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Curiosity in the Art of Adaption- The Learning Pillar

Throughout our lives and particularly as we reach adulthood we hear the phrases “be a continuous learner or learning never stops.” It’s a simple truth, but not practiced frequently enough.

The first of the three pillars of the Art of Adaption is curiosity (The Learning Pillar). We cannot hope to garner the trust that is necessary or develop respectable standards of accountability if we are not curious.

As one advances up the staff career ladder or assumes a position on a board of directors the necessity for being curious, the desire to learn or know more becomes increasingly important. Boards of Director Members regularly receive introductory orientations. This often includes policies summaries , procedures, their fiduciary responsibilities, and legal structures. How often are they ask to be inquisitive? Are they encouraged to bring to the table new and engaging thoughts and ideas? It is not that directors haven’t the capacity for this curiosity, but rather that it is frequently stymied by the procedural role of the director. They receive a mountain of reports, and numerous presentations about ongoing programs and activities. In some cases, the role or their selection was primarily to enhance fiscal stability, to raise funds, or facilitate some perceived balance in geography. And of course, they are taught the basics of their fiduciary responsibilities; care, duty, and obedience. They are fed much of the whirlwind that staff face each day. Rather than enhancing the boards oversight and future thinking responsibilities, a great deal of time that should be devoted to long-term strategy and future thinking is diminished by a dirge of written and verbal reports that limits their time and avoids discussion of potential futures.

On the Executive Staff side, individuals have risen to their positions as CEO or COO, etc. and are busy in the day-to-day whirlwind of institutional work. Now that the industrial age has transitioned to the new knowledge or internet age or whatever we decide to call this new era, it is important that boards and their chief executives be more curious than ever before. Knowledge about our specific areas of expertise is a necessary tool in the process, but not an end in itself. Knowledge is always important, but knowledge alone is not enough. What we learn and know must be put into action.

Developing our thinking and analytical skills is more important than ever. We must learn to use that knowledge through profound, deep, probing, powerful questions in order to adapt to the new ecology. It is important to add a desire to look at potential futures.  Learning how those futures affect the vision and sustainability of the organization is a function that should be fully developed. Technology strategy is yet another area for development. Repeat, strategy! One does not need to be a technologist to develop the technology strategy. Apply technology in support of the mission, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the optimization of existing practices can be handled by staff. However, being data hungry is not only a IT function. Making sure the data is health and useable comes with knowing the organizations strategic technology objectives. Obtaining analytical skills that were not as necessary in previous periods will make it possible for the organization to adapt to the new ecology the world has left at our doorstep. While it is not the Boards job to do the work, it is the boards job to know if the organizational  strategy is enhanced by what the technologist are doing.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” How passionately curious are CEOs and boards relative to the learning, knowledge, foresight, and thinking skills which are necessary in the interdependent environment in which all of us and particularly associations must live.

There are countless tools associated with the Learning Pillar. The following is not an exhaustive list but rather a starter set.

  • Reading, not just about the organization’s area of focus, but about organizational development, the vast interdependent nature of the new ecology in which the organization conducts its business, and a thirst for the tips of new thinking about institutional as well as current mission focused activities.
  • Learning to ask powerful questions. I would recommend as a start the pamphlet book “The Art of Powerful Questions.” It may be found at:
  • A continuous scan of the political, economic, social, and technological world in which the work of the Association is conducted. The internal and external scans generally associated during the strategic planning process should not be limited to that function. Rather, there is a need for continuously scanning of broad external areas. That is the advantage of PEST over the SWOT Analysis. For a PEST analysis, you might use a free tool such as:
  • Learning the new skills of data awareness. From data collection through predictive and prescriptive analysis and the enormous alterations that artificial intelligence (AI) bring to the debate must become a regular part of the board and staff tool kit, and
  • Staying in tune with the organizational and mission specific literature associated with the vision and mission of the organization.

The Curiosity Pillar is but one of three interdependent pillars for long term organizational success in the evolving ecology that requires us to learn to adapt so as to succeed and thrive.
Do not forget, our clients, members, allies, confidents, and competitors are just a mouse click way from loving us, checking us, condemning us, or promoting us. And, with voice recognition advancing every day, the mouse click itself may soon pass away.

Without applying the pillar of curiosity, our lack of inquisitiveness will make us less competitive in an ever more competitive environment. Without curiosity, the desire to be a continuous learner, there is little chance that the long-standing traditions of the Association community’s mission will survive the new environment. The Art of Adaption process is designed to help Association Executives and Boards fostered and actualize the many potential futures we face.

