Unscripted Associations: Leading in Times of Uncertainty

By Jennifer Spear

“It’s the end of the world as we know it… “

The traditional model of associations is being challenged and the competition for your members’ time and attention has never been more fierce.

The pace of change is rapid and accelerating all the time. Strategies that may have worked in the past are no longer working. We need to recognize that change is not going to stop, it’s not going away, that change won’t be “done” anytime soon. Managing change at a breakneck speed is the new normal – in fact, today is the slowest it will ever be again. This r environment of constant change creates uncertainty.

This uncertain environment represents uncharted territory. We really have no means of knowing or predicting what will come next. At work in these uncertain times, it means that you need to be able to strike balance between rules and structure that can guide behaviour and the flexible decision making required in order to be able to shift, pivot and adjust as needed.

Your members should view you as the go-to resource in their industry, a entity they can reach for when they have questions about the future and when they are looking to adapt or innovate. So it is not enough for you to simply adapt to change as it occurs, you need to be able to take advantage of change when it happens and to drive change internally in order to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. We cannot move forward by following an old script.

As a leader, you cannot be expected to have all the answers – how could you? There is no script for many of the new situations associations find themselves in these days, many of them having never happened before and have no precedent. However, association executives can be prepare for the unknown.

Leading in times of change and uncertainty requires a leader who will be willing to lead unscripted, to leave behind the plans of the past that are no longer working and be willing to take risks, willing to trust those that work with and for them, and to be vulnerable and have the courage to admit they do not have all the answers.

The uncertainty we are talking about is not in the statistical sense. It’s not about probability or the accuracy of data. It is about managing the feeling of uncertainty. When you are not sure what is going to happen, it can feel uncomfortable for many, even paralyzing. However, there are ways to become more comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Some of the most powerful tools for embracing change and uncertainty come from the world of improv.

Any improv scene starts from only a suggestion of something – we call this an offer and it builds from there. As an improviser, you must accept all offers that are brought into a scene. This is the challenge and the simple beauty of improv. You don’t have to have all the answers; you cannot plan in advance what will happen nor can you predict what offers you will receive. By simply being in the moment and hearing the offers, you can create opportunities.

Everything that happens at work (and in life) is an offer and it is your job to accept it. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but you do have to accept it if you want to remain in that scene, if you want for you and your association to remain relevant to your members. The trick is to be in the moment and not insisting on sticking to the scripts of the past so tightly that you can’t recognize the offers as they appear. There could be offers for new members, volunteers or stakeholders that you hadn’t considered, for new products or services you don’t already produce, or for growth opportunities that you hadn’t realized existed.

By recognizing that you can’t (and shouldn’t) control everything and by being present and open to the offers, you will be able to manage through uncertainty and embrace change as it represents opportunity. Not all offers are necessarily first viewed as positive or what you would have wished for, but the positive outcome of unwanted offers is that it compels us to do things differently. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but if we practice it, we can become good at it. This is when we will start feeling comfortable being uncomfortable because we recognize that it represents opportunity.

By leading unscripted, we can not only adapt to change, but we can take advantage of it and in doing so, feel a little more comfortable in times of uncertainty.

In the words of REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).”