Unwritten Rules?

“What are the unwritten rules that guide your work?” 

I came across this question recently, and it struck a chord.   Are the people in my life – my family, colleagues, clients, friends, etc. – aware of the various rules that influence how stuff gets done in my life? Would it make parts of my day more successful or less stressful if they were?

Think about the various parts of your day – work, commuting, family time, workout time, down time, etc.  Are there unwritten rules (you might call them norms, expectations, assumptions) that guide how you work, engage with others or simply get stuff done?  Is everyone involved in the activities aware of your unwritten rules?

Every organization I’ve worked in has had rules – written and unwritten – that guide how work gets done, who is involved, priorities and what gets taken on.  Being aware of all the rules could truly have made many of the experiences more engaging, productive, and successful.

So, how do we do this at work?

I often ask groups “what assumptions are guiding your thinking about X?”  This discussion raises the beliefs people have about work, what is going on and what they think they are trying to accomplish.

But, taking it one step further and asking people to share the unwritten rules that they believe influence their work or the organization could help teams to discover a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for their team.  This kind of dialogue can inspire teams to set aside old habits, “we’ve always done it that way” thinking, or preconceived notions about teammates, and foster engagement, excitement and discovery that incites new levels of thinking and performance.

Have you ever asked your team about the unwritten rules that influence their work or the group’s work?  Try it.  You might be surprised by what people are thinking and how the differences impact your opportunity for success.

Room for New Ideas

New ideas are exciting.  Ideas can inspire and re-engage people. Ideas can generate new opportunities and invigorate how work gets done.

The challenge is that new ideas take time, mental space and resources to develop and implement. Things that most of us don’t have a huge surplus of.

So, how do you create room for new ideas and the energy these bring?

Ideally organizations regularly evaluate, refine and sunset programs.  But, in my experience this doesn’t happen as often as it should.  So, how can you get started?

Explore with your team:

Q box stop doing final

Starting these discussions can be challenging. You may hear some perspectives that you don’t like or agree with.  But if you ask, you need to listen and allow people to share their viewpoint.

These discussions may not solve your problems now.  But, the dialogue will help you understand where people are coming from, learn about what really happens in your organization, and offer you opportunities to share insight about why or how you do stuff.

This awareness can inspire new ideas for revising how work gets done and what work is done to better leverage your resources.  And the process of exploring this together can build understanding of your goals, your purpose and how you can work together to advance both.

Go ahead and ask.  Your people may be reluctant at first, but as trust grows so will the discussion.


Join me and some really smart colleagues in exploring the questions associations should be asking.  We are highlighting questions your organization should consider and resources and tips to help you frame successful discussions.




“What’s the Goal?”

Getting your team, be they board members, staff or volunteers, onboard is critical to the success of your organization.  But, with everyone focusing on different aspects of your work and having access to different types and levels of information, how do you leverage their energy and efforts to advance your organization and its mission?

As Mark Sedgley, President and CEO of MemberClicks shares in his Questions Associations Should be Asking guest post, understanding the true goal of the organization is the foundation to success.

“What’s the Goal?”

I have worked with hundreds of association execs, business leaders, and managers over the last 12 years.  During that time, a common theme evolved in those organizations that struggled to achieve success.  They didn’t spend enough time answering one very important question.  “What’s the Goal?”

This question was made famous by Eli Goldratt in his book The Goal.  Jeff Bezos celebrates The Goal as the greatest business book ever written.  At the heart of Goldratt’s book is the very simple idea of getting everyone on the same page and understanding the true goal of the organization.  Once that is in place, you filter every decision thereafter through that lens.

Simple right?  Unfortunately not.  I can’t tell you how often I see this simple idea get lost in a mosaic of board initiatives, personal agendas, or the program du jour.  When you boil it down, however, understanding The Goal of the organization should really make your decisions easy from an operational perspective.

When an organization is all working off of the same playbook, things just fall into place.

  • Membership feels engaged because there is consistency.
  • Staff is united because nuance and second guessing goes away.
  • Leadership is pushing the organization forward because everyone has bought in.


Q box goal cropped


Join me and some really smart colleagues in exploring the questions associations should be asking.  We will share questions your organization should consider and resources and tips to help you frame successful discussions.

What’s Your Purpose?

What is your purpose?  Why does your organization exist?

This is a critical question.  To bring people along, to get them excited and motivated to advance your organization they need to understand what you are striving for and why.  They need to understand your purpose.

No one can do the work associations strive to do alone. You can’t be everywhere, solve every problem and lead every team. So you need to ensure that your team (be they staff or volunteers) understand your purpose and can make informed smart choices to support the purpose.

Don’t assume that everyone knows your organization purpose.  Each of us interpret goals, activities and expectations based on the information we have, where we sit and the work we do.

So, what can you do? Ask Q box purpose - cropped

Help your team understand your purpose.  Discuss why you exist, hear people’s perspectives, listen to their questions, understand their concerns, their ideas and gaps in information. This will help you frame a plan to bring everyone along and help align everyone on one team where they can see past their role and help you to build the organization forward.

