Sunday, December 26, 2010

Remember, You're Running a Business, Too



My last post on What WikiLeaks Should Teach Association Executives got a fair amount of play in the Twitterverse, when KiKi L'Italien decided to theme her weekly #assnchat Twitter chat around it. I'm still struggling with this "real-time" web thing, but I tuned in for as long as I could, and I saw a lot of great insight on the subject being shared. In general, the tweeps participating seemed to embrace the idea that transparency trumped secrecy in today's hyper-connected society, and that associations were especially suited to this kind of operation. I myself, caught got up in the spirit of things, contributing such pithy points as:



And then, a few days later, still feeling smart and the Twitterverse inexorably passing around dozens of other tasty posts from dozens of other bloggers, I read this.

WikiLeaks opens a whole new world of risk for your business. With infoanarchists scrambling to pry loose your secrets and put them on the web — partly just because they can — the danger is mind-boggling.

Forget about worrying that some executive's flip e-mail message will fall into the wrong hands. Now there's a real risk that the entire corporate brain could be exposed, just as the diplomatic brain of the U.S. government has been opened for all to explore.


It's another post on the HBR blog, and it's written by and for business executives who are running organizations that make and sell goods in a competitive market. They're sometimes easy for me to dismiss, but this one cut through the not-for-profit mindset in which my brain is often steeped. Wait a minute, I thought, I run an association, sure, but am I not also a business executive running an organization that makes and sells goods in a competitive marketplace?

My previous post and much of the #assnchat discussion seemed focused on the idea that an association's business communications could be fairly easily divided into two broad categories: (1) The confidential, which you wouldn't in your right mind put up on social media or send through email anyway; and (2) Everything else, which, as long as it hung together with consistency and transparency, presented no risks for slipping into the wrong hands.

But I forgot about a third category--not so much business communication as business information.

The trade association I work for conducts several very popular statistics programs on our industry. Our members submit their sales data to a confidential third party, and they produce aggregated reports on total sales volume and market share that are sent back to participating companies. They are consistently rated as among the most valuable services my association provides.

Thinking like a business executive, I realized that should these aggregated reports get "WikiLeaked" for all to see, then the member service I'm providing will lose much of its value. And if the confidential sales data given to us by individual members got the same exposure, I'm fairly sure our association would pretty much be finished.

So while we're all busy patting ourselves on the back for making sure that our private communications match the form and content of our public ones, let's not forget that we're also running a business in a competitive marketplace, and that confidential data protection is as much an issue for us as it is for any business. When your competitive advantage depends on any form of "secret" information, then there's more than one lesson that WikiLeaks should be teaching you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What Wikileaks Should Teach Association Executives



I don't want to get into the politics of the Wikileaks story, but this post from the HBR blog really got me thinking this week. In reflecting on what it means when a professional, technically sophisticated, and well-protected government such as the United States suffers an intelligence breach of this magnitude, the author specualtes on what that might mean for the rest of us.

And here is the obvious implication, which reaches beyond governments to companies and even to individuals. Thanks to Wikileaks, you can now expect that day to come when your most private and candid communications will appear for all to peruse. In preparation for that moment, you better make sure that your private dealings match your public declarations, if not perfectly then at least pretty close.

Which begs the question--how well would your association survive a "Wikileaks dump" of its private communications?

Most association execs I know do a good job separating their public from their private communications. As popular as email and social networking are these days for associations, most are sensitive to the fact that these are largely "open" platforms, and as such, save their most private and confidential discussions for other forms of communication. The telephone. The face-to-face meeting. We know these tools still have a place in our modern world--and perhaps Wikileaks teaches us that place is now more important than ever.

But in an age of voice-over IP and cell phone video uploads to YouTube, even the telephone and the face-to-face meeting may no longer be as private as we once thought they were. There may indeed come a day when communications transmitted with these tools will be just as accessible and searchable as the diplomatic cables now up on the Wikileaks site.

So what's a humble exec to do? We will always need a way to communicate privately with individuals--I don't see that ending anytime soon. But if our private actions are not in line with our public personas, we will find more challenges ahead than we know what to do with.

As I prepare to meet the new frontier that will be 2011, I'm going to do my best not to treat Wikileaks as a cautionary tale, and not retreat from being who I am online, seeking engagement with others also committed to being their authentic selves. Instead, I will choose to view Wikileaks as a call-to-action, and a reminder that we can only achieve what our organizations need us to by making sure our private actions match our public ones.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Clinic of Innovation



Here's another fascinating post about innovation from the HBR blog. It describes the first-of-its-kind "Clinic of Innovation" at Oslo University Hospital--an internal unit within the hospital that is set-up to work like an outpatient health clinic. But instead of treating people, this clinic treats ideas. Innovative ideas from a variety of hospital stakeholders walk in, are diagnosed, and are treated or referred; some are sent home with a prescription for further development, and an appointment for a follow-up visit. Those that pass muster are provided technical support and, if necessary, business model development and commercialization.

It's an interesting approach and the post contains a lot of thoughtful suggestions for designing a successful innovation process. But I want to focus in on the underlying concept--that for an innovation process to succeed, it must align with the organization's culture and way of thinking. In the case of Oslo Univeristy Hospital, shaping the identity of the innovation clinic and modeling its processes along the lines of an outpatient health clinic was a deliberate decision. The founders reasoned that healthcare professionals would find it easier to relate to a clinic than a different model borrowed from the business world.

That's an important lesson for any association executive interested in increasing the ability of their organization to generate and execute innovative ideas. The principles of innovation in the WSAE white paper on Innovation for Associations talk about the need to make sure the top leadership of your association embraces a culture of innovation. In our task force's discussions on the subject, I think we drew an implicit conclusion from that principle. If your top leadership does NOT embrace innovation, then the long and sometimes painful process of culture change is the prescription you need to take in order to bring innovation to your association. But perhaps Oslo University Hospital shows us that there are other ways to skin that cat. Perhaps there are situations where culture change is not a necessity. Rather, a strategy to define innovation in terms understood and mechanisms relied upon by the current leadership culture could also make a difference.

In my career, I've worked for a number of medical specialty societies--associations steeped in an academic culture of research, teaching and patient care, not unlike the hospital described in the HBR post. A "clinic of innovation" might work well in that environment, even if the association leadership is generally resistant to other kinds of change and new ideas. A trade association of business owners may be equally resistant to changing how their association does things, even while clearly seeing the need for their companies to adapt to a changing marketplace and to find better, faster and cheaper ways to meet the needs of their customers. Clear, concise "business cases" for each innovative idea seeking approval may evoke a more thoughtful review by these professionals.

Aligning efforts to innovate in the association with the fundmental culture of the specialty or industry it serves may be one of the most effective ways sidestep the necessity of culture change and get a stagnant association on a more innovative footing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do You Want Your Members to Be "Smart" or "Stupid"?



I mentioned Michael Schrage a few posts ago as one of the HBR bloggers that I make sure I read each time he posts. Here's one of his latest: Should Your Best Customers Be Stupid?

In it, he dissects the difference between customers who know how much your services really cost (referring to them as "smart" customers) and those who don't (referring to them as "stupid"), and shares experiences he's had with companies that charge "stupid" customers much higher prices than "smart" ones. In some ways, the post is a little too business school for me (i.e., information asymmetry"), but definitely worth a read.

