by: James Young

How to Boldly Describe, Achieve, and Sustain a Shared Future


This article is about describing an association’s ideal state outcome (ISO).

In doing so, we introduce a tool to help associations richly describe the future and to help them find their north star. 

An ISO is what our world looks like when we fulfill our mission, achieve our vision, and live our values.

As we position our associations for growth, strengthen our value proposition, and create new products, we are wise to invest in this simple tool. It will unite our diverse communities with powerful language and the possibility of an exciting future. 

The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. 

Jillian Butolph, The Noun Project

Why Describing Your Future is Important

“We need to distinguish between the values and visions to which we give lip service and those that are truly the basis for our actions.”

Sam Keen, Hymns to an Unknown God

An ideal state outcome (ISO) is a rich description of an intended organizational outcome. An ISO is a north star that encompasses and brings to life an association’s mission, vision, and values. 

It is what our world looks like when we fulfill our mission, achieve our vision, and live our values. We put the ISO into context here: 

  • Mission. Why we exist.
  • Vision. Where we’re headed.
  • Values. How we serve.
  • Ideal State Outcome. What our world looks like when we fulfill our mission, achieve our vision, and live our values.

I’m a big believer in mission, vision, and values. However, I believe they are largely underutilized, misused, far too general, or outright ignored. Utilizing an ISO can help drive allegiance to these important identity drivers. An ISO can also be used to: 

  1. Rally the community
  2. Build toward something specific and bold
  3. Align your product portfolio
  4. Create connective stories to drive momentum
  5. Bring your mission, vision, values back to life

To put this into context, lets situate the ISO within the fundamental vocabulary of inputs, outputs, and outcomes. 

Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes

“I think health is the outcome of finding a balance and some satisfaction at the table. I know once people get connected to real food, they never change back.” 

Alice Waters

An outcome is what our customers want; it our desired impact. Outcomes create focus and alignment and puts the customer at the center of everything associations do. In contrast, an output is the action (or item) that contributes to the customer achieving their desired outcome. They are completed tasks, large or small: programs, products, or services.

An input is something that is put into a system or process. It can be data, information, materials, or resources that are used to achieve a specific goal.

An output is what is produced or generated by a system or process after inputs have been processed or transformed. It can be a product, service, or result that is delivered to a customer, stakeholder, or user. Outputs are typically measurable and tangible.

An outcome is the impact or result of an output. It is the broader, long-term effect that the output has on a larger system or community. Outcomes are often less tangible than outputs and are typically measured in terms of changes in behavior, attitudes, or knowledge.

In the context of an association, here are some examples of each:

  • Input. A membership application form that a new member fills out to join the association. This form provides input to the association’s membership database, which is used to track membership data and communication preferences.
  • Output. A newsletter that the association sends out to its members every month. This newsletter is an output of the association’s communication process and provides members with updates, news, and resources related to the association’s mission and activities.
  • Outcome. A training program that the association develops and delivers to its members to improve their skills and knowledge. The outcome of this program is the improved performance of members in their professional roles, which can lead to increased effectiveness and impact in their work.

Inputs, outputs, and outcomes can be used globally at the organizational level and more practically at the programmatic level. 

Now, let’s look at the association product competencies as a preface to the ISO. 

The Association Product Competencies

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

The product community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. The product community is a competency-based experience. There are six association product competencies: culture, vision, customer, design + build, go to market, and performance. 

A fundamental tool to bring the association product competencies alive is the product community maturity model.

A maturity model gauges an association’s maturity in a number of competencies. It is used to better understand an association’s current state and helps determine areas of improvement. Maturity models are also a useful tool to help create longitudinal journeys.

The product community competencies anchor the maturity model (and are represented in the middle column of this graphic).

A maturity model can also help an association understand its limitations or gaps, develop a vision, or set strategic goals. 

Maturity models are structured as a series of levels of effectiveness. Associations will typically pass through levels in sequence as they become more capable.

Working with a maturity model begins with a general self-assessment. This can be accomplished by simply identifying relevant levels for each competency. 

It is common for some respondent choices to be sporadic or inconsistent (you will want to circle more than one box in a row). This is normal.

Try to select the best choice and please reflect any identified contradictions during the report-out. Once you’ve determined your level for each competency, you can prioritize the capabilities your organization needs to get to where it wants to be. 

Ideal State Outcome

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candle in it.” 

Margaret Fuller

An ISO can be used in concert with a maturity model; the ISO will vary depending on the context in which it is used. In general, an ISO is considered to be optimal, based on a particular set of values, principles, and goals. 

ISO can be subjective depending on a variety of factors such as culture, history, and social norms. To clarify, here are two non-association examples: 

  1. In economics, an ISO could be a thriving economy where everyone has access to employment, a fair distribution of wealth, and sustainable growth that does not harm the environment.
  2. In international relations, an ISO might be a world where countries cooperate to promote peace, stability, and global prosperity, while respecting each other’s sovereignty and cultural diversity.

For associations, an ISO can be driven by mission-based aims or provide a rich description of what the future looks like. 

The ISO is an exercise used to help associations understand their ideal destination. This is accomplished by describing current and ideal states for the six association product competencies. The exercise is best used in a team setting in which the group can discuss their responses.

  • Step one: The words in the middle column are areas of focus or competencies; these are common elements of an association product strategy. Fill out the left column first. Using just a word or two for each row, describe the current state of your association.  
  • Step two: Now focus on column three. Similar to the first column, use just a word or two to describe the ideal state outcome for each competency (and the words beneath each competency). 
  • Step three: As a group, discuss your results. Some possible questions:
    • How would you describe the current state of our association?
    • Which areas of focus are strongest? 
    • Which areas of focus need the most improvement? 
    • Which area of focus has the greatest agreement among participants? 
    • What areas of focus are there disagreement among participants? 
    • Is there anything missing?

Once we have a completed ISO, we can translate the right column to a narrative. We can call this simply the completed ISO or a rich description of the future. 

An Example ISO (or A Rich Description of the Future)

“If you don’t think about the future, you cannot have one.”

John Galsworthy

We end this article by stressing the importance of using the ISO to develop a rich description of your association’s future.

This future should embrace and align to your mission, vision, and values and ideally be a part of your association’s strategy-crafting process. Here is an example ISO of a fictitious association upon completing the ISO exercise. 

  1. Members love our association due to its distinct culture, differentiated offerings, breakthrough stories, and unique way of doing business.  
  2. Members look to our association first for innovations, fresh perspective, and exemplary service to make their lives better. Our members believe we are uniquely positioned to create value for them.
  3. Organic word of mouth drives community. This community is robust and healthy and consistently brings in new members and new business. 
  4. Customer engagements are longitudinal, healthy, exciting, fun, and mutually satisfying. 
  5. The association looks different from the competition. We are a best practice organization that remains focused even during turbulent market conditions. 
  6. We are able to measure and demonstrate clear value with higher-order metrics like impact, growth, and return on investment. 
  7. Our association is a strategically-focused growth organization with diversified and sustainable revenue streams.  
  8. Our association has the resources to continually reinvest in deepening the strategy and becoming more focused. This means we are winning the value equation and have healthy margins between price and cost and we have the capacity to take advantage of new opportunities.  
  9. Our association is known nationally and industry-wide for its unique approach to service. We are focused but agile, balancing meaningful thought with decisive action. 
  10. We are participatory and co-creative in forging longitudinal engagement among members, staff, volunteers, and sponsors.

There are frameworks galore to guide associations in thinking about, building, and executing our futures.

In winding our path through the planning experience, we recommend using an ISO to crisply yet richly describe what our futures look like in a way that emboldens community participation. 

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.