“Creating the condition in which the best work is most easily achieved is the job of any leader of any group of any size. ~ Margaret Herrferman, Beyond Measure

Have a favorite question?  Please share it below to be featured in a future post.


Questions are an opportunity, not a burden!

There are critical questions that associations need to be discussing. We’ve started this conversation, and will continue it.  But, before we get to far down the question asking path, I want to be clear that simply asking questions won’t make change.

Questions can open doors to new ideas, new opportunities, fresh thinking.

But, simply posing questions doesn’t bring people along.  Simply asking questions doesn’t inspire people to bring their best ideas and thinking.  Simply asking questions doesn’t generate the discussions that inspire new opportunities.

If you want people to engage in the big question discussions, they need to trust you. They need to believe that you care about their opinion, that investing their energy and thinking will be appreciated. They need to believe that what they say matters.

How you respond to people’s perspectives, their ideas, their questions, this is how trust is built.

If you ask “what worked?” then refute or belittle each point raised or pull out your phone and check email as people respond, you are sending a message “what you say doesn’t matter.”

If you ask “what should we do differently?” and no changes are made or people are discouraged from altering how they do their work, you are sending the message that we don’t intend to change, this is just an exercise to check a box or make it appear like the team was engaged.

If a team member asks a question and no one responds or people roll their eyes or sigh you are sending a message that we don’t appreciate your questions and your perspectives.

You don’t have to like every idea or perspective. But, to build trust and ultimately engagement, you do need to appreciate that everyone has a perspective and they should have an opportunity to share it.

If you want people to engage in the big questions discussions – to explore how your organization might generate new value, how you might develop new opportunities, how you… – you need to pay attention to the insights people share, the questions they ask and be willing to make change.

You need to show that questions are an opportunity, not a burden.  If you ask questions from this perspective, if you listen, if you engage people you can create a space where people feel it is safe to ask questions, where it is worth the effort to share their perspectives and it is a valuable experience to explore with you.

Go ahead and ask, just be prepared to listen and engage when you do!


Are you Solving Your Members’ Biggest Problems?

Guest blogger Amanda Kaiser, SmoothThePath, shares a series of questions to help you identify your members’ real problems and create opportunities to generate new value.

Members have a lot of professional problems. New members don’t know the process, the industry, the players or the profession’s vernacular. Members may have been handed a project they’ve never done before and no one at their company has done it either. Some members need to prove something, some need to get hired or some need to influence others. Some members want to be competent. Some members have lofty goals.

Members have big problems and they have small problems. They have easy to solve problems; problems that many members have solved before them. And members have hard to solve problems like issues arising from government requirements or changes in technology. At every stage of their career members run into problems.

All of this is great news for associations. Members get value when we help them solve their problems.

The trick is knowing if we are still solving our member’s problems. Are we? Or are we solving the problems members had a decade ago? What about members’ current unsolved professional problems? Do we know what those are? Which member problems can we solve? Which member problems should we solve? Do we know enough about these problems to solve them in the way our members need us to solve them?

Amanda Qs

Amanda Kaiser is a qualitative member researcher who helps associations answer these questions and more. You can find her at SmoothThePath.net or on Twitter @SmoothThePath.

Getting Better at Getting Better: The Questions to Ask

Guest blogger Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects, shares a question framework to help you design smart discussions to explore the critical questions associations should be considering.

beautiful question JCufaude

Based on my facilitation experiences, a question that might serve as a catalyst for change as Warren Berger suggests requires clarity.

Without creating the requisite clarity at a conversation’s onset, discussions are unproductive and participants leave frustrated.

This happens quite often in strategy or planning conversations, be they among staff, board members, or volunteer entities.

We regularly lack clarity about:

  • the problem or opportunity we hope to address;
  • its relevant historical background;
  • current data and future forecasts;
  • how analogous industries have addressed it; as well as
  • the results we want to achieve, the timeframe in which we expect to do so, and the resources that doing so requires.

We’ll never leverage the ideas and insights of the thinkers we convene if so much is left ambiguous or to individuals’ perspectives and personalities. Individual brainpower ends up splintered and fragmented among a variety of issues, rather than the people working in parallel to dig deep into common considerations.

Here is a cascading or scaffolding series of questions to help avoid this.

  • What do we want to make better?
  • Why do we want to do so?
  • For whom do we want to make this better?
  • How do they define better?
  • How can past efforts, current data, and future forecasts inform our efforts to make this better as just defined?
  • What might we learn from how others (even outside our field) have addressed comparable issues and intentions?
  • In what tangible ways/metrics will better show up and on what timetable?
  • To achieve these results, what resources will be required and what might we need to stop doing, start doing, or do differently?

Used consistently, this question framework should help you get better at making things better.

What else would you add to this list?