And it got me thinking. Are association members generally "smart" or "stupid"?

Well, using Schrage's definitions, I'd have to say most in my experience have been "stupid," in the sense that they generally don't know the true cost of the association products and services that they access and use. But unlike Schrage's case study, in which the "stupid" customer overestimates this value, and is therefore willing to pay higher prices for the service, I'd say most association members underestimate the cost of association services. Remember the look on the face of your program chair when you told him the hotel coffee costs $85 a gallon?

And this sets up a competely different dynamic in many associations from the one Schrage describes. Schrage is talking specifically about IT consulting. There, the "stupid" customer says, "Wow, that software is cool! It must be really expensive." And is willing to pay a premium for it. But the "stupid" association member attending one of your conferences says, "Ugh, that box lunch was awful! Why did you charge me $40 for it?" In Schrage's world, if the customer finds out how much the software really costs, they’ll demand a lower price or go to another provider. But in our world, what will the member do if they find out how much that box lunch really costs? And what if we're not talking about something as commoditized as a box lunch? What if we're talking about the cost of the professional expertise and administrative expense necessary to manage a certification program?

I think we'd all agree that there's value in educating your association Board about how much things actually cost so they can make better decisions about the organization's competencies and capabilities. But I would argue that we should also be helping our regular members better understand the value--and cost--of the services they are receiving. Too often association managers seem reluctant to share this information, afraid, I suppose, that members will decide the services aren't worth the price they have to pay to support them. But the alternative, I think, is worse. If they know how much things cost, they may be better able to help you tailor those services better to their needs.

If they knew, for example, that you could lower the registration fee for the meeting by letting them pick up their own coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby, they just might take you up on it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The World Database of Innovation--CLOSED!


I first stumbled across The World Database of Innovation in this HBR blog post from a few months ago. Like I often do when I find something interesting, I email it myself with a note to investigate it more deeply when I have time. The blog post is by Uri Neren, and it says:

The World Database of Innovation we are compiling, as a collaborative effort between my firm, Generate Companies, and several universities, represents over 20,000 hours of work to date. As well as over 200 in-depth case studies, it compiles the ideas of 4,500 or so innovation experts and consultancies.

And the website, when you go to it, says this:

Generate has discovered more than 105 areas of best practices in innovation. We are working in collaboration with innovation thought leaders from around the globe to collect their works in one place on each of best practice area of innovation including:

- Theories and Schools of Thought (14 distinct theories)
- Invention Methodologies (more than 162 discovered so far)
- Conditions for Innovation (17 aspects of culture)
- Tools for Innovation (5208 tools)
- Definitions of Innovation
- Stuctural Types of the Corporate Innovation Function
- Components of a Company's Innovation Function
- Statistics and Research
- Corporate Case Studies
- Myths
- Innovation Team Skill Sets
- Innovation Types Created
- Innovation Tools
- Innovation Tool Types
- and many more...


And I'm thinking, fantastic! Five thousand two hundred and eight tools for innovation! This is exactly the kind of resource I need to tap to help build the model of innovation for the association community I've been discussing on this blog and leading on behalf of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. How do I get into this thing?

If you would like to submit your best practice, consultant profile, or other research and materials for consideration to be entered in the database, please begin by using our contact form. All contributors will be given credit and will gain the chance for public recognition and to be matched with Generate's corporate clients.

What? Wait a minute, what's this? I have to apply to see what's inside this thing? The blog post and this website is just a sales pitch? What's on this contact form, anyway?

Please call or use the Generate Companies web form below. We'll get back to you quickly either way.

And then just fields to fill in for your name, email and phone number.

You know, this innovation thing is business commodity. And a proprietary one in some people's minds, evidently.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Next Steps for Association Innovation



This is an exciting time for the WSAE Innovation Task Force. At our last meeting on November 19 we talked about several new initiatives whose success will clearly depend on getting people in the broader community engaged, so I thought I'd share an update here on Hourglass and see if there's anyone out there who'd like to get involved with our objective of defining an evidence-based model of innovation for associations. I've pointed out in the summary below the places where we're especially looking for help, but please feel free to contact me with any ideas and interests you may have.

First of all, our white paper on association innovation is nearly finished. I've posted draft excerpts of the white paper here on Hourglass (here, here and here), but we hope the final version will have much broader dissemination within the association community. We’re looking for appropriate venues to publish and/or present the paper, and encourage your suggestions and help in disseminating it.

Second, we are currently working on a new online community dedicated to innovation for associations. In addition to being a great networking site, we will be using the levels of innovation readiness described in our white paper (and here, here and here on Hourglass) to structure and conduct facilitated conversations in this community, with the hope that they will help us identify and validate practical strategies for innovative practice. We expect that this exciting innovation “hub” will allow us to connect with a much wider audience and aggregate our industry’s state-of-the-art practices into a comprehensive model of innovation that can serve everyone’s needs as we each move forward with brining innovation to our associations. We're looking for several volunteers to help with this initiative, as we will need identified discussion leaders to monitor conversations and to extract the salient nuggets of information for our evolving innovation model. Let me know if you're interested.

And third, we're beginning to plan for a National Summit on Association Innovation, to be held in conjunction with WSAE’s Annual Educational Conference, September 15, 2011, in Madison, WI. Using the innovation model developed by the online community, we plan to structure a day of activities designed to allow individual participants to construct their own roadmaps of innovation for their associations. Speakers on innovation in the for-profit and non-profit sectors are envisioned, with a majority of the time spent in targeted breakout and discussion sessions. A conference planning committee is currently being assembled to help organize this event, and we hope to attract association executives from around the nation to participate. Please let me know if you have an interest in attending or helping to plan this unique conference.

Photo source

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Bedrock of Innovation



I was combing through my backlog of HBR blog posts recently and came across this one from shortly after Google pulled the plug on their Google Wave experiment (remember that?). I think it was way back in August 2010. The blogger, Karim R. Lakhani, is reacting to the hue and cry that followed Google's "failure."

Failure of course is always a possibility with any attempt at innovation. Indeed the bedrock of innovation is failure. Unpacking the history of most innovative products and services will reveal a long track record of failure where innovators attempted many different (failed) ideas and approaches on their way to create high-value solutions. These failures are a necessary on the path of innovation and executives and managers need to build an organizational culture that has a high tolerance for failure so that that their staff don't second guess big risky ideas and instead propose incremental bets.

This really hit home for me. As I've written before, I'm chairing the WSAE Innovation Task Force, and we recently identified the freedom to experiment and fail as one of the core principles of innovation the for-profit sector has embraced that the non-profit sector still needs to work on.

As Lakhani points out, I believe it is incumbent on leaders to build organizational cultures with high tolerances for risk. To shrink from this challenge, to allow risk aversion to dominate our culture, is to relegate our best efforts to little more than incremental improvements. Nothing else can survive where risk is feared. The perceieved price of failure in these environments is too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

Photo Source

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Innovation = Creativity x Execution



This is a fantastic post on innovation from Vijay Govindarajan, co-author of the new book, The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. In it, he really drives home the point that the hard part of innovation is not the creativity, the coming up with innovative ideas; but the execution, the translating the ideas into action.