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The Art of Adaption Overview for Boards and Executive Staff

Finding a path to travel on a journey to adapt to the new environment of the knowledge driven economy requires more courage than previous shifts. We need a better understanding of the shifting plates on which organizations inhabit the earth. Permit me to suggest that there are three pillars in the Art of Adaption:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Being an Action Visionary, and
  3. Sustainability

Why do organizations and CEOs need to adapt? Adapt to what? In the 21st Century ecosystem, where economic, social, demographic, and technology are permanently invading the climate and culture, we need to recognize the impact on our institutions. Darwin said, “It Is NOT the Strongest of the Species that Survives, but the Most Adaptable.” Our organizations very sustainability, our existence requires us to make sure that we learn the lessons of all living things. Learn how to adapt or slowly but surely become extinct. This is true for not only the organization, but particularly for the CEO. The climate is different and our programs, operational practices, and visioning needs to adapt to the new environment in which we exist.

Association CEOs and Board Chairs are facing the challenge of courage over tradition and short-term thinking over sustainability. Today, we are confronted with an extraordinarily fast-changing social, economic, political, and technological environment. Whether here in the United States or across the globe we must come face-to-face with the reality of a more complex and interdependent environment. While paradigm shift has been underway for several decades, associations have been slow to heed its warnings. Like all operational and cultural shifts it takes some time for them to be fully appreciated and accepted. Far too often we are relying on quick fixes. These fixes include: software over strategic technology development, tactics over strategy, and outmoded governance structures. Current governance structures are a particularly difficult problem. Today, many structures are more akin to the outgoing industrial age and lack the necessary vision of an evolving knowledge driven society.

Organizations must learn to adapt whether they are individual member driven institutions, trade organizations, or foundations. It is not that times are changing, it is that times have changed!

The obstacles to making this transition are not to be underestimated. Some of these obstacles sound like the same things that inhibited more sustainable development in years past. These include: time, gaining trust within the organization, including its executive and board leadership, staff, and volunteer groups. The sheer volume of information and help groups available to try to balance this challenge against the status quo may not be providing the in-depth process development that the new environment requires. Courageous leadership will be necessary on this journey. Add huge shifts in demography, demographics, the economy, social changes, and the accelerated speed with which they occur and we face the need for new models and processes, better thinking, and reflection on the standard practices that have brought us to this place.

Providing data fairly presented to governance and staff that broadens their perspective roles and responsibilities against the traditions and often the well-meaning desire to preserve the status quo against the tumultuous changes may be an uncomfortable role for the executive, but clearly required. The level and need for meaningful data and the analytical tools and skills to use that data to support responsible understanding and predictions about the future is sorely lacking in most of our associations and foundations. At least in the foundation world the idea of understanding and predicting donor behavior is more common place. Unfortunately, throughout the individual member and trade organizations, this level of analytical skill, data collection, and foresight is less operational.

Recognizing that we live in a much more complex environment that moves knowledge and opinion at the click of a mouse is uncomforting while at the same time reality. Our planning savvy is inhibited by old methods and the uncomfortable knowledge that many plans put on paper are never given the light and fertilizer of actualization in the daily operations of our organizations. Organizations are stymied by a whirlwind of daily tasks and functions which substitute for being an action visionary and building a sustainable future for the institution’s mission. And while it is unlikely to quickly and dramatically change in the short term, internal organizational jargon, as well as consultant jargon, may have a tendency to dance in the ballroom of past successes rather than the dreams and actualization of the futures we face.

There is a long arc on which these pillars hold up the organizations of the future. These pillars are not silos, but rather an interdependent flow through a multi-year journey. They must operate with both focus and agility to build success. Each pillar requires the interplay of curiosity, action visioning, and sustainable development. One without the other is not a path to success.

The following pictorial is a summary of the three pillars:

Pillar ONE – Curiosity (The Learning Pillar)

  • Learning to ask powerful questions
  • Acknowledging the ecological changes associated with demographic, economic, technological, and social changes
  • Staying in turn with the organizational and mission specific literature
  • Providing uncomfortable data, fairly presented to governance and staff, that broadens their perspective role, responsibility, and insight
  • Learning new analytical skills which promotes a reasoned approach to the complexities of modern society

Pillar TWO – Action Visionary (The Balance Pillar)

  • Strategy First
  • Technology as Strategy
  • Facing Uncomfortable Truths
  • A Governance Model for the future
  • Creating a shared understanding of the issues on which to build partnerships, alliances, and drive a forward thinking agenda
  • Planning savvy
  • Recognizing the speed of change and its impact on the new ecology of work and mission

Pillar THREE – Sustainability (The Power Pillar)

  • Capacity and Confidence Building
  • Meaningful Measurement
  • Optimization
  • Long-Term Development
  • Technology integration
  • Fiscal Strength

Future posts will explore the depth of each pillar, and the processes and learning required to seek the many futures that the new environment will force us to adapt too or be diminished.

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