Leading Change in Associations

Sharon Cox

How can Associations stay relevant and provide value to their members? 

Successful organizations are innovative and agile: quick, efficient, and responsive to the constant changes that impact their environment. They continually evaluate critical components of their organization – people, processes, structures …and are aware that change is necessary to stay competitive and to meet the ever-changing needs of their members. Most importantly, they understand that there must be a business need for change based on the organization’s strategic plan.

Strategies for leading through change are well documented and presented; however, minimal guidance is available on how the pieces fit together in an Association environment. Association changes can range from relatively small modifications (e.g., membership dues structure) to moderate operational changes (e.g., committee/taskforce changes) to far more significant organizational changes (e.g., new technology systems, mergers, acquisitions). The more significant the change, the greater the risk, allocation of resources, and impact on people, processes, and structures.[1]

Leading change requires attention to the interrelated pieces and the coordination necessary to transition from the current state to the envisioned future.

From a people perspective, leaders must engage members and staff rather than inform or manage them through change. The focus on people as a critical component is related to the difference between change (what happens in an organization) and transition (changes in the beliefs and behaviors by an individual). Thus, the paradigm shifts from change management to change leadership.

The Process dimension draws attention to the activities necessary to discover, model, analyze, measure, improve, and optimize Association outcomes. Awareness and purposeful actions are essential to navigate through the various phases: preparing for the change, managing the change, and reinforcing the change. Key processes such as strategy, policy, research, and resource allocation are implemented interchangeably throughout the life of the project or initiative.

The adage that structure follows strategy and systems support structure speaks to the third critical component. Building a structure to support organizational changes is vital to an Association accomplishing their goals. Leveraging technology, implementing knowledge-based governance, diversifying revenue streams, and developing action-oriented tasked based work groups are just a few examples. Structural changes are necessary to support people and process modifications. However, leaders should be conscientious of the pace to ensure alignment with the strategic business plan.

Unfortunately, there is not one change model that is viable in every situation. Associations must explore exemplary practices and deploy a combination of methodologies that will align with their organization’s unique capabilities and current and future markets.

Consider the following methodologies as part of your next change initiative:

• Design Thinking – is an iterative approach to problem-solving that intentionally seeks out people with different perspectives, knowledge, skills, and experience and have them work together to create a practical solution for a real-world problem. Design thinking is extremely user-centric. It is what we call a solution-based approach to problem-solving.[2]/[3]

• Value Stream Mapping -is a lean-management method for analyzing the current state and designing a future state for the series of events that take a product or service from its beginning through to the customer. [4]

• Stage Gate Method– is a methodical approach that reduces the new product or service development process into discrete stages. Stages are activities. Gates are decision points. Gates serve as quality control checkpoints. When used in conjunction with design thinking or value stream mapping, the gated process can provide a practical framework for managing change and innovation.

• Individual and team leadership coaching- research[5] by the Human Capital Institute and the International Coaching Federation on how organizations successfully navigate change confirms that leadership is one of the most critical factors impacting the success or failure of a change management initiative. One-on-one and workgroup coaching delivers better results than formal learning activities such as assessments, group and e-learning, and classroom training.

Associations’ that consistently think about their envisioned future and what changes are necessary to accomplish strategic goals will stay relevant and continue to provide value to their members.



[1] https://smallbusiness.chron.com/change-important-organization-728.html

[2] https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/what-is-design-thinking-everything-you-need-to-know-to-get-started/

[3] https://www.rightpathtransformation.com

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value-stream_mapping

[5] https://www.td.org/insights/helping -leaders-embrace-change-through-coaching

About the author

Sharon A. Cox, RDN, LDN, FAND:

With over twenty-five years’ experience in the healthcare industry, Sharon has spearheaded change initiatives at top-ranking health systems and networks nationally resulting in enhanced customer experience, operational agility, and innovation.  Sharon is experienced in the organizational transformation from strategy to implementation, curating customized tools and solutions for her clients by employing design-thinking and lean management methodologies. If you are planning an organizational change and would benefit from a customized plan, you can contact Sharon Cox at [email protected].