To Invite Innovation, Make Friends With Risk and Change


Are you looking for heart-pumping thrills, bold challenges and a totally unforgettable experience? Pass on the skydiving. Skip ziplining the rainforest, and nix the heliskiing trip to Patagonia. Writing a book will give you all that excitement and more. My business partner Kevin and I never imagined what an incredible journey our work on Association 4.0–Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, would be.

The book was inspired by changes that we were seeing in our consulting business. When we were new entrepreneurs, you could fit the scope of technology into the same neat boxes that contained the hardware and software that made it run. We watched those containers explode as IT pulled everything from communications to continuing education into its orbit. Each electronic conversion was a burst of adrenaline that shocked systems into running smarter and faster.

The warp speed of business is forcing us all to visit new galaxies whether we want to experience alien culture or not. Kevin and I realized that we were at the center of an unprecedented moment in the association sector’s development. We wanted to understand how organizations, that are typically characterized as change and risk adverse, were managing the turmoil occurring around them.

Our interviews with executives at a cross-section of associations gave us plenty of answers. My recent post A Shared Path to Success, highlighted several stories we included in the book that were both instructional and inspiring. I plan to continue focusing the next few posts around lessons learned from contributors who are also some of the savviest leaders in our business. Many of the executives we interviewed are shadowboxing with disruption in preparation for the future or already navigating an industry upset. Their strategies for turning unexpected developments into success are a theme that runs through the book.

Leading in the Vortex of Change

Medicine is a complex environment where exponential advancements in research and technology are occurring simultaneously with a transformation in the way that physicians’ practice. Stephen J. Welch, as the former Executive Vice President and CEO at the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST), relished his spot in the cross-hairs of disruption.  Welch advises, “A risk-taking culture is a must. The associations that are successful going forward must be committed to creating their own vision of the future. That means taking risks, taking control, and making decisions.”

CHEST prides itself on an innovative approach that recognizes and responds rapidly to new demographics, evolving technology, and the shift from growing membership to growing engagement of the profession. Whether it’s understanding the impact of Millennials on the market, meeting the demand to go mobile with education and communications, or expanding its customer base beyond the membership—CHEST’s staff and volunteer leadership are creative problem-solvers who embrace growth and change.

In just four years, CHEST gave itself a complete make-over. The organization moved to a custom-built office in Glenview, Illinois. The expanded space provided the opportunity for additional educational offerings and customization of member services. Updated learning and content management systems were developed to deliver those products more efficiently, and a new AMS was launched. As if that wasn’t enough progress, CHEST also set out to globalize its content and clinical education. The accelerated timeline of these activities reflects the organization’s belief in the value of synchronizing technology and operations. Learn more about innovation at CHEST.

340B Health shoulders a double dose of volatility. The organization operates in both the medical and political arenas as the leading advocate and resource for providers across the United States who participate in the 340B drug pricing program. It partners with public and non-profit hospitals in caring for the most vulnerable patients. While Congress and five presidential administrations have contentiously debated how to best meet the nation’s health care needs, 340B Health has been flying above the fray, working to support its constituents.

CEO Rob Miller’s style is a good match for this changing environment. Miller, a dyed-in-the-wool risk-taker, leads from an entrepreneurial perspective. He notes that most associations are not prepared for change. Associations can talk all day long about being entrepreneurial, but generally they’re not,” Miller says. “Most everything works against creating momentum related to innovation – mission, governance, regulations, legal and brand reputation.” Miller understands that, under the best of conditions, it is difficult for associations to address risk in a positive and empowering manner. Tools, such as scenario building and contingency planning, that are used routinely in the corporate world, are not common exercises for association boards and management teams.

Miller sees changing the mindset of staff and volunteer leaders as fundamental to innovation. The next step is envisioning a future for the organization that goes beyond staying the course. Associations need to ask the tough questions. For example, what would happen to 340B if its prescription drug program were to disappear? How could the organization continue to serve communities and make a difference for the disadvantaged? By searching for opportunity within difficult scenarios leaders can create the path to a more sustainable future.

Getting Familiar With the Unexpected

One thing became clear during discussions about risk and change. Managing an organizational about-face without solid preparation for the board, the staff and constituents is like wandering into a maze. If you’re lucky you might make the right turns, but then again, you might need to be bailed out. Following are some steps to take to make sure your group is in shape to tackle the unexpected:


  • Align governance and management
  • Eliminate departmental silos that block progress
  • Develop strategies to ensure buy-in and avoid stalls
  • Create new operating procedures, if necessary
  • Foster a culture that acknowledges and accepts the need for ongoing change


  • Be transparent. Educate all stakeholders about the need for change and the associated activities
  • Give those involved an opportunity to shape the outcome
  • Communicate goals regularly
  • Listen with the objective of understanding opposing points of view
  • Acknowledge and diffuse fear


  • Strive for compromise that includes the best of all ideas and options
  • Understand that the return on investment may be proportionate to the level of risk
  • View failure as an opportunity for learning

At the core of these and all strategies for dealing with disruption, is a process of bobbing and weaving. Think of a boxer who deliberately stays a bit off balance in order to anticipate the oncoming punch, dodge the blow and come back with an unexpected move. This approach may sound uncomfortable and difficult to put into practice. But there are considerable rewards to becoming accustomed to managing risk and change. The leaders we met through our book demonstrated, time and again, that an organization that can navigate uncertainty, is also poised and prepared for innovation.

Position Your Organization For Success

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