Letters from ALCTS

charles wilt, alcts executive director

From the Office

Charles Wilt, ALCTS Executive Director

Design: Looking to Our Future

I want to talk about design. Or as Daniel Pink defines it in his book, A Whole New Mind: “Utility enhanced by significance.”

There are many facets to design. There are many types of design. There are many uses of design. Everything around you has been designed by someone at some point: the chair where you are sitting, the mug from which you are drinking, or the database you are searching.

I am not going to talk about the aspects of design that might normally come to mind when you hear the word, rather about the design of us—ALCTS—as an association. Although it's not a subject that generally shows up on top ten lists (it tends to be on mine), it is important because how ALCTS is designed has implications for its continued existence as a robust and innovative organization. Never thought about designing an association? Now is our chance as we move into our next fifty years.

Back to Daniel Pink’s book, in which he offers one insight and one quote that are worth sharing:

Not just function but also DESIGN. It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging. (p. 65)
John Heskett, a scholar of the subject [design], explains it well: "[D]esign, stripped to its essence, can be defined as the human nature to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives. (p. 69)

So what can we take from this? It is this: you, as members and leaders and I, need to pay attention to how ALCTS and its benefits are designed to be a constantly improving and engaging organization. So much so that there should be absolutely no doubt why a potential member would want to join and why those of you who are already members would want to continue.

So, the question: how do we do this? What are the elements that we need to incorporate into or emphasize in an ALCTS design that differentiates us from our fellow divisions and groups? The answer lies between total rehab of structure or governance and mere cosmetic changes: designing an association that delivers the most value and benefit to members.

I included the first quote purposefully, not for the obviously important insight in the first sentence, but for the second. The words strike me: maybe not “beautiful,” but certainly “whimsical” and “emotionally engaging.” The latter ranks in there as one of the “duh” moments, to which I often succumb. What could more obvious? Obvious but needing our attention, I believe. We do very well at intellectually engaging, but about what do we feel passionate? (more on this later). How do we bring passion to the association? "Whimsical" suggests unpredictable. Extraordinary. Slightly off our center, against stereotype (yes, I used the “S” word).

I read a lot of association management and business books. I do not always find worthwhile advice or realizations, but I did in Pink’s book and in Jim Collins' Good to Great. This sort of book is meaningful to me if I can extrapolate its basic arguments to what I do. And Collins book lets me do just that.

The concept in Collins’ book, which most closely fits with this design discussion, is his “Hedgehog Concept.” (p. 90–119) The Hedgehog Concept is “a simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of the following:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at);
  2. What drives your [economic] engine (brackets are mine); and
  3. What you are deeply passionate about.

Despite Collins' assertion that, “good is the enemy of great,” ALCTS' new strategic plan forms a good foundation to push toward answering these questions. We can use the plan to chronicle the areas in which we can be the best in the world, that drive our engine, and that make us passionate. Thus we achieve true “greatness.” One of Collins' most important points is that the companies he chose as great were not great overnight. We, too, do not have to instantly become great.

I mentioned the strategic plan to give some context. On the Hedgehog Concept though, Collins is very clear about the point he wants to make and it is one worth considering very closely. “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at.” (p. 98)

If we approach the design of a future ALCTS combining these two concepts, Pink and Collins, what might we get? Perhaps the intersection and incorporation of the two sets of concepts that goes something like this:

By understanding what we are best in the world at, what we are passionate about, and what drives us to be an association that people want to belong to, we’ll design an association that is significant, has meaning, and serves our needs, but is also emotionally engaging, a bit unorthodox, and constantly pushing to great.