Quick fix: turn your association around in 48 hours

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Stuck in a rut? Association consultant Genevieve LeClerc reveals how you can design your way out of a problem in just two days…

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a two-day workshop on design thinking for international association executives at the Montreal Association Networking Forum in Paris. The idea was to introduce association leaders to effective innovation methodologies, such as the popular ‘Design Thinking Method’, to help them secure a better future for their organisations.

Over two days, the participants were taught some theory and given a range of practical exercises. If you’re going to try this, you might need to create custom-made activity cards for each of the activities proposed and provide links to useful tools on the internet.

DAY ONE: Introduction to design thinking and the design process.

Design thinking (Phase 1):


 The first phase in design thinking is to identify the real problem, or problems, facing your organisation. We were careful not to ‘lead’ the thinking in this session. Some executives found it unsettling not be given set topics to focus on, but this was about uncovering the most painful organisational issues – whatever they were - and providing a safe, but structured, space for participants to tackle these with their peers. Following a period of peer-to-peer interviews, we asked individuals to recount to the group the stories that were captured. Through a facilitated brainstorming session, the group determined key insights from these stories to pinpoint the most pressing needs of our participants.

Design thinking (Phase 2):


The group was then asked to create clusters with the issues uncovered during Phase 1 by grouping the notes with related thoughts. We created short issue statements for each issue cluster and presented them to the group for review and short discussion, making sure everyone was aligned on what the general issues were. Then we asked our association executives to vote for the top three issues they wished to retain for the rest of the workshop.

In this instance, the top three issues were:

1) Rethinking association business models to prepare for the future

2) Engaging with current members to increase retention

3) Enabling associations to develop and implement innovation with current resources

Design thinking (Phase 3):


The ‘ideation’ phase of the design process is where our executives really put on their designer thinking caps.  The aim here is to open up the thought process on those issues identified in phase 2 and resist the temptation to seek easy solutions. By asking more questions on a specific topic, we broadened the discussion and explored multiple dimensions of the same issue, instead of closing our minds and jumping straight into solution-mode (as most strategic planning processes do). The reframing of ideas into "How might we… (HMW)" questions, inviting more insights and exploration, is a critical phase of design thinking. Participants generated dozens of new insights and ideas on the three issue statements.

Executives were then split into three small groups and presented with a set of tools that would allow them to discuss and sort through the ideas for possible solutions. This lead each group to select one single “HMW question”, which became the Design challenge in Phase 4…


Design thinking (Phase 4):


Participants resumed working in their small team to develop a possible solution for their selected Design Challenge. Each team worked under the guidance of an entrepreneur co-facilitator who shared his knowledge and experience prototyping products and services, and they were given popular strategy-building canvases to work with, such as the Impact Gap Canvas and the Methodkit Project Canvas.

While learning about basic principles of prototyping and service design, they embraced using the tools and immediately were called to put their learnings into action. They came out of this phase having identified a vision for their potential solution, described it, specified who it was meant for, what resources were needed, how it would be rolled out, etc. They had basically constructed, on paper, a quick-and-dirty business model for a new service for their peers, responding to a challenge they had themselves identified in an earlier phase.

Design thinking (Phase 5):


Finally, the three teams were prepped by their facilitator to pitch their idea to the larger group in a pitching session. Each team was offered to choose one of three presentation formats and delivered an on-point short presentation to test their idea and collect feedback from their peers. The teams rivalled for creativity and we saw our association executives turn into formidable presenters!


This was a fantastic experiment and our attendees provided multiple testimonials on how thrilled they were with their experience. Not only had they gotten a golden opportunity to network and share with their peers in an intimate, no-pressure setting, but they had acquired actionable knowledge and tools that they could share with their colleagues and use for building strategies in their own organizations.


About the author: Genevieve LeClerc is an association strategist dedicated to ‘innovation and value creation for all stakeholders in the association meetings industry’.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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