Sunday, January 24, 2010

First Draft – Principles of Innovation for the Association Community

Well, the first meeting of WSAE’s Innovation Task Force took place on January 22. Check this prior post for all the necessary backstory if you’re just joining the conversation now.

In summary, I’m heading up an effort for my state society for association execs and staff to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. Intrigued by the dedicated, defined and resourced “innovation function” that exists in many for-profit companies, I have proposed that we examine a series of case studies that profile these processes, and then discuss principles of innovation successfully employed by the organizations profiled and identify strategies for applying those principles to the association environment.

Our first case study was comprised of a series of YouTube videos, stringing together an old Nightline episode about IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm. There were three short videos in all. If you’re interested in watching them, you can find them here, here and here. Here’s how the Nightline producers described the show:

How does the process of designing a better product work? To show you, Nightline went to Palo Alto, CA to the designers at IDEO, and gave them the toughest problem we could think of. Take something old and familiar like the shopping cart and completely redesign it in just five days. IDEO's unique brand of brainstorming is called ''Deep Dive,'' a sort of total immersion into the problem at hand. It's one company's secret weapon for innovation.

So, our first task on January 22 was to develop a list of “innovation principles” that IDEO seemed to employ in their practice of innovation. These weren’t formally codified as such by IDEO, but to us they all seemed an important part of IDEO’s successful process. We tossed a lot of ideas up onto our flipchart paper, but I think they all boiled down to the following three concepts:

#1 - A commitment of time, talent and resources to the business of innovation
Innovation wasn’t something that just happened at IDEO. It was their business. As such, they had deliberately invested and supported a culture of innovation throughout their organization. One of their mottos was “fail often to succeed sooner,” and they lived it. Their staff was given the freedom to try new things (including the design of their own workspaces) and were not disciplined for every failure. The company viewed failure as one of the necessary steps on the path towards success, and encouraged its people to ask for forgiveness, not permission.

#2 - A team-driven process with clear timelines and decision points
We found IDEO to use a process that finely balanced the generative productivity of team brainstorming with the practical discipline needed for making decisions and ending projects on time. Their rules for brainstorming were self-policed by the eclectic teams they brought together to perform it—encourage wild ideas, defer judgment, and seek to build on the ideas of others. Within the team there was an absence of hierarchy, ensuring that no one could overrule the idea of another. At the same time, there were a smaller set of decision makers, people whose authority seemed more process-focused than idea-focused. They kept an eye on the calendar and the checkbook, knowing that each project had to be completed on time and on budget. With the brainstorming team providing a multitude of ideas to choose from, these decision-makers were responsible for “green lighting” those ideas that achieved the project goal while best meeting the time and budget parameters.

#3 - A clear understanding of the mission and of the customer’s needs
One of our task force members called it “checking the premise,” and the people at IDEO did it constantly. The challenge in the videos was for them to design a better shopping cart for use in a grocery store, and they continually checked their ideas against the practicality of that environment. They also did an impressive amount of field research throughout the process—talking with shoppers and grocery store managers and employees to get a clear understanding of their needs and using them to pilot test several prototypes before settling on a final design.

With these proposed principles of innovation in hand, our task force then looked at our own organizations and at the association industry in general to determine if these principles were prevalent, possible or preposterous in our world. There was a lot of discussion around this, but if I were to plot our final decisions on an axis, it might look something like this:

Of the three principles described above, we thought associations did the best job with #3—gaining a clear understanding of our missions and our customer’s needs. Most associations in our experience had a good handle on these issues, with perhaps some needing to do a better job communicating the concepts throughout the depths of their organizations.

We found #2—a team-driven process with clear timelines and decision points—to be a little more challenging. We felt associations had a lot of underlying strengths that could be leveraged for success in this area—including a built-in diversity of thoughts and ideas across various staff positions and membership categories, as well as a track record of consensus-based decision making—but felt that too many associations were hampered from capitalizing on these strengths because of the often rigid and seemingly implacable structures and hierarchies in which those constituencies were placed.

And #1—committing time, talent and resources to the business of innovation—seemed even farther removed from our reality. The “freedom to fail” was an especially foreign concept to many of us, believing the association world to be a place where risk-taking was generally not encouraged—the consequences of failure often perceived as presenting too large a barrier.

If these three concepts truly do represent principles of innovation, our group felt a stinging lack of practical strategies to begin employing them in an association environment. We brainstormed a little on what some of those strategies might be, and returned several times to the idea that each association was different, and that each association would be a different distance away from the goal of embracing these principles. If they had anything in common, we felt that it might be that the journey towards an innovation culture would best be completed through a series of baby steps.

We scheduled our next meeting for March 19, and will be looking for another case study of successful innovation to review. Knowing that all of the above is based on a single example, we’ll want to see what principles of innovation we can draw from a second case study, and how they compare to those drawn from the first. We’ll also want to dig deeper into the question of practical strategies for embracing those principles in an association environment. One task force member suggested we divide that discussion in two—with one part focused on staff-level activities and the other on interactions with the membership and the Board of Directors.

I encourage all interested readers of The Hourglass Blog to participate in this process with us. Your thoughts and comments are welcome, as well as any suggestions you might have for additional case studies for us to review.


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