Maybe because of the way my brain works, I really like the mathematical model he uses to make his point:

We like to think of an organization's capacity for innovation as creativity multiplied by execution. We use "multiplication" rather than "sum" because, if either creativity or execution has a score of zero, then the capacity for innovation is zero.

It's excellent. And he goes on to illustrate the "multipler effect" successful execution can have on innovation efforts:

Here's why we worked on execution, as opposed to creativity: We surveyed thousands of executives in Fortune 500 companies to rate their companies' innovation skills on a scale of one to 10, one being poor and 10 world class. Survey participants overwhelmingly believe that their companies are better at generating ideas (average score of six) than they are at commercializing them (average score of one).

So which is more effective--moving your (already good) creativity score from six to eight or lifting your (very poor) execution score from one to three? Here's the math using our shorthand, creativity times execution:

Capacity to innovate = 6 x 1 = 6

Capacity to innovate, increasing creativity score = 8 x 1 = 8

Capacity to innovate, increasing execution score = 6 x 3 = 18

It's no contest. Companies tend to focus far more attention on improving the front end of the innovation process, the creativity. But the real leverage is in the back end.

Simple and effective in underscoring the importance of execution in any innovation effort. It's also something I've realized as part of my work with the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. We've recently framed that discussion around three levels of "innovation readiness," which can succinctly be summarized as "build the right culture," "design the right process," and "apply the right resources." In this construction, the creativity piece, the generation of innovative ideas, takes a back seat to a culture that embraces those ideas, a process that solicits and prioritizes them, and the resources that translate them into action.

There's more work ahead for the Task Force as we begin to flesh out the details of these three levels, looking to work with organizations that have developed successful strategies for each objective. I wonder if Govindarajan's book would be worth a read. Has anyone read it? Any ideas to suggest from it?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who Will Change the Workplace?

Okay, Eric, your post from last Tuesday has me thinking. I read McAfee's post and yours, and I get it. When a new generation comes into the workforce, we tend to freak out. There is an interesting pattern to the freaking out, though.

Strauss and Howe argue that generations follow a pattern, alternating between dominant and recessive. Baby Boomers, they argue, are a "dominant" generation. That makes X recessive and then Millennials dominant again (and if you want to go back, the Silent Generation was recessive). So think about it. When the first silents entered the workforce (end of WW2), they didn't really shake things up, because the whole country had just been shaken up and we wanted stability. They took command and control into the manufacturing economy and ran with it. When the Boomers (dominant) entered the workforce, they shook things up because it was the 60s and everything was being shaken up. When Xers (recessive) hit the workforce, we confused the status quo and the question was how is the workplace going to deal with us. Now Millennials come along and the predominant message is they are going to shake things up.

See the pattern? We think recessive generations will blend in or get assimilated, and we think dominant generations will change things. The hourglass shape of the demographics of the last three generations, by the way, only reinforces this trend (two BIG dominant generations around one small recessive one). When McAfee pushes back, he's got a point (because we always need someone to push back against the trend).

But one thing I find interesting, as I pointed out over on my blog, if you look at nearly ANY organization today, you will see a command and control culture, which was the hallmark of the Silents. All this talk about shaking things up, and we still have command and control cultures? We hardly have any more silent generation members in our workforce, yet we're swimming in their culture! So maybe McAfee is right--no matter who the new generation is, things don't change so quickly.

But here's the rub. Things are changing more quickly now. Not generationally--that's about every twenty years. But in most other areas, the pace of change has gone through the roof. In the 90s it took four years for the internet to reach 50 million users, but today Facebook can add 200 million users in nine months. By the time you finish a four-year degree, the stuff you learned in your first year is outdated.

I think the workplace will change significantly in the next several years. It won't be BECAUSE of the millennials, but it is quite possible that they will be better able to adapt to the changes that are happening, and this notion of whether or not the Boomers will give up their spots may become a moot point, because it's rooted in a Silent-Boomer-Xer understanding of the workplace that isn't as relevant any more.

You want to know who is going to change the workplace?

You. So what's it going to be?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Managing by Collaboration



The recent blog posts by Joe Rominiecki and Jamie Notter on collaboration got me thinking. Like a lot of blog posts I read, these didn’t prompt any profound conclusions (my fault, not theirs), but they did get me thinking about collaboration and how I use it as a management tool in the workplace.

Then I listened to this podcast from HBR, where Peter Cappelli is interviewed about managing older workers.

First of all, Chuck Nyren would love the podcast. If you followed the discussion he and I had in the comments to my post Don't Forget the Baby Boomers, you know he's all about the vibrancy and continuing cultural influence of Baby Boomers. And the podcast makes many of the same points. Boomers still have a lot to contribute and will be with us in the workplace for years yet to come. In singing their praises, Peter describes older workers as being better at just about everything than younger workers--except maybe taking SAT tests.

And one kernel of wisdom I found in Peter's comments had to do with management style, and how the “manage by expertise” model of previous generations is and must start giving way to the “manage by collaboration” model.

Yesterday’s boss was likely older than you. He had been around longer and knew more than you did. That’s why he was the boss. He had the technical expertise and he used it to manage you. It was his job to tell you what to do and it was your job to do it.

But today’s and increasingly tomorrow’s boss is likely not older than you. As the workforce ages and as more younger workers move into management roles, your boss is likely to be younger than you. You probably know more about what to do and how to do than she does. She doesn't have your expertise, but that's okay, because her job isn’t to tell you what to do. Her job is to coordinate what you do with what other people on the team do, to set objectives for team and individual performance, and to hold people accountable for success. In doing so, she won't tell you what to do like yesterday's boss did. Instead, she will collaborate with you, and foster collaboration among you and all the other team members. She needs all of your individual expertises and everyone's active collaboration to do her job. She can't determine the right boundaries for successful performance without it.

It's the way I work and the way I manage (or at least try to). I do it with my staff, but I do it with our volunteers and Board members, too. I'm the boss so it's my job to set the objectives, but in order to set objectives that are achieveable I have to collaborate with people--and many of those people are older, more experienced, and more technically adept than me.

Hey, Peter? I wonder if that’s something else younger workers might be better at than older ones?

Photo source

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Arguing for Generational Superiority



This is another one of those posts challenging the assumption that as Millennials storm their way into the workforce they're going to radically change the landscape and force organizations to adapt to their idiosyncratic ideals in order to harness their power and survive. It's a good post as these posts go, and Andrew McAfee throws in the obligatory pop culture reference to make sure you're paying attention.

But what always fascinates me about these posts is how many comments they get. McAfee got 91 comments with this one. 91! The average on HBR seems to be about 10.

Not that I'm jealous or anything.

If you take time to start reading through those comments, you discover that the majority are from a much smaller group of people--people from different generations--arguing back and forth over whether Millennials are special or not. Here's how it typically goes:

Millennial: I'm a Millennial and I'm different!

Xer: Oh yeah? Well, I'm an Xer, and twenty years ago I was just like you. Millennials aren't any different.

Millennial: Yes we are! We're more experienced and more marketable than previous generations at our age. We deserve rewards for the skills we're bringing to the table. And we're not content with the status quo. We want to shake things up and create new ways of doing things.

