Hidden reasons why re-invention of member-based rural bodies gets derailed

by | Apr 22, 2013

Having set up, wound up, led and advised on restructuring of agricultural industry bodies, we have observed a familiar pattern. From start-up, they grow, mature and then either slide into terminal decline or innovate and experience a revival.

Declining membership and revenue are all too common with established rural bodies. Yet farm businesses are innovative and resilient in the face of rapid change, so why not their organisations? Many plausible reasons are advanced, but in this article we explore one you rarely hear: people don’t know how to go about it. Indeed, it is actually worse than that: they think they know.

Given the complexity, risks and costs of embarking on industry body re-invention, avoiding the likely pitfalls can increase the chances of success. Looking beyond conventional change management thinking, there are some underlying reasons why institutional innovation gets derailed:

Racing to certainty. It’s wise to invest effort to define the actual problem, causes, possible solutions and futures. True innovation involves uncertainty. Yet from the outset, people will be drawing up the new organisational diagram while beneficiaries of the status quo will be seeking early commitments to limit the scope for change. Rather than being prescriptive, keep your options open and be tolerant of ambiguity, especially in the early stages. Details will come later.

All care and no responsibility. Farmers inevitably get the organisations they deserve. It is easy to criticise, but like creating a world class farming operation, creating a world class industry body takes collective effort. Farmers are the most powerful advocates for change and the main beneficiary of success. However, finding workable solutions is a process, so get involved or support those who are.

Excluding influential stakeholders. We rarely see major change that does not involve the commercially influential farmers in an industry. And we rarely see major change that only involves the commercially influential farmers. Accept that there is interdependence at an industry level and engage early with influential allies and build a unity of purpose.

Repeating past approach. If the need for change has been identified before and implementation failed, learn from that experience. The past process will likely produce the past result, yet people are always surprised when this happens.

Dependency on the usual suspects. A sure-fire way to stifle innovation is by limiting participants in a dialogue on industry strategy and structures. Instead, consider a mix of youth and experience, gender, regional or geographic spread, newness to industry, people who have opted not to be a member, people involved in different markets and production systems and so on.

Depend on politics or a business case for buy-in. A corporate or business mindset works well when change leaders have authority to implement. But industry restructuring involves a multiplicity of interests and requires a blend of business and political savvy. Not one or the other.

The management literature variously reports that 70 per cent or more of change projects fail to produce the intended benefits. We find it better to think of it in reverse – 30 per cent of initiatives produce net benefits for investors. How will you make sure your industry is in that 30 per cent?

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