Learn more about Jeffrey Cufaude his fabulous ideas and work at www.ideaarchitects.org or  @jcufaude


What are we thinking?

In the hectic, cyclical world of associations we often set aside the thinking work to ‘get stuff done.’ The problem is, when we don’t critically think about what we are doing, we can easily settle into patterns or traditions of the ‘way we have always done it.’  While this may help clear stuff off the to do list, it rarely results in adding value for our members or our organizations.

So, after a couple years of playing around with the idea of how we can help associations be more thoughtful, I asked a bunch of smart people in our community what questions they think associations should be considering.  Then I waited.  (You know that space when you pose a question and you aren’t sure if anyone gets what you are saying or thinks it is a relevant issue? I sat right there.)  Then something really cool happened.  People started sharing these amazing thoughts, ones that made me say out loud, “yes!” “awesome question” and ‘ugh, I’ve been there!”

Now, I like questions. I think in questions. I ask a lot of questions.  To ensure it wasn’t just me getting excited, I tried a few of the questions out with colleagues and in learning programs, and I saw the light turn on for people.  The questions inspired ah-has.

So, over the next few weeks I will be sharing some ‘questions associations should be considering.’  I hope you will come along and explore the questions with us.

Q worst thing final


This is a simple question for  exploring new ideas OR encouraging yourself to try something new. Sometimes our fear of the “worst” is far beyond reality.


Have a favorite question?  Please share it below to be featured in a future post.

Expanding Your View

You don’t know everything. It’s ok. None of us do. In fact, most issues we face today are simply too complex for one person to understand all of the nuances and opportunities.

But, we can be smarter. The simple act of engaging other people and inquiring about what they know, their perspective, their experiences, their ideas, all of this will help you and your organization to learn.

So much of association life is spent in a doing cycle – planning for and implementing board meetings and conferences, keeping up with publication schedules, facilitating member outreach, responding to volunteer questions, etc.- that sometimes we fail to pause and ask the questions that can make us better at the stuff we do. Learning behaviors like asking questions, seeking feedback, and thinking are how we and our organizations get smarter.

Conversations are a key way that organizations and many people think and learn. Engaging people in discussion around things like:

  • Why are we doing ___?
  • What did we learn?
  • How can we do this better next time?
  • What do members need, now? Next year?

Helps you to identify the changes, patterns, opportunities, challenges and needs that your organization can leverage to move forward and build your future successes.

Empower the smart ambitious people on your team and in your community to be part of your success. Ask questions. Encourage them to explore, share what they know, think or see. Invite them to be part of your learning and your next big or little idea.

“The [person] who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The [person] who does not ask is a fool for life.” ~ Confucius

Questions: The Leadership Power Tool

Volunteer wants, member needs, evolving markets, hectic schedules…there is never a shortage of stuff that keeps us from pausing and asking the questions we should be considering.

“The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question.” ~Peter Drucker

Questions are one of the most powerful leadership tools. Questions can serve as a catalyst to help you engage people, focus their energy and efforts around the critical challenges you are facing. Questions can help you to move your organization forward by:

  • Engaging people in revising a project; “Why do we do ___ this way?”
  • Exploring your next opportunity; “How are our member or market needs evolving?”
  • Identifying the next big thing; “What developments are we seeing that will impact our organization or our members in the next three to five years?
  • Solving your challenges; “How might we____?”

Maybe you aren’t ready to step into ‘big’ question discussions. What about the fundamental ones:

  • Who’s the audience?
  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Why are we taking this on now?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the daily stuff or our urgency to jump in and do or fix a situation that we fail to ask even the basic questions. Remember the Five Ws you learned in school…who, what, when where and why? These are critical questions for work, helping people identify the information they need to successfully lead, manage or implement.

The simple act of questioning how, why or what can inspire people to think, explore and engage. These discussions can help you unlock challenges you’re facing, identify new opportunities, develop new understanding and inform smart decision making. Essentially make your organization stronger and more capable of generating new value for your members and community.

So, how do you get started?

Listen. It may sound trite, but check yourself on this. When colleagues or members are talking are you truly listening to what they are saying? Or maybe are you formulating your response, checking your phone, scanning the agenda to see how much longer the meeting might last?

Ask. After you’ve listened, ask a question to ensure your understand what your colleagues are saying. “How do we know ___?” “Why do we ___?” “What is the timeline?”

Enhancing the discussions taking place in your organization now will build comfort for exploring the big questions. Those questions that challenge you or your organization to look beyond what you’ve done, what you know and what people expect. The ones that require trust and a sense of safety for people to be willing to step up and share their ‘crazy’ or ‘half thought out’ idea, ask a ‘dumb’ question or be willing to admit that they just don’t know.

A few resources you might find helpful…

5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For, by Freek Vermeulen, Harvard Business Review Blog, September 3, 2015.

7 Things Great Listeners Do Differently by Travis Bradberry, Forbes/Leadership Online, February 29, 2016.