Normal is Over(rated) – For Now

by Joy Davis

Not too long ago, I gently asked my Executive Director to stop opening her weekly columns to members with a depressing reminder of COVID-19 and how weird things are right now. She’s a very upbeat, can-do kind of person, and her columns are always forward-looking and sunny, except for her first paragraphs these past few months. Week after week, I’d been editing out those first sentences.

I’m on the verge of saying something similar to a few of the volunteer leaders in my organization. In every video call at some point they give everyone a sad look and offer some variation of, “I wish we could be together.”

I have also banned the phrase “return to normal,” because right now is normal. Change is normal. Perhaps our current rate of acceleration is not – but change itself is normal. Today it’s normal that I don’t eat in restaurants or fly, and at some point it will be normal that I do those things again.

We association people are talking like “normal” is a perfect, balanced state to which we will inevitably return. It’s what we know and it’s comfortingly familiar, so we have begun to fetishize it. We fantasize about crowded exhibit halls, packed hotels, and chummy, in-person board meetings.

I get a million emails a day with some variation of “Here’s when I think we can hold big meetings again.” I delete them all. Reading them would be a waste of my time. I need to operate now and look forward, not try to claw may way back to “normal.” The “normal” we know is history. And I have to ask, do we really want to repeat it? We should not, even if we think we can.

Good Business Strategy Looks Forward

Going backward has never, ever been a good business strategy. Why are we all sitting around talking about how much we want to go backward, as if that’s an option?

I am increasingly disturbed by association leaders who, nine months into this pandemic, are talking about “a return to normal” as if it was just around the corner – as if this were just a bizarre interruption in our regularly scheduled programming. This is despite all the evidence in the world that:

1) We won’t have a widely distributed vaccine as a preventive solution until mid-2021 at the earliest

2) This solution may not be widely accepted or long-lasting

3) We’re not going back to normal, because normal is how we got here

You cannot find your way forward if you are constantly looking backward. Or waiting for things to go back to normal. Or trying to recreate your favorite memory, which some of us appear to have labeled “normal,” bedazzled for extra zing, and placed in a jar so that we can stare at it longingly.

The stress of clinging to a past normal will break you. It’s breaking people right now. At the very least it will limit or paralyze you. Inflexibility in the face of things so far beyond your control – of changes so far afield from the security of your trends, and your past performance, and your conventional wisdom, and your beliefs about what kind of people your neighbors are — will lead to your total mental shut-down.

An obsession with what the world once looked like and getting back to that will also keep you from seeing what it could look like, and what you can do about that right now. It will damage your ability to assess risk because it limits your scenario planning. It will also limit your ability to imagine things differently — the root cause of organizational failure cited by a thousand motivational speakers during “normal” times. “We’ll get a vaccine and then everyone will get back on planes and it will be business as usual” is a dangerous line of thinking for people who are responsible for large organizations that depend on meetings. What if that’s not what happens?

I’m not sure my association will hold a big, in-person meeting in 2021. A few of the largest partners in my space are beginning to whisper to us they won’t have people on the road again until 2022, and I believe them. My association may be doing all-virtual meetings for another year. Or more. Or something else altogether.

So, we’re placing our bets, just like we always do. We are making educated guesses, based on the cards we can see, about what will come up next in the 2020 deck.

Placing Bets About the Future

I think what we have missed most is the relative, data-driven certainty of past guesses in a world that we understood so much better, and that we knew how to measure. I think that in these exhausting days, drenched in uncertainty and drowning in self-doubt, we’re longing for how much simpler it was when we had the comfort of easy foresight and the ease of having done everything before. All our tools – our spreadsheets of past registration numbers; our well-tested, reliable membership renewal mailings; our annual crowding of the exhibit hall without a care in the world – were easier than now is.

But now is what we can affect. And we have always placed bets. We just called it forecasting.

Mourning our dead dreams of what might have been and wrapping them in the shroud of “normal” is not going to get us anywhere. They were just dreams, you know. You have no idea what really would have happened in 2020 if there hadn’t been a pandemic. My organization was supposed to hold a 5,000-person meeting in Louisiana in late October. Seen any weather reports from the Gulf lately?

We need to stop talking about a return to normal and start thinking our way forward. And we can’t do that if we keep starting every conversation with some reference to “normal” and how much we miss it.

In this, the year of the Murder Hornets, my team put on a great meeting. We brought the pharmaceutical scientists together to discuss how to vaccinate billions of people and develop antiviral treatments, among other Very Important Stuff. We are taking advantage of opportunities and gambling on the cards we can see to keep supporting our scientists, and the advancement of their science.

We never lost sight of the fact that our mission is not to have an in-person meeting – it is to bring scientists together. That’s our actual job, and we’re doing it. I’m proud of my team, which did not lose sight of that while baking bread, protesting social injustice, and teaching the new math at their dining room tables. We are doing something important for the scientific community. That’s what we can control, and we’re taking full advantage of it.

The Rise of Apology Meetings

When we began planning this meeting, we looked at what other organizations were doing and saying – and I quickly became frustrated by what I have come to think of as the rise of the 2020 Apology Meetings. The underlying message of these meetings is that “in these unprecedented times,” (another phrase I have banned) “this is the best we can do. Please register out of a sense of duty.”

As leaders we are complicit in diminishing our purpose, vision, and accomplishments when we think this way. Worse: we let it drip into our marketing and our board meetings, and from there into our members. We are telling our people that no matter what they do, it will never be as good as what we did before, and we cannot wait to get back to doing things that way, without even trying what we could be doing now.

Normal wasn’t great. It (almost) never is, at least in real-time. It’s always better in hindsight. That’s where our emotion-driven perceptions hinder us right now.

You shouldn’t go back to doing things the way you did them before. If you do that, then you didn’t learn anything. That’s dangerous, because right now your partners are learning how much data they can get from online engagements, and your members are learning how to network online with intentionality. The market you operate in is undergoing profound, likely permanent shifts in labor and capital. If you are not following and analyzing those trends – these new flows in the 2020 card deck – you’re not doing your job as the leader of an organization.

Help Your Members Where They Are Today

Now is a chance to remember and refocus on why your organization exists. It’s also a chance to give your people an opportunity to try things.

But no one can do that if you start every conversation with, “I’m so sorry we can’t be together.” At least give that up. Start with something different. “I’m glad to see you!” is about now, and not what might have been. So is: “Who do you think will go back to work first, and last, in our membership? How do we help them right now?”

Lead with your value. You are so much more than people who know how to organize a gala fundraiser. Your value was never in the beauty of your exhibit hall layout or your ability to negotiate a good hotel rate.

Get a little excited about what you can do right now. Start every conversation from a place that encourages creativity and problem-solving. Ask your members to renew because you’re doing stuff that helps them where they are today.

I’m proud of all our association brethren, who are figuring it out and doing the mission and hustling. Who they are and what they can do is way more important than what I thought was true, or what was definitely easier, a year ago. I’m not going to talk about then – I’m going to talk about now.

Now is always happening, and the future is the only thing you can change. Stop talking about normal and getting back to it. Start talking about where you’re going and what you’re doing, even though it’s harder, and the numbers are less impressive than before, and we’re not sure when we’re going to reopen the office. Give up on the “return to normal” and be what you can be today and be incredibly proud of that. Understand and create what a good normal is for you and your organization right now.

It’s all going to change again anyway, you know. It always does. That will always be normal.

How is your organization seizing opportunity in this time of change?

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