Xer: We wanted the same things when we were your age. Ugh! We still want those things! But we learned that those things don't come without making sacrifices to exitsing power structures. You need to learn the same thing.

Millennial: But we shouldn't have to! We're special!

Xer: No you're not. Now wait your turn.

Boomer: I don't know what you two are arguing about. Nobody's getting nothing till I get mine.

And so it goes. Let me sum up with this comment:

Ninety percent of the talk about the new generation changing the way we work is just that--talk. Millennials will have an impact. Just like Xers did and Boomers did before them. But that impact will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. It won't be realized until Millennials are fully integrated into the workforce and hold a significant number leadership positions. And by that time everyone will be talking about a new generation of youngsters coming into the workplace to shake things up.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Lost Generation of Leadership?



Okay. You're going to think I'm crazy or paranoid or both on this one. I've been slogging through a backlog of articles I thought I might want to comment on here on Hourglass. One that caught my eye is an interview with Bill George that was published on Forbes.com.

You may remember Bill George from the ASAE Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. He was the featured speaker at the only general session I attended at the meeting. And he's saying the same thing in this interview that he said in Los Angeles--namely that we need a new generation of leaders to take over the organizations built by Boomers.

I'm with you, Bill. My question is--which generation are you talking about?

The interview begins with:

Q: You have said that the younger generation, people under 45 or so, should be taking over in business because they are showing stronger leadership and more focus on their "true north" than their seniors. What do you mean by that?

A: I think we are going through a massive generational change in leadership. We baby boomers were raised in an era coming out of two world wars and the Depression that our parents had experienced. We didn't live through that, but our parents' experience was very real to us. From that we developed a command-and-control mentality of how to run an organization.

The great corporations of the world in the 1950s and '60s were command-and-control organizations. With this new century, that concept of command and control has totally gone out, because employees today are knowledge workers, they have options, and they don't stay around. Most important, they're looking for meaning, not just money. I think today's great leaders will know how to empower people, all of us, to step up and lead. So it's not a command-and-control type situation, and it's not exerting power over the people. It's aligning people to a mission and values and getting them to step up and lead, and getting them to recognize that their job is to serve a certain customer first and not the shareholder.

That's what I think the younger generation, those under 40 or 45, really understands. I think particularly for my students who are in their late twenties this is a great opportunity. The global economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 was a crucible experience for them in that they recognize that the way we were going until then was headed for sheer destruction. They have a chance to recover, whereas a lot of the older leaders of Wall Street are passing from the scene and have no chance to recover.

Note that the question starts with "people under 45." Well, that includes a piece of GenX, right? Strauss and Howe says GenXers were born 1961-1981, making them 29-49 today, so "people under 45" includes about 75% of Generation X. But then after a fairly lucid analysis, Bill modifies it in his answer to "those under 40 or 45." If he's talking about people under 40, then we're only including roughly 50% of Generation X.

And then there's the real zinger. "I think particularly for my students who are in their late twenties this is a great opportunity." Late twenties? That's so thin a slice of Generation X that it's hardly Generation X at all.

Bill then goes on to describe 2000-2010 as "the lost decade of leadership." He chronicles the collapse of the dot coms that started the decade, then the ethical problems at companies like Enron and WorldCom, and then the financial meltdown of the last two years. He's not explicit about which "generation" of leaders were responsible for all those disasters, but he clearly believes a failure of leadership is to blame.

But not to worry. There is hope. The interview closes with:

Q. Broadly speaking, what makes you most hopeful about today's leaders?

A. I'm very hopeful about the younger leaders who are stepping up and taking over. I hope that the generational change in leadership will come quickly, and I hope it will give younger people an opportunity to step up and lead major organizations as well as start-ups and new organizations. I'm most hopeful about the new leaders who have been appointed in the last three or four years at corporations large and small. I'm hopeful we can get a whole new generation that will step up and lead with a higher sense of ethics and values, not just for its own sake but for recognizing that that's the best way to build an organization and the right way to sustain success.

Sounds good, Bill, but again, which generation of leaders are you talking about? The age ranges you highlight at the top of the interview make me wonder how young you think this new crop of enlightened leaders are, but it only takes one look at the URL that Forbes.com assigned to this article to determine who they think those leaders are.

http://www.forbes.com/2010/07/19/bill-george-generations-baby-boom-millennial-leadership-citizenship-ethisphere.html?partner=email

"baby-boom-millennial-leadership"? Where's Generation X in this whole leadership discussion? Lost once again.

Photo © Copyright Peter Ward and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Misfit Leaders



I mentioned Dan Pallotta a post or so ago as one of the bloggers at the Harvard Business Review that I always make sure I read. His posts sometimes sit in my "to read" pile for a while before I get to them, but I always get to them because, even though I don't always agree with him, I find his ideas challenging and inspiring.

Here's the latest case in point--Misfit Entrepreneurs.

"There's a misfit in each of us," Pallotta says, "and it's the most delicate, precious thing that we have."

Sadly, most people make it their life's mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same "regurgitations," as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you'd see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it's Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Why do we do this? Because, Pallotta says, "To embrace the misfit in oneself is to be vulnerable."

It is to forsake the easy acceptance that comes with fitting in and to instead be fortified by a kind of love, really. A love of life, a love of wonder, and, ultimately, a sustaining love for oneself. Far from egoism, that love for oneself is a measure of one's love for others, for humanity. And it is only from love that great ideas can be born.

And those who embrace their inner misfit, who turn this vulnerability--this love of a great idea--out towards the world? Well, they, Pallotta says, become the greatest entrepreneurs of all.

This kind of love cannot be taught in business school. It has to be felt. It has to be given sanctuary away from the noise and relentless assault of information. And then it has to be nurtured. It must be embraced, in the light of day, for all to see, for people to ridicule, to criticize, to laugh at. And the entrepreneur has to be willing to feel the pain of that ridicule and suffer the risk of the dream being stolen, or crushed by the meanness of this world. But the misfit doesn't worry about that. The misfit has a higher calling: to bring the unmanifest into being, no matter who is saying what.

"Vulnerability," Pallotta concludes, "is the absence of cynicism." And all the great entrepreneurs he knows have this willingness to be vulnerable, this abject lack of cynicism.

It's inspiring stuff. But it leaves me with a few questions.

Are GenX leaders willing to vulnerable? Yes, in my experience, they certainly are. As I've recently argued, they generally don't pretend that they know everything, and are far more willing to have their ideas challenged than leaders of previous generations.

But aren't GenX leaders cynical? You bet they are. I think it's their cynicism that makes them vulnerable. It makes them second guess institutions, other people, and even their own assumptions, and they're constantly seeking multiple options and fall back positions as a result.

So can GenX leaders be great entrepreneurs? To better define what he means by a great entrepreneur, Pallotta tells this story:

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where [Walt] Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, "Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children." And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: "Is this all there is?" And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

Well, if that's the definition--some one who asks "Is that all there is" and then sets about to really change things--then yes, I would say GenX leaders can be great entrepreneurs. I'm cynical, but I still believe the world can be changed. Don't you?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don't Forget the Baby Boomers



Not too long ago a friend sent me a link to this article about "Why Marketers Can't Afford to Ignore Baby Boomers." In a culture that endlessly focuses on youth, the article warns marketers not to overlook a group that has tremendous buying power: the 78 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. today.

