Is Your Association Riding a Dead Horse?

That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Who would want to ride a dead horse? Who COULD ride a dead horse?

Okay, I’m not being literal here; more symbolic. In this sense, “riding a dead horse” is an interestingly visual way of describing still engaging a particular activity that stopped having good result some time ago. These could be systems, programs, events, strategies, or business practices. In other words, still attempting a program or strategy that clearly no longer produces a positive outcome is the same as “riding a dead horse.”

Associations sometimes find themselves in this pattern of behavior. The programs and services that worked beautifully years ago no longer do, and the reasons are varied. People tire of a particular “tradition” over time, and no longer wish to participate. The culture of a group’s membership changes constantly, and the newer generation does not find the “old ways” appealing. What may have been “cool” in years past no longer plays, yet the leaders from that era may still keep trying to re-create the past without success. There is no sin in killing a program that no longer fills a need as it once did – even if it is a tradition.

Associations can be guilty of altering pieces of a program or event, for example, that no longer engages member interest, to make it successful once again, not realizing that “tweaking” it won’t make it relevant. We’ll try to change the timing of the event – or the price – or the location – or the theme – or the title – hoping that these alterations will add up to renewed success. In actuality, when we find ourselves “riding the dead horse,” we must examine our target audience and engage something completely and totally fresh and new.

An illustrative piece given to me years ago in a professional development seminar, said this: 

The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that ‘When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.’  However, in many organizations, a range of far more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:

  • Changing riders
  • Appointing a committee to study the horse
  • Arranging to visit other organizations and companies to see how they ride their dead horses
  • Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included
  • Reclassifying the dead horse as ‘living impaired’
  • Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse
  • Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed
  • Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse’s performance
  • Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance
  • Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed; it is less costly, carries lower overhead, and therefore contributes substantially more to the mission of the organization than do some other horses
  • Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses, living or dead.

While humorous, that piece does accurately illustrate in an absurd way what people attempt to do to save or keep a tactic or system that is no longer useful. We must always catch ourselves when we begin to think this way, and decide to be creative and leave our comfort zone.