Association Disruption: What’s your Educational Moonshot?


How grand is your association’s vision for your educational programs? With all the disruption going on around us and in your industry, will incremental change bring your vision for professional development closer to realization? Thinking small isn’t going to turn your association into a market leader and innovator, but an educational moonshot will.

A moonshot changes the perception of what’s possible. It’s a disrupter—a project that invents a new era. Why get disrupted when you can disrupt?

Moonshot factories

At the 2019 digitalNow conference, Dr. Radhika Dirks, CEO and co-founder of XLabs, talked to an audience of association executives about her work with moonshots. XLabs is “a moonshot factory for AI”—“a new kind of Bell Labs” that’s “building moonshot companies for the future powered by artificial intelligence, unconventional computing & neurotech.”

XLabs is doing some far out work, but moonshots always do sound a little crazy. Imagine how the moonshot ideas of Ford, Tesla, and the Wright brothers were received by their contemporaries.

At Google X, a project qualifies as a moonshot if it tackles a huge problem, proposes a radical solution, and involves breakthrough science or technology. Huge problems are wicked problems—they have many causes, are tough to define, and don’t have a single right answer. Can you think of a wicked problem in society that your association could solve?

Association moonshots

Association Disruption what's your educational moonshot?

Several associations, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Association for Cancer Research, and American Lung Association, along with other organizations are involved with the Cancer Moonshot. Their goal is to double the rate of progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care over a five-year period.

Erik Asgeirsson, CEO and president of, talked at digitalNow about their moonshot project, the Dynamic Audit Solution. The American Institute of CPAs along with many of the nation’s largest accounting firms are creating a new auditing process driven by AI and other technology that will transform the role of the auditor.

Notice that in both of these initiatives—one quite ambitious and one more practical yet transformational—collaboration is fundamental, a theme we’ll return to later.

Educational moonshots in public schools

The Moonshot Moment Goal for the Indian River County public schools in Florida is to have 90% of all students reading at grade level by third grade. Their Moonshot Community Action Network includes more than 150 members representing private, public, business, social, and philanthropic sectors of the county.

The Michigan Moonshot project is addressing the digital divide. 27% of K12 students in Michigan lack access to broadband internet. This “lack of home connectivity creates a ‘homework gap’ between those who can access the Internet to support their schoolwork at home, and those who cannot.”

Both of these moonshots aim to help students gain the skills and resources needed to succeed in school and prepare for their post-secondary future. One of them looks within the school system and the other looks out at the world students live in. Moonshots think big.

What’s your educational moonshot?

Has your association identified skills gaps in your industry or profession? If so, your moonshot could involve designing and delivering professional development programs and learning pathways, along with digital badges, that give people—students and professionals of all career stages—the education they need now and in the future to succeed in your industry.

For many associations, designing and delivering multiple new learning pathways is enough of a stretch goal. But is that too practical for a moonshot?

How about making your association a viable alternative to college? Help people put together a career curriculum based upon courses offered by your association and other online learning organizations. They could start with one of your certificate programs. Then, they could participate in association programs that teach human (soft) skills. If necessary, learners could supplement your programs with college courses offered by MOOCs.

Learners could also take advantage of career counseling or coaching sessions, mentor matching, and group masterminds offered by your association. Your chapters could host local meet-ups for study and test prep sessions or book clubs.

The goal is for your association to become the first place anyone turns to for advice and education about your profession or industry, whether they’re high school students and graduates, students in technical and community colleges, students in colleges and universities, college graduates, or early-, mid-, and late-career professionals.

They start their educational journey with you and end it with you. Or, with you and your educational partners, because, let’s face it, you’re not going to be the best at everything, and you’ll need the help of companies with deep pockets to fund this moonshot.

Preparing for association disruption

Preparing for an educational moonshot

Moonshots require the right organizational mindset—a sense of urgency to transform the status quo. Jeff Bezos calls this the Day 1 mindset. “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Shoot for a 10x bigger change, a massive change, not an incremental change. Give your team the expectation and freedom to be weird in your thinking. Forget the data, resources, and constraints you have now.

•    Where do you want to go? What value do you want to provide?
•    What do you want this world to look like?
•    What do you want your profession/industry to look like?
•    What do you want the membership or association experience to look like?
•    What interesting, cool things can you pursue?

Embrace novelty as a mindset and methodology. You must be willing to experiment with new paths to a solution or opportunity. Conventional solutions lead to incremental change; they’re old formulas to new problems. Focus on quantity, not quality, when it comes to ideation. You need new creative solutions that take you in a new direction.

Astro Teller of Google X said, “Ask hard questions, seek out diverse perspectives, and find inspiration in weird and unexpected places… Fail most of the time.”

Moonshots rely on a non-linear, agile development process. Ideate, test, learn, and try again. Exponential (10x) breakthroughs can unexpectedly arise, sometimes when you’re solving a different problem. Follow what’s interesting. Focus on value, not revenue potential.

Building a moonshot culture

Collaboration. Moonshots call for collaboration across siloed departments and organizations. During the Cancer Moonshot, “researchers were required to share data with others virtually instantly—a big change in scientific culture and practice.”

Training and support. The moonshot team and stakeholders must be given the training and support they need to continue pursuing a risky path. Indian River County “provides leadership training, structure and relationships to move from traditional silo-based approach to a collaborative learning culture. We meet monthly to cultivate these interagency partnerships and community-wide mobilization.”

Leadership. Astro Teller said, “Leadership and strategic thinking are a crucial ingredient to move a small or large group toward goals that require massive action.”

Diverse intelligence. You need a diversity of perspectives on staff—diverse intelligence. At digitalNow, Kathy Trahan, president and CEO of the Alliance Safety Council, advised not leaving culture to chance. You must be intentional about the culture you want to build. You need to hire the right people—those with a high-performing behavior set—and have the right technology in place for them.

Contrarianism. A moonshot culture is willing to challenge core assumptions—or what Jeff De Cagna, executive advisor for Foresight First, calls “orthodox beliefs.”

10x thinking. Astro Teller said, “10X thinking… is about finding inexpensive, creative solutions to hard questions. It also requires a lot of failure along the way, yet the world becomes your laboratory and failure becomes just another step in the growth process! Thus, in the long run, 10X thinking isn’t only inexpensive but will have a massive ROI on your business.”

Let yourselves think big. Adopt a curious and contrarian perspective. Be willing to transform how your association approaches professional development and become the ideal educational solution for students and professionals of all career stages.


Join us at .OrgCommunity’s Solutions Day 2019, where you can meet the disruptors, innovators, and cultural shape-shifters who are fearlessly reinventing the association world. You’ll learn how associations are redesigning their operations to seize technological advantage and position themselves for success in an era of disruption.



This blog post was originally published on the Association Learning Blog by WBT Systems.
Michelle Brien is VP of Marketing & Product Strategy at WBT Systems and a member of .OrgCommunity.
WBT Systems develops TopClass LMS and is a proud sponsor of Solutions Day 2019.

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