Interview: Jeff de Cagna

Written by Maddie Grant on March 22, 2016

Last week, I sat down at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference with well-known association contrarian Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC. Jeff challenges association decision-makers to think differently about the future and embrace the generative work of transformation.

Q. We’ve all heard the cliché that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but how do culture and strategy interact with each other in your experience?

A. There is no question that culture influences the way association decision-makers think about strategy, make strategy and implement strategy. My concern with this “culture first” orientation is how it leads associations to frame important strategic conversations in cultural terms instead of focusing on building the right organizational capabilities to perform the underlying work. Take innovation as an example. I hear association decision-makers say, “We need to build a culture of innovation first.” Why not just start by innovating with the organization’s stakeholders and shift culture through the work itself? Otherwise, the association may miss out on important opportunities to create value.

In addition, it is critical to recognize that there isn’t a single organizational culture, but multiple cultures operating in and around associations. There is staff culture, board culture, a broader culture among voluntary contributors, membership culture and the culture of the industry, profession or field itself. These different cultures value different things, and there is bound to be friction and conflict between and among them. Given this complexity, I encourage associations to keep their strategic focus on creating value for stakeholders. When associations put stakeholders’ short-term problems, intermediate-term needs and long-term outcomes at the center of organizational strategy and business model, it can help reduce the negative influences of cultural friction and conflict on meaningful value creation.

Q. Why is strategic planning the real problem?

A. When people say “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” I believe what they really mean is that culture eats the strategic plan for breakfast. Planning is about what we think we know. The foundational assumption of the planning process is a high level of confidence in the knowledge that provides the basis for the plans it produces. Association boards and CEOs prefer this kind of certainty so they can exert top-down or center-out control over strategy execution. When the powerful forces of profound, accelerating and intensifying transformation reveal the serious shortcomings of strategic plans and strip away the illusion of central control, cultural opposition will fill the void created by uncertainty in ways that often do not make senior decision-makers happy.

Strategic planning also fails to consider the importance of association business models, i.e., the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers and captures value. Business models certainly include cultural elements, such as how associations define stakeholder segments and the value propositions they provide. One of the major problems for association business model thinking is the reflex to define stakeholders only in terms of how those stakeholders relate to the organization, i.e., as members. In truth, stakeholders exist with complete independence from associations and membership is just one relationship that associations can offer to those stakeholders.

Strategic planning processes rarely examine organizations’ orthodox beliefs about stakeholders, value creation or business model design because doing so runs counter to the foundational assumption of knowing. Orthodox beliefs are the deep-seated assumptions about what associations are supposed to do and what they are supposed to be. (Popular orthodox beliefs including the sacrosanct nature of membership, the need to conduct annual meetings and magazines and the uniqueness of the industry or profession.)

Orthodoxy is the deepest, least visible and most insidious source of the inertia Jamie writes about in this post. In my experience, most people want to participate in building stronger and more capable organizations. The real resistance comes from the perpetuation of long-standing and unquestioned orthodox belief systems that create organizational inertia. Strategic planning exacerbates this problem by simply ignoring it.

Q. How should associations rethink their approach to strategy in a world experiencing transformation?

A. Associations need to make the shift away from strategy as an exercise in planning and toward strategy as a process of learning. Building an association that can thrive is all about harnessing the forces of transformation, which in turn requires the capacity to learn and apply learning as quickly as possible. Foresight, imagination, innovation and new business model design all demand the adaptability and resilience created through continuous learning. Associations should devote their time, attention and energy to developing strategic intent that seeks to address stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes, learn what works and what doesn’t work and shift accordingly. This way of thinking has big cultural implications, and through strategy as a process of learning, association decision-makers can shape strategy and culture in parallel instead of sequentially.

Q. What else can associations do to create better integration (and less friction) between strategy and culture?

A. Instead of falling back on pithy yet unhelpful truisms such as “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” association decision-makers will benefit from developing an empathic understanding of what their stakeholders must confront personally and professionally today and in years ahead. Empathic understanding means asking questions, listening very closely to the answers and applying the learned insight intelligently to create distinctive value. Throughout this interview, I have repeated the phrase, “problems, needs and outcomes,” and I cannot overstate the importance of these words to this conversation. Association decision-makers who try to dictate what stakeholders seek from their organizations based on internal orthodox beliefs are asking for trouble.

Through the capacity to learn, associations can create a stronger focus on what is most important to their stakeholders, and avoid the fragmentation that arises from trying to be all things to all people. Under these conditions, association decision-makers can develop a “fast track” for more rapid co-creation of value with stakeholders using technology tools and platforms and, in the process, nurture stronger cultures of shared responsibility for organizational stewardship to which all stakeholders can make meaningful contributions.

How can association decision-makers start thinking differently? I’m tempted to invoke Nike and say, “just do it,” but I realize that’s not very helpful advice. Instead, let me challenge association boards and CEOs to acknowledge the societal transformation that is happening all around them and accept personal responsibility for shifting their own mindsets on what it will take to build their organizations to thrive in an increasingly unforgiving context. To be clear, the future will not cooperate. The future will not negotiate. The future will not wait for associations. It’s time to stop believing otherwise.