My first reaction was less than sympathetic. Are you kidding me? I thought. Has the person who wrote this never watched television? Or flipped through a magazine? Who do they think all those prescription drug and car commercials are for? Millennials? There's a reason why Pfizer uses Queen to sell Viagra.

But ever since getting this message I've been paying closer attention to the advertisements I see and who they seem to be aimed at. And I must admit, I'm seeing more and more that are aimed at younger generations. But even those, I find, are being sure to include Baby Boomers in their campaigns, even when the products being sold appeal to much younger demographics.

My favorite example is Verizon's Rule the Air ad campaign. I see these ads everywhere--magazines, airports, bus stops--even online (I don't watch much TV). They always seem to feature young people as the models we should emulate. This video clip contains a line that pretty much says it all. Air..."does not filter out an idea because I'm 16 and not 30." Gosh, 30, huh? That is old.

But if you go to Verizon's website and check out all the faces they're using in this campaign, you see that they are, in fact, covering all the generational bases. There might not be any Silents in their montage (but they, after all, have their own special cell phones), but everyone else is there. And if you start paying really close attention, you discover that the faces change depending on the media outlet the ad appears in. Those that cater to younger audiences get the younger faces. Those that cater towards older audiences get the older ones. And why shouldn't they? The marketing folks at Verizon, after all, are no dummies.

But having said all that, I still see no evidence that Madison Avenue has forgotten about the Baby Boomers. I tried but couldn't find statistics that show what percentage of advertising is aimed at each generation, but from where I sit Baby Boomers are still the champs. Like every generation, they have products that are pitched directly to them but, as the Verizon campaign shows, they're also included in campaigns for products that skew younger. In other words, you'll find ads for cell phones in the pages of Newsweek, but you won't find ads for prescription drugs on Mashable.com.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Generations, Leadership, and Default Modes

Eric's last post about the Generation X approach to leadership has me thinking. It makes sense to me that generations will view the idea of "leadership" differently, and the point Eric raised--is it okay for a leader to be unsure or admit he or she is wrong--is a good one. As an Xer, I agree it's a "duh" moment, though I'd probably also agree with that being a strong "P" on the Myers-Briggs scale (always looking for more data!).

But I doubt that would be a "duh" to previous generations. When I speak on this topic and talk about the Silent Generation, I tell the story from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks' character is talking to a glider pilot. The pilot recounts a story about how a General demanded to have his own jeep bolted to the glider so he'd have it when they landed on D-Day. This made the glider impossible to fly, however, and dozens of soldiers died as a result. Tom Hanks and his crew simply responded with shaking their heads and saying "FUBAR" (an acronym, meaning Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition). "Leadership" for that generation was about winning a war and getting out of the depression and it was NOT something that was challenged, either in the moment or afterward even if it didn't work. There was simply too much important work to be done--you had to just move on.

And Boomers are known for being very focused on "the cause," and are sometimes conflict averse, because you would never want to reveal that your cause is splintered. So in the moment, you stand up with conviction and push your vision clearly and strongly.

Those are the "leadership" models that they grew up with. So it's not that they would necessarily disagree with a single statement, like being a good boss is a mix of confidence and humility, but that's still not likely to be their "default" mode. Similarly, there are times where the humility and open-ended approach of the Xers is not going to work. We'll recognize that in the abstract, but OUR default mode may be to go back to questioning, and that might not serve us.

So any time you find yourself in a "well duh" moment, it's both an opportunity to explore the perspective of people who don't see it that way AND it's an opportunity to look at where your own "default" modes may get in the way of you being effective.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The "Well, duh" Generation



I've been following the Harvard Business Review blog now for as long as I've been blogging at Hourglass. I find it informative and insightful. I don't read every post (they have a lot of bloggers over there), but have developed the habit of following certain ones that I find especially relevant to my world and, dare I say it, inspiring. Bloggers like Umair Haque, Dan Pallotta, and, increasingly, Michael Schrage.

But every once and a while I come across a post that leaves me thinking nothing but, "Well, duh. Doesn't everyone already know that?"

Case in point is this post from Robert I. Sutton titled "A Great Boss is Confident, But Not Really Sure." In it, Sutton has a model for those who aspire to be a truly great boss to follow:

...the people we consider wise have the courage to act on their beliefs and convictions at the same time that they have the humility to realize that they might be wrong, and must be prepared to change their beliefs and actions when better information comes along.

To which I react with a big "well, duh." In fact, tying this more to the theme of The Hourglass Blog, I suspect that nearly everyone in Generation X with any measure of leadership experience would respond with a "well, duh."

Since when is this a revolutionary idea--that leaders don't have all the answers and may in fact be (gasp!) wrong from time to time?

Sutton continues as if he is imparting sacred wisdom, even citing famous innovation consultants who share the view that great leaders effectively balance "confidence" with "doubt."

This balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses. The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right. They are always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions (albeit usually in private and in "backstage" conversations).

As I wrote in my last post about Generation X (dubbing them the "IF" generation because their natural tendency to keep their options open makes them uniquely suited to deal effectively with the uncertainties and "ifs" of leadership), this advice to be "always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions," will strike Xers as so obvious as to not be even worth mentioning. And what's this business about challenging conclusions "in private and in "backstage" conversations"? What management era is that idea from?

If this is the level of leadership insight Xers can expect to get from the Harvard Business Review, I may need to stop calling them members of the "IF" generation and switch to the "Well, duh" generation.

Exactly who is this "be a human being not a marble statue" advice for anyway? Maybe the Tom Petty reference at the start of the post is a hint. It seems to me that Xer leaders aren't having any trouble making decisions when the way forward is unclear. What they struggle with is being taken seriously by older leaders when they do.

Photo Source

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The "IF" Generation



I recently listened to a webcast sponsored by the Harvard Business Review where Tammy Erickson discussed "The Leaders We Need Now: Are We Ready for Gen X to Take Charge?" It's all part of pitching her new book, What's Next, Gen X?, which I've not yet read.

I've talked about Tammy Erickson here before. I generally find her to be one of the more positive voices about Generation X and its leadership capabilities. Indeed, Erickson's thesis is that Generation X, because of its formative experiences in the 1980s, has a unique set of leadership traits that are precisely what organizations need today to see them through the difficulties many of them are facing.

This is a theme she continues in the webcast. I don't remember if this is a phrase she actually used, but I came away from her comments thinking of Generation X as the "IF" Generation--a group of self-reliant option seekers who habitually explore multiple strategies and go with what works rather than what is idealogically determined. In other words, "if" something bad happens, the Xer leader will naturally have (or seek) multiple options for moving forward, whereas leaders from older generations may be more rigidly constrained.

There wasn't much time for questions on the webcast, so Erickson responded to some in a couple of posts on the HBR blog (here and here). Given the thesis she has laid out, here's the one I found most interesting:

You asked: How do we blend our strengths with the Boomers' experience so we can be perceived as "ready" to make a smooth transition into leadership? How do we collaborate with Boomers and minimize their resistance to accept us as "equal partners" instead of threats?

