by: James Young

A Strategic Guide to Readiness


This is an article about growth readiness for associations, nonprofits, or membership organizations. 

Instead of the more standard approach of focusing either on (a) developing a plan to increase membership or (b) identifying approaches to grow non-dues revenue, I will emphasize a strategic approach to growth readiness. 

This strategic approach honors the timeless values of purpose, community, engagement, and connection, but pushes us to make focused choices on our winning aspirations, where we will play, how we will win, and what capabilities, systems, and measures we need to achieve our aims. 

In doing this, I will define growth, frame the problem of readiness, cover the five states of ready, and review the growth readiness framework. 

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

Framing the Problem

“If you’re too comfortable, it’s time to move on. Terrified of what’s next? You’re on the right track. 

Susan Fales-Hill

“If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.”

Charles Kettering

If there is a time for the ideal conception of the association, it’s now:

  • We’re polarized, so we need venues for community
  • We’re fractured, so we need vehicles for integration (to grapple with problems across boundaries)
  • We’re faced with transformational disruption, so we need a framework for change
  • We’re diffuse and scattered, so we need focused action

As we have discussed many times in this newsletter, despite a deep commitment to purpose, a timeless desire for community, and a want for sustained professional development, the traditional association struggles to keep pace. 

Here are six possible reasons why:

  1. Leadership imbalance. Staff leadership and volunteer leadership are not sufficiently aligned causing frustration and silos that prevent collaboration. We lack shared goals. There are backchannels, not open avenues and trust is politically-based or exists in pockets.
  2. Lack of strategy. The staff is overwhelmed at serving everyone at all times. We lack focus because we aim to satisfy, not cultivate connection. Trust comes from a series of one-offs, not a longitudinal journey. The outcome is a satisfying bowl of bland oatmeal, not a delicious lunch with a friend.
  3. Focus on short-term revenue. This year’s revenue goals drive all actions. The short-term blitz blinds our ability to reflect or plan. Today drives tomorrow and unrealistic goals and rigid culture fuel resentment. There is a lack of investment: in people, in innovation, in the future, in care.
  4. Trapped by old business models. Over-focusing on reliable, annual recurring revenue is great if it’s diversified and growing. Over-focusing on annual recurring revenue if it’s the opposite – decreasing, rigid, and un-diversified – can be a sign that we are headed in the wrong direction.
  5. Meaningless vision. Rallying cries can be great motivators if (a) they’re true, (b) people believe in them, and (c) people are willingly committed to bust their tails to get there. Is our vision a committee-led satisfier or an exciting driver of the future?
  6. A trend against joiner-ship. The decline in membership for professional societies can be attributed to several factors: perception of associations as outdated, cost and value considerations, lack of relevance, time constraints, or the increasing availability of alternative networking opportunities. 

Before we get into a couple of models to frame growth readiness, we want to provide a few definitions. 

What is Growth?

“All lasting business is built on friendship.” 

Alfred A. Montapert

In the product community, we take a multi-faceted approach to growth. In one respect, we think of it in terms of the fundamental organizational metrics of revenue, membership size, or market reach. In another, we think of it in terms of community development (or community health). A third is the framing of growth as impact on a particular field, cause, or problem (whether it be a profession, industry, or purpose). 

Here is each growth concept in more depth:

  • Organizational growth. Richard Beckhard, a pioneer in organizational development, defines growth as “an increase in the capacity to accomplish desired results.” This definition emphasizes the expansion of an organization’s capabilities and effectiveness in achieving its goals and objectives.
  • Community growth. The collective and holistic advancement of a community’s well-being, resilience, and capacity to meet the needs and aspirations of its members. Growth in this context is not merely quantitative expansion but also encompasses qualitative improvements that enhance the community’s sustainability, inclusiveness, and overall prosperity. It emphasizes the active participation and engagement of community members in shaping and implementing strategies for positive change.
  • Impact growth. An association’s investment in research, learning, or professional development can, over time, have growth impacts as it relates to research-based problem solving, interdisciplinary collaboration, evidence-based practice, innovation or creativity, or policy and advocacy work. 

Though most associations would recognize all three layers of growth, they most likely focus on organizational growth. Here is another angle on growth that emphasizes readiness. 

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”

Anita Roddick

Five States of Ready

Adopting a change framework is like adopting a new diet. There are a million options and it’s hard to determine what will work for your particular situation. 

In today’s fast changing world, associations strive for relevance and seek practical transformation. This is often easier said than done. 

The following overview of readiness can help associations through the process of transforming from how to get started to what actions are needed to elevate, innovate, and evolve. At what state are we currently? And what state do we want to focus our growth efforts?

Here are descriptions of the five states of ready:

  1. Ready to Start. This state is all about being prepared and equipped to begin a new endeavor. It’s like having all the necessary resources, plans, and people in place to kick off something new. When we are ready to start, we have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and we are ready to take the first steps towards achieving our goals.
  2. Ready to Adapt. In this state, we are open and flexible to adjust to changing circumstances and conditions. We recognize that things don’t always go as planned, and we are willing to make necessary changes and tweaks to stay on track. Being ready to adapt means having a mindset that embraces innovation, learning, and being responsive to new information and feedback.
  3. Ready to Elevate. When we are ready to elevate, we have achieved a certain level of success or proficiency in our current state, but we are ready to take things to the next level. This state is about reaching higher and pushing boundaries to achieve new heights. Being ready to elevate means having the ambition, drive, and determination to continuously improve and excel in our endeavors.
  1. Ready to Innovate. This state is all about fostering a culture of creativity, experimentation, and forward-thinking. When we are ready to innovate, we actively seek out new ideas, technologies, and approaches to solve problems and improve processes. It involves embracing change, challenging the status quo, and being willing to take calculated risks to stay ahead of the competition.
  2. Ready to Disrupt. This state represents a mindset and approach that aims to fundamentally change the game or industry. When we are ready to disrupt, we are not satisfied with incremental improvements; instead, we strive to revolutionize and reshape the way things are done. Disruption involves introducing groundbreaking ideas, challenging established norms, and creating new paradigms that completely transform the landscape.

