How to Execute a Big Vision Regardless of Small Size and Scant Resources: Case Study.

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The National Association for the Remodeling Industry
serves remodeling professionals with 58 chapters that are incorporated individually.  Shari Bates runs the association’s 8th largest chapter in Central Ohio, with a small paid staff. She also follows this blog, and as I found out, has read and successfully applied ideas from my book, the Demand Perspective: Leading from the Outside-In.
I interviewed Bates last week to find out how a small, regional association defines and engages stakeholders on a local level. I learned much more than this: the importance of strategic intelligence in identifying, interpreting, modifying and applying concepts from unfamiliar sources to your challenges and bringing about amazing results; and how the capacity for extrapolation, innovation and re-examination of familiar things through new perspectives trumps size and resources–dramatic change can stem from literally anyone, anywhere, any time.
The first thing that struck Shari Bates from my book was the degree to which “we really do not know our members” beyond the quantitative data and generalized information that conventional market research provides. Such research focuses on narrow product needs in frozen moments in time rather than the underlying motivations and the often unarticulated needs, challenges and aspirations that most matter, as they unfold over time.
Bates applied some of the principles and examples from my book to delve into what mattered to members as people rather than only in relationship to her association. She visited the senior executives of local, member companies and conducted long, in-depth interviews, drawing them out to share their experiences of day-to-day problems, issues, frustrations and successes and their thinking about them.  Interviews often lasted for two hours or more but soon yielded a flood of information and insights that no survey could have ever captured. Immersion in members’ perspectives allowed her to identify small opportunities for making a tangible difference to their success and to start building the basis for mutually beneficial partnership relationships.
In the course of such an informal, intimate conversation, for example, an executive of a tile company shared with Bates her frustration over the lack of professional pictures that showcased their product. “We are not professional photographers,” she said. Nor do we have access to these clients’ homes to have professional photos taken and… they are very expensive.” Yet their sales would increase if consumers could only see their products as integral pieces of a beautifully re-modeled home.
Bates immediately thought of the vast repository of stunning, professional photographs her chapter had.  Member remodeling contractors had submitted them over the years as part of their application for the contractor of the year award. There was a veritable trove of top quality, artistic photos that showcased the company’s products, and which Bates had not considered to be of value to anyone  outside the award process. And suddenly there it was! An opportunity to solve a customer’s nagging problem, leverage a passive asset and build the basis of a deeper relationship with that customer. The grateful executive promised to increase their sponsorship of the association’s events, right on the spot. In my experience, when a relationship shifts from providing products and benefits to providing solutions, new opportunities for identifying more solutions to problems and partnership possibilities continue to emerge.
Bates interviewed 6 different member companies. “Each visit resulted in increased sponsorships and interest in continuing collaboration,” she says and proudly adds: “What’s more, it did not cost me anything.” It was a matter of identifying hidden value through the members’ perspective and leveraging it in new ways.
Shifting from commodity to partnership relationships with these companies could conceivably not only increase sponsorships but even become building blocks of bigger things such as a corporate membership program, custom services, etc.
Bates next tackled the model itself. With the help of a grant from NARI, she took initiative in exploring new models for increasing value to local members beyond the conventional, passive benefit and stand-alone products.
In the case of VIN (the Veterinary Information Network) cited in my book, Bates saw the potential of delivering much higher member value through an on-going community of practice and continuous learning rather than only through standalone, passive products and conventional benefits.  VIN is a virtual membership community for independent veterinarians. It gathers together research resources, tools, experts and peers on a community platform, and brokers relationships and case-based conversations, thus serving as one-stop shopping for its members.  Bates noticed two characteristics in particular that could be easily transferrable to the needs of her members, specifically:

    1.  VIN members could access research data, information, peer or expert advice in real time. Remodelers also work under pressure, with unpredictable schedules and changing plans and, hence, need constant and instantaneous access to information and advice.

    1. Most vets are generalists and need to consult with specialists on tough cases. In the past, tracking down willing and available specialists was a near impossibility. VIN solved this problem by identifying, developing and organizing a group of specialists among its members into a pool of expert “consultants”—answering questions; vetting and curating content. Remodelers similarly need to get advice from peers, suppliers, manufacturers and a variety of vendors and experts to get answers to questions and problems as they arise.

Even though VIN is a much larger organization with 45,000 members, Bates was not intimidated. She decided to scale down, adapt and execute pieces of the model. Never mind that her organization is but a small chapter of a large, national organization without the scope or resources that many think are necessary for major changes. Undaunted she has created a concept for a scaled-down, VIN-like, online forum and plans for execution and is getting close to launch.
And that’s not all.  One of the weaknesses of the chapter model is that it consists of autonomous, local units that lack shared purpose and do not leverage collective assets and economics of scale to increase their value and profitability. Instead of following the same path, Bates formed an alliance with 5 other chapters creating, in essence, an economic value network with value exchanges flowing from all points and benefitting all participants.
Each chapter has committed to 15-20 members—suppliers, manufacturers, to serve as consultants to answer questions. Instead of just gathering members on a platform and leaving them to fend on their own, NARI of Central Ohio, like VIN, will serve as facilitator, content curator, producer, relationship broker who puts the pieces together and enables success.
Sure the concept is on the development stage and has not been tested. But it represents a very different model for serving members by enabling solutions rather than pushing product sales; and building collaborative communities of shared purpose, focused on outcomes.
And something else. There is a potentially new role and definition of chapters implicit in this experiment: as initiators and testers of innovation that could be adopted and scaled by the national association; and as collaborative alliances and economic value networks rather than independent silos.