Recipe for Success: Optimizing Your Association Processes

Best Practices : Article

Creating a fully baked solution.

Currently on my mind is the way that work-related process thinking can be compared to recipe development. This is an analogy that works for me because I’m an avid cook. I took a five-year hiatus from a career in association management to attend culinary school and do some related work, so I’ve spent hundreds of professional hours honing both cooking and business consulting skills. Here at Virtual, as a Director in Client Services, I spend a lot of time involved in projects, both client-facing and internal. The problem we’re trying to solve is often some version of “How do we…?” How do we create a marketing plan that will effectively support our client’s membership goals? How do we expand our service offerings so that we can further solidify our strategic value? How do we turn this bunch of spinach into a delicious salad?

Whether I’m undertaking a project or working to solve business dilemma – I often think about it as a recipe. I’m endeavoring to combine the essential pieces, in the correct order, according to prescribed timing. And I want to add a dash of spice – the je ne sais quoi that’ll keep us standing out from the competition.

Name it. Make it memorable. “Joe’s Special” means something very specific to Joe, and you may know exactly what’s in the file called “April Board Reference Materials.” But somebody else will want to look this up some day. Do Unto Others, etcetera. Make your work easy to find by giving it a clear and distinct file or project name.

How do you describe the dish/file/project you are creating? Orange-Caper Salmon. New Member FAQ 2019. Don’t be afraid to be aspirational. Membership Success Vision 2022. Best Potatoes in the World.

Do some homework. As you embark – or at any point during this process – you may feel the urge to consult some resources. Take some time to research your project. Read the NYT or the Washington Post or or Serious Eats. Or Slashdot or Recode. See how other people have approached your problem. My dad used to say that there are only three songs and everything else is Variations on a Theme. Find out how others have succeeded. Avoid solutions with low ratings. Read the comments on sites with intelligent readers. Do some googling. Ask a colleague, over coffee.

Headnote. In a recipe, the headnote is the paragraph or two right after the title. It’s a note from the writer that tells you something about the dish – to pique your interest or help you achieve success. He might include some history about the dish or call out a special technique or ingredient. As you progress through your project, make some notes that will be helpful to future users of your instructions. For example, if the chicken thighs need to be marinated overnight, the headnote is a good place to include this information, because most people don’t read instructions all the way through before they start a recipe. If your project includes special instructions, make that information obvious. “There’s a minimum six-month license on the necessary software.” Call it out at the top of your template, highlighted, in bold.

Ingredients. List all the necessary ingredients, in order of use. Consider all the people you’ll need to consult as part of your project, including team members, staff from other departments, member volunteers, and consultants. Be respectful of their time. Call them into service as you need them and not before.

Special Tools. Consider in advance if you’ll need to use any resources that are not immediately available. Does your food processor live in a remote cabinet? You’ll need to haul it out and dust it off before you get underway. You might need to subscribe to a software tool for the duration of the project, or arrange your schedule to give yourself some focused time to devote to this project. Preparing in advance will help minimize delays.

Process. Lay out the process steps in the correct order. Think about pre-work. Maybe you need to preheat the oven or allow butter to soften on the counter for an hour before you get started. That’s like dropping a line to your Board Chairman and your manager to let them know that you’re working on this initiative, and getting their buy-in.

DIGRESSION. Mis-en-place – that’s having all your ingredients prepped before you begin cooking. Imagine your kitchen counter covered with bowls, each containing a precisely measured ingredient, appropriately peeled or chopped or sifted. There’s nothing like the feeling of having all your tools close at hand. That’s the restaurant chef method – the strict way of following a recipe, especially useful when you have no time to waste once you start cooking. Some people work best in orderly environments, while others of us embrace a more relaxed style where you grab the ingredients as you need them – you know where everything lives, you’ve done the steps enough times that your movements are fluid and familiar. That’s a good place to be, in your own kitchen and in a project. Know your habits and prepare to bring your best. We have so many productivity tools available. The best ones are the ones that work for you. I like Post-it notes, personally. And printing out a copy of a recipe – or an agenda – and writing on it as you proceed, which helps keep my notes in context. I like black Sharpie pens and a big mug of chai tea. Whatever your personal style, take yourself seriously. Prep work can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

Pay attention to where you are in the process. Don’t miss a step. If you get interrupted or delayed, be sure you’re not at a critical point. You can pause in the cookie-making process while you’re still mixing dough, but once they’re in the oven, there’s no turning back. Your project might have similar critical phases or deadlines. Keep them in mind. Taste everything! Adjust as necessary.

Cooking Time. You’ll often have some down time during the process. You definitely will, if you’re baking. Use this time to clean up after yourself. (Clean as you go! Another thing my dad used to say.) Check in on other projects. Answer some email. Begin prep on the next dish.

When you’ve completed your project, let folks know that it’s ready for public consumption. Consume while fresh! Don’t let your work grow stale.

Follow-Up. Review your results. Read the plan you’ve created and update it, especially highlighting any special instructions or pitfalls to avoid. Ensure that your instructions are properly labeled and filed, to make it easy for you and others to refer to them later. Don’t forget to include number of servings. Think about reasonable expectations, considering the circumstances. How long do I expect the results to last? If I want brownies to be available at all times, how frequently do I need to bake them? How many are in one batch? How many of us are eating them, and how frequently? Don’t forget the freezer! You can bake a big batch and freeze individually wrapped squares. Evaluate your project. How can you further leverage the work you’ve completed? Hold a post-mortem review.

Careful preparation and documentation are keys to success, whether you’re building a strategic plan or a sour cream coffee cake. Your reward is the “oohs” and “aahs” that you’ll get from your grateful audience.


Julia Allenby is a Director of Client Services in Virtual’s Wakefield office. She works primarily with Virtual’s standards-setting and technology groups. She has nearly 20 years of experience supporting associations, an MBA in organizational development, and a degree in culinary arts from the California Culinary Academy.

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