities in disruption

#4: Practice gratitude. You can take the edge off your natural threat response if you focus your energy on the positive. Think beyond what you’re experiencing right now to find the silver linings in the situation.

#5: Let it go. We all have preconceived notions and ideas about how we do things. That mindset holds you back during times of disruption. Let it go. Model this behavior for everyone else. Look at the current situation with a fresh perspective. Cultivate a culture of new opportunity.

#6: Accept the chaos. Molly used the analogy of a remodeling project. When you’re in the midst of a kitchen remodel, you’re living in stressful chaos. You’re dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing when it will be over or what unwelcome surprise will present itself. But, the vision of your new kitchen keeps you going.

These tactics don’t take away the discomfort of disruption, but they put you in a better mindset to deal with disruption thoughtfully. Choose to think of disruption as an opportunity, like a new kitchen, not a threat.

Your association’s opportunities in disruption

How can you take advantage of this opportunity and find new ways to meet member needs?

Facilitate communities of practice

One answer could be found in another timely #ASAE20 session, Developing a “New Normal” for Association Learning Experiences, presented by Joshua Yavelberg, chief learning officer at Flying Cloud Solutions and Bucky Dodd, chief learning innovation officer at the Institute for Learning Environment Design, University of Central Oklahoma.

Joshua and Bucky believe that associations are a natural home for communities of practice (CoPs)—groups of professionals who learn from and share practices and ideas with each other.

Many associations already support CoPs. Here are some examples I found:

•    American Library Association
•    American Occupational Therapy Association
•    Association of Science and Technology Centers
•    National Head Start Association

What better time than now to introduce this concept to your membership? The need for this type of social learning has always been there, but during the pandemic, new challenges are emerging along with a heightened craving for connection.

CoPs are an opportunity for members to learn and tackle challenges together in a virtual setting. The virtual element might have thrown people off before, but now members have seen the potential in online gatherings.

Survey your members on their interest in gathering with peers to solve challenges or improve practices. But don’t do this alone. Joshua and Bucky emphasized that CoPs aren’t an education department initiative only. They’re part of an integrated learning strategy.

Your entire organization should support this association function, after all, the association has always been a learning environment. You create space—in person and online—for people to come together and learn. The membership department is a critical stakeholder in a project like this. Even your government affairs department could get involved if the CoP defines an issue and then organizes to educate policy makers.

opportunities in disruption

Rethink association jobs

Association job descriptions are already changing. Event planners had to put site visits and banquet order sheets on hold, and quickly learn about virtual event technology, attendee engagement, video production, and more. New association job roles are emerging, such as virtual event planner and virtual event producer.

We’ve all noticed a missing element in many virtual conferences, and it’s the main reason many people go to conferences: real conversations. You may have also noticed the increasing number of virtual morning coffees, lunch breaks, and happy hours taking place in the association industry. But they’ve been organized by individuals, not organizations. When associations don’t meet an emerging member need, members do it themselves.

Your members want these conversations too. They want to meet virtually for industry discussions. They also want to hang out with their peers and talk about work, their kids’ schooling, what they’ve been reading and watching, and a number of other topics—personal and professional.

Maybe it’s time for a new association job: virtual meetup coordinator. This person plans virtual meetups for every membership segment: different career stages, specialties, geographic regions (if you don’t have chapters), and more. I’m talking lots of meetups, not just a weekly one, so there’s something for everyone every week—or even every day.

Cultivate new relationships with corporate partners

Another silver lining of the pivot to virtual is a rethinking of sponsor and exhibitor relationships. Many associations are designing new year-round opportunities for their revenue partners instead of just offering them a booth or banner a few days a year.

The Toy Association launched ShopToys365, a B2B digital marketplace where toy manufacturers can connect online year-round with buyers and suppliers. The association is also hosting three digital market weeks this summer so toy manufacturers can meet with retailers who are buying for the upcoming holiday season.

Molly encouraged association professionals to become conduits of new ideas and cultivators of new energy. Set an example for your colleagues, leadership, and members, and help them take advantage of this opportunity to reimagine what you do.

virtual education
online learning
Social Learning
change management
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