2021 Is the Year to Get Your System In Place

January 8, 2021
January 8, 2021 Jamie Notter

This is not another “2020 was a crazy hard year” post. 2020 was definitely crazy hard, and to be honest, I think 2021 is going to be just as hard (sorry), but neither of those assertions really matter.

I don’t care how hard or easy the year is going to be—because you can’t predict that. I do care that you have a system in place that will handle whatever the world is going to throw at you.

And most associations don’t. They have a system in place, but it’s frequently not flexible, agile, or disciplined enough to achieve the kind of success that I think associations should be achieving. Here’s what an average association system looks like:

Strategy. You’ve got a high-level strategic plan that has some kind of lofty target related to the three pillars of every association plan: education, advocacy, and networking/community. You spend three months at the end of your fiscal year preparing a budget (done mostly in silos, sometimes competitively), which then defines your operating plan for the year.

Execution. With the budget approved, your silos go about delivering more or less what you delivered last year. Every year, as either the early bird or membership renewal deadlines approach, you panic, hoping that whatever you’ve been doing has worked. And if not, you scramble to try and fix it. Maybe you hit up your vendors one extra time to make up for the revenue short fall. And if it DID work and you have money left over, the board usually instructs you to put the profit into reserves, just to be safe.

Culture. You get to culture if you have time, which is not very often. You may have some high-level core values, and you’ve generally created a decent place to work; turnover is not super high and most people like working here. But it’s definitely not a culture of innovation, and the silo problem never seems to go away. If things would ever calm down, you’d focus more on this.

That’s a system for leaders who want mediocrity.

All organizations have a “system” that integrates the three elements of strategy, execution, and culture. We don’t usually look at it that way—we think of those elements as separate. But they are not. They all collectively define “how you do things” at your association, and the stronger your system is, the bigger the impact you’ll have on your members; it’s as simple as that.

For example, if you don’t want rigid silos (culture), then why do you budget like that (execution), and why isn’t everyone in the organization–across the silos–focused on a handful of key priorities every quarter (strategy)? Why aren’t all the departments reviewing leading indicators on a weekly or monthly basis, so activities can be coordinated BEFORE you hit the early bird deadline crisis?

There is only ONE system, even though it has three major component parts. And the critical work for association leaders in 2021 is to build out that system more fully. That’s entirely the focus of our new business coaching program—working with senior leaders in a repetitive monthly cycle to methodically build out all the specific elements of this system, from improving your metrics, to clarifying strategic priorities throughout the organization, to reducing culture friction that’s getting in the way.

When you build a really solid system, you’ll see equally solid results. Like the next time you get hit with three big projects all at once, your people will finish them all ahead of schedule and under budget (this happened to one of our clients).

Or you can plod along and hope that 2021 is better than last year. Your choice.


Photo by Koes nadi

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.