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What Will Success Look Like?

In the last month or two, I have struggled with how exactly to start the first chapter of the book I am writing (with significant contributions from Andrea Pellegrino). It argues for the need for drastic change—a foundational re-orientation of associations from products and internal interests to markets and customers.  Should I start with analyses of the new consumer and the changed nature of demand? Or some other brilliant and amazing way for shocking and inspiring readers we haven’t thought of?  The question that struck me today as the most relevant is why. Why would anyone want to abandon the convenience of comfort zones to risk unpopular culture changes? What’s the prize that makes the pain worthwhile?  What does success look and feel like?

Yet, in interviewing executives who believed in the necessity of systemic change during the last two years, I was struck by how difficult it was for them to visualize scenarios of success.  The answers I got were usually a surprised pause and a last minute dash to the basket of go-to success indicators.  Different people strung together different themes from the same repertory:

  •  More of the same: more members, retention, programs, revenue etc.
  • Tactical: better attendance at the annual conference; launching the two new certificates they had been planning; price increases etc.
  • Moral abstraction: advancing the profession; joining others in helping alleviate hunger; taking strong moral positions on the environment; promoting ethics in the profession; supporting world peace…

The point is that these statements of success did not match or justify the objectives of their strategy. It was also clear that they had not visualized what change would actually look and feel like; how their daily experiences, practices, relationships with customers and outcomes might differ from what they were currently. Perhaps they did not really believe that any effort could deliver a different outcome.  Or perhaps there were no real examples among their circle of like-mind peers and associations.  So why would they be truly motivated to change for the long term? The ability to envision concrete scenarios and measures of success along different criteria and tracks, however, is essential to transitioning from talking the talk to walking the walk.  

So how would we judge success in our research and book? I went through all our cases looking for any consistent criteria for success and this is what I decided success looked like:

 “I don’t know what I’d do without VIN (Veterinary Information Network). I just don’t think I could run a successful practice without what I get from them through my membership”

 Every day there are over 500 active message board discussions ongoing between VINners (members of VIN).

 “I simply would never have mustered up the courage to walk into a gym, full of fit people—let alone spend money I don’t have—if it wasn’t for Planet Fitness.

 When it comes to relaxing over a cup of coffee with a friend; or work on a report in the comfort of a warm environment and a fresh cup of coffee—it is always Starbucks.

 Mexico’s construction industry is thriving because many debilitating obstacles to builders’ success have been removed by CEMEX Inc.—from builders’ problems with flexible delivery and supply of skilled workforce, to access to affordable networks of distributors and suppliers and the ability to finance new or growing construction businesses.

 Success must be measured by the outcomes your customers (and not your association) perceive that they derive from your organization.  This especially significant for the knowledge age, as products have short shelf lives and are easily replaceable. The choice to think of success in terms of association products and achievements or in terms customer outcomes determines every aspect of one’s business.

Take a look at the table below. Which of these two associations in the same sector has a compelling value proposition based on how it solves customer problems that stand in the way of their success? Their website presentations of themselves are telling:


Who We Are:  Veterinary Association X  X is a   not-for-profit association…[with] more than 84,000 veterinarians…..


[Learn about us:]



The X Foundation

Student X

Allied Organizations

X Store (Products)


As a VIN member (VINner), you are   part of the largest group practice in the world. VINners are up-to-date and   informed. VINners access a daily veterinary newspaper….[and] a   broad range of sources …. where veterinarians , world-wide, share their   knowledge and experiences every day.

VINners have instant and easy   access to the most comprehensive searchable online source   for veterinary information.

VINners can conveniently access   high quality, comprehensive CE classes from the comfort of their home or   office everyday.


Members’ Perception:  Nice to attend their conference, read   journal, attend event etc. (declining membership)Economic/engagement indicators: declining interest and membership 






Members’ perception: can’t live without itEconomic/engagement indicators:  steadily rising membership over 20 years; daily member engagement in co-development and pursuit of essential information and solutions


The X association clearly sees its value in institutional terms: its longevity, pre-eminent status in the field, programs and policies it has put in place.  This focus drives its real orientation through allocations, mindshare, priorities, decision-making and measures of success that gravitate toward governance, policy, reputation and legacy events like the annual meeting.  Members of both X and VIN that we interviewed felt that at X, they were an afterthought while at VIN, they were the only priority.

 VIN states its value right from the start in terms of the outcomes members achieve through their membership. VIN’s value proposition of “the largest, veterinary practice in the world” is not a marketing slogan or part of a “messaging” strategy.  The organization lived and breathed the world their members inhabited on a daily basis.  They understood that needs that sounded disparate—access to research, more convenient CE programs etc.—had a shared root: isolation. Most veterinaries have small practices and limited time and resources. They cannot subscribe to numerous research data bases to keep up. They cannot afford the time and expense required to travel to distant locations for CE courses, offered only once or twice a year.  They feel cut-off from peers and the hubs of ideas and discussions that shape their field and are unable to locate willing specialists to consult as an emergency arises in their practice. VIN did not just string together products but created a collaborative, virtual environment that eliminated hurdles to their ability to practice successfully in the daily reality in which they lived.

For VIN, success is not an abstraction.   Every single member of its staff—from part-time receptionists to executives—can tell you immediately how they measure success:  when their members succeed each and every day.  For VIN staff, work is driven by a single objective:  what can I do to solve even a tiny problem today that make a member’s life even a little easier.

Tying success to the success of customers and organizing around the objective of facilitating it, is the first step to, and the foundation of, resonating with today’s demand.  It refocuses strategy, product/service development, customer experience and organizational capabilities on the creation of meaningful solutions. It shifts customers’ perception of your value from “nice but not always essential features” to “indispensable resource to my ability to succeed.”



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