These ‘five states of ready’ reflect different stages of preparedness and mindsets that associations can adopt to help navigate growth challenges.

The Growth Readiness Framework

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s not that moment of ‘wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,” and you push through those moments and that’s when you have a breakthrough.”

Marissa Mayer

Deloitte’s Growth Readiness Framework is a comprehensive approach designed to help organizations assess their readiness for growth. 

The logic behind the framework is fairly intuitive. To be successful at organic growth, associations should:

  • See the full set of growth opportunities.
  • Select the optimal subset of growth opportunities to pursue.
  • Support the selected opportunities by moving talent and investment toward them at speed and scale.
  • Seize growth opportunities through rigorous strategy choices and execution.

The growth readiness framework encompasses various activities and capabilities that are essential for approaching and achieving successful and sustainable growth. Here are the activities: 

  1. Growth scanning. Growth scanning involves continuously monitoring and analyzing the external environment to identify emerging trends, market opportunities, and potential threats. It helps associations stay informed and agile in response to changing member needs, competitive dynamics, and possible industry disruptions.
  2. Growth portfolio management. This activity focuses on evaluating and managing an association’s portfolio of growth initiatives. It involves assessing strategic fit, market potential, and resource allocation for each initiative. By effectively managing a growth portfolio, associations can prioritize and allocate resources to the most promising opportunities.
  3. Segment and target. This activity focuses on segmenting the market and identifying specific member segments that offer the greatest growth potential. By understanding the unique needs, preferences, and behaviors of different member segments, associations can tailor their value propositions and marketing strategies to effectively target and engage the desired audience.
  4. Design and Execute. The design and execution phase (combined here) involves developing and implementing growth strategies. It requires translating strategic objectives into actionable plans, defining key milestones and metrics, and aligning resources and capabilities to effectively execute the growth initiatives. This phase emphasizes the importance of robust project management.

Aligned to the above activities, the growth readiness framework also emphasizes the following capabilities:

  • Alignment. This capability focuses on ensuring alignment across different functions, teams, and business units. It involves creating a shared vision, goals, and priorities to foster collaboration and coordination towards growth objectives.
  • Insights. This capability involves leveraging data and analytics to generate valuable insights about members, markets, and competitors. It enables evidence-based decision-making and helps identify growth opportunities and risks.
  • Talent. This capability emphasizes the importance of having the right people with the necessary skills and capabilities to drive growth. It involves attracting, developing, and retaining top talent and creating a culture that encourages innovation, collaboration, and continuous learning.
  • Process. This capability focuses on streamlining and optimizing operational processes to support growth. It involves identifying and eliminating inefficiencies, improving agility, and ensuring scalability to accommodate increased demand.
  • Technology. This capability recognizes the critical role of technology in driving growth. It involves leveraging advanced tools, systems, and digital platforms to enhance productivity, improve member experiences, and enable data-driven decision-making.

By integrating these activities and capabilities, associations can evaluate their growth readiness, identify gaps, and develop strategies to enhance their strategic focus, execution capabilities, innovation capacity, and leadership effectiveness.

The growth readiness framework can also serve as a roadmap to navigate growth opportunities, address challenges, and achieve success in a rapidly changing world.

The framework brings together elements that are often looked at in isolation by associations—for example, growth scanning may be seen as the responsibility of leadership, while technology is usually the province of IT. 

By deliberately focusing on activities and capabilities, and not functions, the growth readiness framework can enable leadership teams to evaluate their growth readiness as a whole through a comprehensive but relatively simple model.

Growth is Possible

“If you’re not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.”
Jim Rohn

Associations struggle to grow. But with the right leadership, focus, capabilities, and governance, associations can indeed be vibrant and healthy growth organizations.

There are four key dimensions that associations should consider in order to position themselves for successful growth:

  1. Strategy. This dimension focuses on defining a clear and robust growth strategy aligned with the association’s vision and goals. It involves identifying target markets, understanding customer needs, and developing differentiated value propositions. 
  2. Execution. This dimension focuses on building the necessary capabilities and operational infrastructure to deliver on the growth strategy. This involves optimizing processes, aligning resources, and implementing performance management systems. 
  3. Innovation. In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, innovation is critical for sustained growth. This dimension focuses on fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. It involves encouraging creativity, adopting new technologies, and staying ahead of trends.
  4. Leadership. This dimension recognizes the pivotal role of leadership in driving growth. Effective leaders establish a compelling vision, inspire and empower their teams, expertly manage governance, and cultivate a growth mindset throughout the organization. 

By focusing on these four dimensions, associations can gain valuable insights into their growth readiness. Coupled with the growth readiness framework these dimensions create a roadmap for navigating growth opportunities and achieving sustainable success in a dynamic change environment.

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.