This is an important question. You're asking, How do you convince someone that you'll do "it" well, even though you'll do "it" differently. In many ways, that's the challenge X'ers face: convincing Boomers that they'll be great leaders, even though they will probably approach the role quite differently.

President Obama offers a useful model: His operating team comprises primarily X'ers, but his Cabinet is dominated by Boomers. He seems to rely on them for their experience and knowledge, as well as their relationships with other critical players. As you build your teams, I'd recommend that you adopt a similar way of thinking about partnering with Boomers — tapping their strengths.

Can the experience of Boomers be blended with the option-seeking leadership style of Xers? From the Xer perspective, I would say yes. Leveraging Boomer knowledge and experience can provide Xers with lots of options "if" things go wrong. But from the Boomer perspective, I think the question is more problematic. I think many Boomers still view members of the "IF" Generation as not equipped for the challenge of leadership, and view the option-seeking that Erickson describes as evidence of a wishy-washy demeanor and an inability to make a decision and stick with it.

I've already done more generational generalizing than I know some of my readers are comfortable with, but it's almost as if your typcial Boomer believes there is always one best solution to every problem and it's the job of the leader to find it, while your typcial Xer believes there are often multiple solutions and it's the job of the leader to keep as many of them in play as possible.

If that's an accurate description, is it any wonder that Boomers are less accepting of Xers than Xers are of Boomers?

Monday, September 27, 2010

What's Your Innovation Readiness? Part 3



For Part 2 go here. For Part 1 go here.

The Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (which I chair), is trying to develop an assessment tool for association executives to use in determining the "innovation readiness" of their associations. As part of our effort to develop an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community, we want to provide a way for associations to determine where they are on the continuum of innovative practice, and plug them into a set of proven strategies tailored for their own position.

Our draft tool consists of three questions. The first, discussed in Part 1 of this post, is "Does your leadership embrace innovation as one of the strategies necessary to achieve your goals?" If you can confidently answer "yes" to that question, you get to move onto the second question, discussed in Part 2, which is "Do you have a defined process for how innovation will function in your association?" If you've got both the culture for innovation and a defined process for how it will occur, you're ready for the third question:

Is that process working?

A simple question, but perhaps the toughest of the three to answer in the affirmative. This is where the innovation rubber really hits the road. Like all successful business processes, innovation does not happen without the appropriate resources to support it. As we observed in the for-profit case studies we examined, successful innovation meant, among other things:

1. Time in employee schedules for engagement in the innovation process;

2. Money allocated in the necessary budgets to allow the process to move forward and to capitalize on the ideas it generated; and

3. Management personnel that were in place to oversee the process and make sure it ran effectively.

There are certainly other factors that may keep an innovation process from working, but these three are among the first to look at if you're having difficulty. And if your process is suffering, then give your association a "readiness score" of "3". You've got the necessary culture, and you've defined a process, but something isn't working as effectively as it should. If that describes you, then we'd like to hear about your challenges and work with you to identify the strategies that can help your association and associations like yours to overcome them.

Please comment if you'd like to get plugged into our process.

Photo Source

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What's Your Innovation Readiness? Part 2



For Part 1 go here.

The Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (which I chair), is trying to develop an assessment tool for association executives to use in determining the "innovation readiness" of their associations. As part of our effort to develop an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community, we want to provide a way for associations to determine where they are on the continuum of innovative practice, and plug them into a set of proven strategies tailored for their own position.

Our draft tool consists of three questions. The first, discussed in Part 1 of this post, is "Does your leadership embrace innovation as one of the strategies necessary to achieve your goals?" If you can confidently answer "yes" to that question, then ask yourself the next question:

Do you have a defined process for how innovation will function in your association?

Having a leadership culture that embraces innovation is not enough. The culture is a necessary first step, but without a defined process for how innovation will occur, culture alone is generally not disciplined enough to capitalize on the innovative ideas that it may produce.

It's important to note that there is probably not one universal innovation process that will work for every association. But in the case studies we examined, all of the successful innovation processes we found included the following attributes:

A. Precise strategy. The problem to be addressed by the innovation process was clearly defined. Teams working on the problem knew what risks were acceptable and unacceptable, and how their success would be measured.

B. Eclectic teams. Who participated in the process was as important as the process itself. Team members were all creative thinkers, usually from different departments in the organization, and brought a variety of experiences and perspectives to the table.

C. Nimbleness. In the case studies, the objective of innovation was invariably to deliver better products or services to a constituency. In these competitive environments, the processes were designed to move quickly and be highly responsive to the needs of the community being served.

D. Clear decision points. These successful innovation processes generated high numbers of creative ideas. The method for selecting which ideas would be pursued and which would not was always defined up front, was clearly understood by all participants, and did not change as the process went forward.

Does your association have a defined process for innovation that encompasses all of these points? If not, give your association a "readiness score" of "2". You've got the necessary culture, but you need to design a process that will allow your association to harness and execute the innovative ideas it produces.

We'd like to hear about your challenges in building such a process and work with you to identify the strategies that can help your association and associations like yours to overcome them.

Please comment if you'd like to get plugged into our process.

Photo Source

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What's Your Innovation Readiness? Part 1


Regular readers of The Hourglass Blog know that I'm chairing the Innovation Task Force for the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. Examining case studies of successful innovation in the for-profit community, the task force has drafted a set of principles of innovation--organizational traits the must be present to allow innovation to occur--a list of barriers common to associations that prevent them from adopting those principles, and some advantages unique to associations that could be better leveraged for innovative purposes.

The task force met again on September 10, and one of our tasks this time was to create a tool that would allow association executives to assess the "innovation readiness" of their organizations. Knowing that every association is probably at a different point on a continuum of innovative practice, and that the strategies that will work for an association at one point of that continuum won't necessarily work for an association at another, we want to provide a way for associations to determine where they are and then plug them immediately into a set of strategies best suited to their position.

Remember that our long term goal here is to create an evidence-based model for innovation in the association community, one replete with tested and practical strategies for how to "do" innovation in an association. With our principles, barriers and advantages developed, we want now to reach out to association executives across the country to engage them in an interactive dialogue about the practical strategies for innovation in an association. The "innovation readiness" tool will also provide a framework for this discussion, and will help us organize the strategies we hope to develop.

So, when it comes to assessing the innovation readiness of your association, we believe there are three basic questions you need to ask yourself. Here's the first:

Does your leadership embrace innovation as one of the strategies necessary to achieve your goals?

At one of recent meetings I attended I tweeted this:



Jen is Jennifer Blenkle of ASAE (who's spearheading an innovation initiative of their own) and Jen is 100% right. The first and most important piece of the puzzle is the culture of your organization, and your leadership is the key to your culture. If your leadership--however leadership is defined in your association--isn't on board with innovation, no innovation process you try to implement will succeed.

Does your leadership embody a true culture of innovation? If not, give your association a "readiness score" of "1". You've got the longest journey ahead of you, but we need you as part of our future discussion. We want to hear about the challenges you're facing and work with you to identify the strategies that can help you overcome them.

Please comment if you'd like to get plugged into our process.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Generational Herd Mentalities



A little while ago, Neil Howe called attention on his blog to a New York Times feature story about a 24-year-old Millennial who, even amidst the Great Recession, is living at home and turning down $40K job offers until just the right opportunity comes along. As Howe notes:

The story lit up a firestorm of reader responses: no less than 1,487 comments thus far, and much larger echoes on the blogosphere. Many of the commenters lambasted the NYT for suggesting that this privileged young man’s experience (he lives in a nice suburban home and his dad is president of a small manufacturing company) is in any way representative of the employment hardships most youth are facing today.

But here's the part I find interesting:

Even more excoriated the young man for turning down the $40K offer—and the family for letting him live at home while turning down such offers. The most vicious remarks seemed to come from older (Generation X and Boomer) readers, who often cited their own tough, low-salary beginnings. Apparently, they disapprove of this generation’s tendency to hold fast to long-term plans and dreams. Be realistic, they insist. Eat humble pie. It will be good for you (to repeat what older Chinese now tell the rising “Little Emperor” generation) to “taste bitterness.”

Howe is perplexed by this reaction, citing (persuasively, I think) several mitigating factors, statistics and situational realities that make the Millennial's decisions more understandable. It's a good read, and it parallels the perspective of many Millennials in the job market today, wanting to succeed, but not willing to settle for second best.

Howe concludes his post by asking his readers:

Why do the sober-minded, future-oriented career choices of today’s Millennials make so many Boomers and Xers jump up and down in agitated condemnation?

And he gets his own slew of snarky comments from Xers, including this one:

I wonder if Mr. Howe would spewing out the same supportive verbage if it was, say, the late 1980s or early 90s when most early-20 Gen Xers were emerging into the job market, donned with glorious degrees. There was a recession going on then, too, and many of us had to go back home to live until we found a job. But, if I recall, Gen X was looked down upon for not being able to land stellar jobs with fabulous degrees and stuck living at home. As such, I wonder if this clearly Boomer parent would've been quite so supportive of a Gen Xer turning down a $40K a year job while living at home, hmmm? I think we know the answer to that one.

Okay. So why am I going into so much detail on this? Because as I said in my recent Only Xers Care About Work/Life Balance post, I sense an undercurrent of jealousy in a lot of Xer talk about Millennials. After all, we had to pay our dues when we were 20-something, taking any job we could find and clawing our way into leadership positions by compromising our values and learning to play by the rules set by the generation that preceded us. Why should Millennials be spared that difficulty and humiliation? Why should they be able to set their own rules and write their own tickets?

Here's a quick story.

I went to the University of Wisconsin in the late 1980s. Back then, in order to register for your classes at the start of each year, you had to hike all the way out to the Stock Pavilion on the western edge of the campus (the Stock Pavilion where livestock were once housed, shown and judged), stand in line like cattle to get your registation forms, and then march all over campus to the different buildings to get your forms signed by the appropriate departmental paper pushers. Need to take that Physics 201 class? Better get yourself over to the Physics building before all the sections with the good teaching assistants are taken. And what about that foriegn language requirement? Do you know where you need to go for that? Is that in the Humanities building?

In my senior year they introduced a new telephone registration system where students could do all of that by pushing buttons on their dorm room phones rather than hoofing it all over town--and many of the seniors I knew were angry (and jealous) that the new freshmen coming in wouldn't have to suffer the same difficulties and indignities we had all suffered for years. Why shouldn't they have to pay their dues? We did! These young kids--they've got it too easy and expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter.

It's the same thing today. When young people have access to better opportunities than we did, why do we berate them for having the simple sense to take advantage of them? Do we expect them to adopt the same herd mentality we did?

Photo source

Friday, September 3, 2010

Those Fish Aren't Dead, They're Just Tired


This post from David Simms of the Bridgespan Group on the Harvard Business Review Blog got me thinking. In it, Simms bemoans the state of many nonprofit Boards, describing them as "aquariums of dead fish"--unengaged and unproductive. Here's one of his key observations:
What some board members tell me, when pushed, is that they tolerate things on a nonprofit board that they wouldn't stand for in their day jobs. The boards don't ensure that the organization has a sound strategy, they tolerate mediocrity in management, they don't hold the organization accountable for results, and they don't ensure that resources are adequate to accomplish goals.
I've seen this in my own experience--individual board members who demand excellence in their own organizations and in their own careers, but who don't insist on the same high standards for the association they have accepted governance responsibility for.
Why is this? One reason could be that the "fish" aren't dead, they're just tired.
Individuals who are driven to succeed in business or in their own careers generally have a lot of energy, which they need because success is hard. It takes focus, commitment, and endurance to be the best you can be at something. Association success is no different, except that it may be even harder than individual success, because the objectives are bigger, the stakeholders are more varied, and the politics are more complicated. New Board members may come into the situation intending to drive greater success, and even be ready to swim upstream, but step away after realizing the amount of personal time and energy real change will require.
How many times have you seen this happen? An association board says do X, and the executive director responds with, okay, that will require Y, with Y being some combination of staff time, money, and board member engagement. Staff time is never a problem from a board's point of view, and there's usually a solution laying around somewhere when it comes to money. But board member engagement? That's one of the most valuable resources an association has, and it is in very limited supply. If a project requires too much of it, even if it's something the board believes in, odds are the project is not going to succeed.
One of the essential responsibilities of a board is to ensure that the association has adequate resources to accomplish its goals. Board member involvement is one of those resources, but how many boards talk openly about how much of this resource there is and how it should best be applied? If you deal with this subject frankly, you may give some of those dead fish a reason to start swimming again.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Association Advantages for Innovation

Here's part three of the "innovation for associations" white paper I'm helping to write while chairing the Innovation Task Force for the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. As I've described before, our overall goal is to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community, and we've been analyzing several case studies of innovation in the for-profit community to see if those successful models can be adapted for the association world.

Part one of the white paper focused on the principles of innovation we identified from the case studies--organizational traits that are necessary to create a true culture of innovation. Part two discussed some barriers to innovation in the association world--obstacles that associations need to overcome if they are going to embrace the principles. Part three is the flipside of the barriers--organizational advantages that associations possess and which they can leverage for greater innovation.

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Potential Association Advantages

While associations in general experience the barriers described above when it comes to adopting the for-profit world’s principles of innovation, there are also several advantages that associations have over their for-profit counterparts given their unique organizational position and structure. These advantages include:

1. Direct access to the mind of the community

Innovative organizations know the needs and desires of the constituencies they serve—what we described above as understanding the “mind of the community.” In for-profit companies, this community is generally comprised of customers external to the organization. Developing an effective mechanism for understanding their needs can therefore be time-consuming and expensive. But an association’s community is made up of its members, and members typically comprise a number of established networks internal to the organization. Boards of Directors, committees, task forces—even supplier networks and, sometimes, staff departments—they all provide associations with a direct connection to their community that for-profit corporations committed to innovation would envy. These ready-made networks of key stakeholders are a clear advantage for developing a successful process of innovation within an association, as they can be continually leveraged for suggesting, selecting, testing, promoting and, ultimately, using the resulting innovative products and services.

2. Experience with diverse teams and team-based decision-making

Although associations are often hampered by overly complex organizational structures and decision-making processes, another clear advantage they have for adopting the principles of innovation is their experience in bringing diverse teams together for collective action. An association can be thought of as a gathering of colleagues/competitors who have come together to advance their given profession/industry while advancing their own careers/businesses. In this environment, associations have developed several successful strategies for identifying common objectives, creating partnerships, and dealing with dissension and debate—all based on helping diverse constituencies focus on the elements that unite them. When coupled with a targeted objective and clear decision points, these same strategies can be effectively leveraged as part of an effective innovation process.

3. A stewardship position for its profession/industry

Most associations enjoy a position as advocates and champions for their particular profession or industry. Although there is certainly competition in the association world, each successful association is viewed by its constituents as a necessary institution—something critical to the continued growth and development of the profession or industry. They generally would not be members if they did not think so. This provides the well-managed association with a kind of stability not enjoyed by for-profit entities, with some buffering from the vagaries of the marketplace. This should, but often doesn’t, allow for greater risk-taking opportunities in associations. But the reality is that association members are often committed to the success of the association, and to its ability to serve their needs, in a way that customers are not committed to the success of all but the most iconic companies. Their vocal leadership and participation can be effectively used to help an association find innovative solutions for even its most perplexing problems.

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I'm sharing the sections of our white paper here on Hourglass to hopefully get some feedback from a broader cross-section of the association community. Please comment and tell me what you think.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Only Xers Care about Work/Life Balance

So I finally got around to reading the article in the August 2010 issue of Associations Now about Generation X moving into leadership positions in the association world. You would've thought that someone who runs a blog dedicated to "exploring generations and leadership in associations and in society" would've gotten to that a little more quickly--but, hey, what can I say? Sometimes life gets in the way.

And that's exactly the proposition I want to put in front of you today. Like a lot of articles about generations in the workplace, this one calls X out as being particularly motivated--to a degree not seen in Boomers or Millennials--by a quest for "work/life balance." One GenX leader quoted in the article says this about the potential of pursuing an executive role at an association:

"[A leadership role] is something that I am comfortable with. But at the same time, I hesitate from time to time to take on too much because I do want that balance in my life. ... It's not because I don't want to do it [or] I'm lazy. I just want to keep that balance and make sure I don't lose my personal life over my work life."

When I read that it hit me. There's a reason why work/life balance is a particular concern of Xers and not Boomers or Millennials.

Boomers long ago figured out how to make their work their life. To an Xer, this means they sold out--adopting a work ethic that subjugates the personal to the professional. Boomers are experts at using personal connections for professional gain, something I think older Xers secretly wish they were better at. To use a metaphoric cliche, Boomers took up golf not to challenge themselves as an Xer would, but because the were savvy enough to realize that business deals get done on the golf course.

Millennials, conversely, are busy figuring out how to make their life their work. To an Xer, this is even worse--shamelessly putting the self ahead of any other concern. But I sense an undercurrent of jealousy in a lot of Xer talk about Millennials. I think some Xers fear that Millennials may actually succeed in changing the game they've been struggling to play by their own set of rules. To extend the same metaphoric cliche, while the Xers are taking the Danny Noonan approach--hoping to win the caddy tournament in order to become a member of the club--Millennials are playing their own game and creating their own spaces in which to play it. It's not so much that they don't like golf. It's more that they just aren't going to do what they don't like, no matter how many business deals Boomers and Xers are cutting on the 18th green.

And this puts Xers in the middle again, the only generation who seems overly concerned with this thing called work/life balance. They want a separation between what they do for work and what they do for fun--a professional life and a personal life, both fulfilling but neither intruding on the other. But the other two generations in the Hourglass have already figured something out that X is just beginning to learn. When it comes to having a personal life and a professional life, it's tougher to manage them when you keep them separate than when you decide to push them together.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Unsung Heroes of Innovation

Here's an interesting post on innovation from the Harvard Business Review. In it, Columbia Business School Professor Rita McGrath shares her insights on what makes innovation work in many of the companies she's observed. Her summary:

First, at the top, innovation leaders need to:
-- Define the territory that the company should be exploring,
-- Make sure that organizational systems support innovation, and
-- Draw the distinction between practices that are appropriate for business-as-usual and those that make sense for more uncertain environments.


I couldn't help but notice the similarities between this list and the Principles of Innovation recently drafted by the WSAE Innovation Task Force, including "an innovation culture led from the top of the organization" and "the commitment of resources to a process of innovation." But where McGrath really helps flesh out some ideas is in WSAE's fourth principle: "Freedom to experiment and fail."

The members of the WSAE task force really struggled with that one. I think we all knew it was important, but feared what its implications were--especially in an association environment. As we later described in Barriers to Innovation in the Association World, many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

But here McGrath is clearly saying that overcoming that barrier is a prerequisite for innovation, and importantly, that responsibility for doing so lays with multiple layers of the organization. Leadership from the top is important, of course, but so is a politically-saavy and non-risk-averse layer of middle management--the people in the trenches, if you will, who are closest to the customer and the innovative ideas that can serve them better. She calls them the unsung heroes of the innovation process, who are...

...often the middle managers who somehow bring together the vision and direction at the top of the organization with the energy and breakthrough thinking at the entrepreneurial level. A huge part of this job is political, and if it's not handled well, there won't be much innovation. While lots of people seem to recognize this, regrettably few companies monitor, train, or reward middle managers for skillful political work. Indeed, as many have observed, it is often not in their own best interest to drive innovations: they do better financially and personally by supporting the status quo.

So, what are you doing to support these unsung heroes in your organization? Do they even know who they are? Or are they too busy protecting the status quo?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Role of Trust in Innovation

If you didn't see it, Maddie Grant asked me to do a guest post on her SocialFish blog last week, and I shamelessly used it as an opportunity to promote the innovation project I'm spearheading for the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. If you're a regular Hourglass reader, then you've already seen here what I posted there, but I got some great comments from Maddie's readers that are probably worth a peek. They certainly prompted the following thought from me on the issue of trust.

If you're following @hourglassblog on Twitter than you already know that I recently attended (and participated in) a session on innovation with ASAE’s Jennifer Blenkle at the Council for Manufacturing Associations Leadership Meeting. Like the SocialFish commenters, we spent some time there talking about trust in associations, especially as it relates to creating and sustaining a culture of innovation.

There were a lot of good association CEOs there who understood that if you want to foster a culture of innovation in your organization, you have to “walk the talk” when it comes to trust. A CEO, after all, who preaches innovation, but doesn’t trust the staff to come up with innovative ideas--killing each one as they come up as too expensive, too impractical, too stupid, etc.--isn’t going to succeed in building a culture of innovation.

But for me, here’s where trust really comes in when we talk about innovation. A working innovation process is going to generate more ideas that can be acted upon. Someone, somehow, is going to have to decide which ones get the green light and which ones don’t. That’s unavoidable. And it may be tempting to say that it’s the CEOs job to do that--and it is--but only to an extent.

The CEO of an innovative association doesn’t just decide which ideas win and which ones lose. She communicates clearly with the entire team HOW these decisions will be made–the criteria by which the ideas will be evaluated and the conditions that must be met before they will be greenlighted. And everyone who submits innovative ideas must UNDERSTAND these criteria and SUPPORT them as the appropriate benchmarks to use in driving innovative change in the organization.

If the CEO and staff trust each other enough to have that discussion--the ideas that are generated will hit the mark more often than not, and everyone will accept the fate of the ones that are dropped.