What Association Boards and CEOs Must Understand in the Age of Polycrisis

De Cagna_polycrisis June 20, 2023 By: Jeff De Cagna, FASAE

With the first third of The Turbulent Twenties behind them, boards and CEOs need to focus on understanding the “polycrisis” and begin setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight to navigate the rest of this decade and beyond.

For most of this decade’s first three years, humanity’s central focus was on the struggle to survive and overcome the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. While we knew that the 2020s would be a time of great turbulence before they began, we were not prepared for the turbulence’s near-immediate arrival or its detrimental impact on every aspect of our lives and our world. The COVID-19 pandemic was a painful wake-up call.

Today, with the first third of The Turbulent Twenties behind us, we are entering into a different and disquieting new phase. While the global health emergency has been rescinded, the pandemic goes on, and we will continue to navigate COVID-19’s enduring consequences. At the same time, fit-for-purpose association boards and their CEOs and staff also need to shift their attention and focus on understanding another threat on the horizon: the polycrisis.

The Age of Polycrisis

In fall 2022, I shared the six toughest decisions association boards must make to anticipate and adapt to the unforgiving conditions still to come in this decade. The first three decisions (reclaiming agency from orthodoxy, caring more about successors than ourselves, and making sacrifices for the long-term benefit of others) urge association boards to become more in every respect: more inclusive than they have been historically, more intentional than they are today, and more influential than perhaps they imagine they can be.

The second three decisions (safeguarding stakeholders/successors from technological harm, addressing the climate emergency, and limiting the damage of ideological extremism) inspire boards to transcend traditional association boundaries and beliefs to confront pressing societal issues and embrace their essential role in leaving the world better than how they found it.

As I wrote at the time, however, “… none of these … decisions … will be a panacea for addressing the wicked problems facing the association community, its organizations, or their stakeholders and successors. Instead, they are offered as direct and immediate challenges to boards to focus their attention on the future and begin nurturing the habits of mind required to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities.”

Looking toward the rest of The Turbulent Twenties, developing and sustaining a shared sense of stewardship among boards, CEOs, staff partners, and other association contributors will become even more critical in the context of the polycrisis.

Columbia University Professor Adam Tooze defines “polycrisis,” a term that originated in the 1970s, as:

"A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts."

The polycrisis is not simply the convergence of multiple simultaneous crises, such as the climate emergency, economic inequality and fragility, geopolitical instability, global health concerns, ideological extremism, and technological harm, but also the increasing entanglement among them that further deepens and exacerbates their collective negative impact on humanity.

The myriad social, technological, economic, environmental, and political forces that have been reshaping the world over the last 15-plus years have created conditions of deep, accelerating, and systemic global risk, which has enabled the emergence of the polycrisis. In The Age of Polycrisis, our most important institutions, including associations, have a clear and demanding responsibility to work together to identify and implement solutions to address each underlying crisis without worsening the other crises.

As I have reflected on the polycrisis and its implications for the association community, I also have felt a certain hesitancy to write about them out of concern that this crucial challenge for association boards and CEOs would be dismissed as just another buzzword. While there has been some backlash (and the suggestion of competing terms such as “multicrisis” or “permacrisis”), I agree with Canadian researchers Thomas Homer-Dixon, Michael Lawrence, and Scott Janzwood, who argue, “[t]he debate around the term polycrisis boils down to whether we really understand the mess we’re in. And clearly, we don’t.”

Three Considerations for Boards and CEOs

As boards and CEOs contemplate the significance of the polycrisis for their associations, stakeholders, and successors, it will be vital for them to situate their thinking and action in the context of the six toughest decisions and with the clear intention of setting a higher standard of stewardship, governing, and foresight (SGF). Here are three critical considerations for boards and CEOs to keep in mind:

Discard orthodox beliefs about crisis. Earlier this year, an Associations Now article asked whether boards are ready for the next crisis. It is an important question that requires reframing for a world of polycrisis. In The Turbulent Twenties and into the 2030s, boards and CEOs must discard the orthodox linear view of crises occurring one at a time in favor of a more adaptive perspective that recognizes and examines the complex and dynamic interactions among multiple crises happening at once. By choosing to think and act beyond this and other detrimental orthodox beliefs, boards and CEOs can reclaim their agency and build their associations to become true 21st-century societal institutions capable of making a positive-sum impact on the polycrisis.

Develop a disciplined practice of intentional learning. The advent of the polycrisis reinforces the foundational SGF principle for boards and CEOs that intentional learning is a non-negotiable requirement. To ensure their collaborative learning efforts deliver the desired benefits, boards and CEOs must focus their attention, minimize distractions, and overcome the inertia created by orthodoxy to concentrate on a comprehensive and disciplined practice of sense-making, meaning-making, and decision-making relative to the polycrisis. This consistent learning practice also must be inclusive by reaching out to gather a full range of heterodox perspectives drawn from diverse stakeholders within the industry and professional ecosystems in which every association is involved.

Prioritize making sacrifices today. The next definition of the board’s duty of foresight requires boards to stand up for their successors’ futures. The emerging polycrisis is a moment of truth for boards and CEOs to demonstrate that they care about their successors and to reaffirm their commitment to long-term thinking and action on their behalf. This commitment must include the clear-eyed choice to make tangible and meaningful sacrifices today for the primary benefit of people current decision-makers will never know personally. Any viable pathway out of the polycrisis will require more dispassionate decision-making by boards and CEOs to reduce their successors’ risks and potential exposure to harm through present-day sacrifice.

If there is a chance to overcome the growing and potentially devastating threats we face, associations must play a central role in confronting them to shape different and better futures. At this critical inflection point in our trajectory toward the future, delaying difficult decisions through inaction is not an option. The association community needs boards, CEOs, and staff partners to work together to navigate the radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk of The Age of Polycrisis.

Jeff De Cagna, FASAE

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE, is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia.