Sunday, May 30, 2010

When Your Goal Is the Impossible

Read this post from Dan Pallotta. Go ahead...I'll wait.

Okay. So, I'm GenX, right? And that means that there's a big part of me that's too cynical for this kind of stuff. And recognizing that cynicism, I wonder if that means I'll never be an effective leader.

For leaders, as we all know, inspire people with words like these.

As a mentor of mine reminds me, human beings are unique in our ability to achieve the impossible. Elephants don't do it. Gorillas don't. Mice don't. We humans live in a world where everything falls but we say, let's make things fly. The crying that ensues is an outgrowth of self-actualization. It is the profundity of experiencing the full depth of our human potential and it is unspeakably beautiful.

I can’t say words like these because I don’t believe them. Humans don't achieve the impossible. The impossible is, by definition, impossible. What really makes humans unique is our ability to call the extremely hard the impossible, and then self-indulgently move ourselves to tears while we celebrate our perceived ability to transcend the impossible.

Boomers, I think, are especially adept at this. Xers, in contrast, more rigidly separate the extremely hard but possible from the impossible, and then focus our quiet energy on the difficult instead of the impossible.

Does that make Xers or Boomers better leaders?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Where Leadership Happens

I was driving back from a member visit with one of the members of my staff. We were talking about how impressed we were with how he ran his business, about how thoughtful, how strategic, how deliberate he was in starting a business from scratch and growing it to a multi-million dollar operation. At the start he set out a list of core business principles and decided that that was how he was going to run his business.

That's important, but setting out your principles is not where leadership happens.

Leadership happens when you take those principles and try to apply them to a real situation in the real world, and unanticipated conditions begin to clash with those principles. When do you say, OK, we need to bend here and adapt to the reality of this situation, and when do you say, no, dammit, I said we were going to run things this way and that’s the way we’re going to run things.

Making, selling and accepting the consequences of those decisions is where leadership happens.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The House of Innovation

The third meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force was held on May 14, 2010. For those of you new to this conversation, I'm heading up an effort for my state society to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. Inspired by the dedicated, defined and resourced “innovation function” that exists in many for-profit companies, we are examining a series of case studies that profile these processes. I'm also blogging about it here. By examining the principles of innovation successfully employed by the organizations profiled we hope to identify practical strategies for applying those principles to the association environment.

We had a special phone-in guest speaker at our May 14 meeting—Brian Christian of Inovo LLC—a former vice president of global business development at Whirlpool who now, as a partner in an innovation consulting company, has spent some time trying to adapt his successful “for-profit” innovation strategies for associations. I asked him to share with the task force the principles of innovation he has found to be successful in the for-profit sector, and to describe some of the barriers to adoption he has encountered with associations.

The House of Innovation

Brian’s key point could be summarized as this—successful innovation in any organization requires a sustained commitment amongst a group of key people over a long period of time. He suggested we think of innovation as a house.
It starts with the leadership of the organization—the over-arching roof of the house—because pursuing innovation often entails changing the very culture of the organization. This change must be “driven” by the leadership. They must embrace it, advocate for it, and resource it appropriately. It cannot be driven from the middle of an organization, because any innovation that does not have the support of the organizational leadership is doomed to fail when it seeks the resources it needs to get off the ground. A commitment must be made at the very top of the organization to create an innovative organization, and a series of appropriate decisions must then follow.

The first of those decisions is strategy—the upper story of Brian’s house. The leadership must define an innovation strategy for the organization. It must define precisely where innovation will happen (in product development, customer service, etc.), what risks are acceptable and unacceptable in each of these areas, and how success will be measured. These parameters are essential and must be clearly communicated, because it is through these parameters that leadership begins to hold the rest of the organization accountable for innovation.

And it’s the rest of the organization that makes up the lower level of the house. They must make innovation happen, but the leadership must continue to help them. Based on the strategy defined, the leadership must develop a process for innovation, leveraging resources inside and outside the organization as needed, it must recruit and promote staff with the right skills for innovation, and it must make changes to the organizational structure to help facilitate the process it has put in place. The organization operates in these three rooms on the lower level of the house, continually checking their progress with the strategy and the leadership that lives above them.

Association Barriers to Innovation

Brian then identified for us what he saw as barriers to adopting this model of innovation in the association market. He stressed that these barriers are not unique to associations—many for-profit organizations have them, too—but they do seem more prevalent in the association world.

1. Diffuse leadership. Far and away, the biggest barrier Brian encountered was a lack of leadership commitment to innovation, and he cited an association’s regular, term-limited turn-over of Board members and consensus-based decision making style as two of the biggest culprits here. Many in the association sector have found ways to sustain long-term strategic initiatives over the terms of multiple Board chairs, but it often requires a great deal of effort and stakeholder agreement to make it happen. The task force speculated that such strategies could be used to develop a long-term commitment to innovation, but Brian felt that the very need for these strategies could belie the inherent nimbleness of decision-making and action that innovation requires.

2. Low tolerance for risk. Many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The need for change must be clearly documented and then trial-ballooned and focus-grouped with numerous stakeholders before it can get off the ground, and then it often has to navigate a minefield of existing programs and sacred cows in order to compete for funding. Brian felt that what organizations often deem as normal due diligence procedures—financial analyses and projections—can prematurely kill most innovative ideas. At the front-end of innovation, when concepts are not fully formed, it can be dangerous to create financial projections of expected return on investment. The phrase he has heard used is "precision exceeding accuracy"—creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where, in fact, none exists. Once such estimates are made, they can take on a life of their own and are often difficult to eradicate. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, was also seen as too high to attract the necessary champions for innovative ideas.

3. Insufficient resources. To be successful, Brian argued that innovation must be resourced within an organization, and many associations have budgets they either perceive to be too small to allow for such an investment, or which are already overstretched into dozens or hundreds of association programs and activities. In discussion with Brian, the task force felt it was important to stress, however, that this appears to be a barrier with regard to the allocation of resources, and not fundamentally about their availability.

Brian believes successful innovation ultimately doesn’t depend on the size of your budget or the size of your organization. Size sometimes brings with it deeper pockets and the ability to allocate resources to a dedicated innovation function, but size also sometimes brings with it bothersome bureaucracy, which can be an impediment to the efficient identification and use of innovative ideas. If we were to chart organizations of different types against these factors, we would see that very few fall in the “innovation sweet spot.”
Essentially, innovation works when you streamline decision-making and increase the resources dedicated to the process.

Potential Association Advantages

The task force felt that one area of advantage associations may have when pursuing innovation was their ability to tap into the “voice of the customer” often required to drive successful innovation decision making. Brian helped us expand this idea, categorizing it more as the “mind of the community”—something an organization captures not just by asking their customers what they want but by understanding their customers’ needs (even when they do not) and the role played by other constituencies in influencing the adoption of new ideas and programs. Many associations, with their networks of stakeholders in particular industries and professions, may already have systems in place to describe and utilize the “mind of their community.”

Next Steps

The task force very much appreciated Brian’s willingness to donate his time and share his perspective on innovation. Based on his feedback, and on the case studies the task force has previously explored, we decided our next task should be to draft a white paper on innovation for the association community. The paper will describe the key principles that must be embraced in order to create a successful innovation function in an association, and begin to provide some practical strategies for associations to consider in adopting them. Some consideration was also given to the idea of using this white paper to create an assessment tool for associations to use in determining their “innovation readiness” and putting themselves on a pathway towards an innovation culture.

A draft of this white paper will be prepared and discussed at the next meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force, tentatively scheduled for July 16.

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 the principles of innovation and/or strategies for adoption to include in the white paper.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When Do Future Leaders Become Today's Leaders?

This post I saw on Association Jam about whether nonprofits really want younger members on their Boards got me thinking about the subject. As is sometimes the case, the comments thread is as interesting as the blog post, as members of the different generations chime in to defend their point of view and, sometimes (regrettably), to trash each other.

The report they're discussing cites four "disincentives" for organizations in recruiting Millennials and Xers to serve on their Boards:
1. Skepticism about the need to have younger generations on boards
2. Uncertainty of where to find younger board members
3. Preference for a "C-Suite" or corporate officer type profile on the board
4. Concerns of isolation (of being the only young person on the board)

In my own world, I've seen all four of those disincentives in action, with the biggest emphasis probably on number 3. The trade association I work for has a definite preference for "C-Suite" or other corporate officer types serving on its Board--and with good reasons. These individuals have brought us an advanced level of buy-in, immediate decision-making, and expectation for strategic thinking that has helped us advance many of our objectives.

But my titular question remains, doesn't it? We all know that the landscape is shifting, and that associations have to develop their future leaders today. In concept, younger members bring fresher perspectives and can help the association be more responsive to the needs of younger generations of members--people who will one day be in the driver's seat and who you will want on your C-Suite Board. By not engaging them now, do you run the risk of losing them later?

We're addressing the issue by finding opportunites for younger members to participate in other parts of the association--importantly, in ways that coincide with their self-described development needs and participation preferences. They are, by and large, people who are already very much in control of their own careers, and we want them to see our association as a network that they can leverage to serve those needs. That benefits them and definitely benefits us--both now and, hopefully, in the future.

What are you doing to address this issue?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Boomers Can't Let Go

Those of you who were following my discussion with Tammy Erickson about the leadership potential of Generation X may have missed Tammy's last comment, which she posted not here on The Hourglass Blog, but in the Harvard Business Review Answer Exchange.

Go here to review the discussion on Hourglass, here to see our exchange on HBR. Tammy's last comment included this thought:

Interestingly, I find that generations tend to return to the themes of their formative teen years when they hit midlife (or the infamous "midlife crisis"). For example, Traditionalists, who were shaped by the consumer-intense, post-war '50s, dreamed of buying red sports cars at mid-life. Boomers, in contrast, often want to tap into the idealistic "change the world" views that shaped their teen years.

Reminds me of this post I recently saw on Association Jam, quoting Matt Thornhill of the Boomer Project.

Our analyses of monthly consumer surveys by BIGresearch suggest that Boomers are turning their backs on consumerism. They are rediscovering the traditional values of thrift and frugality, which they see as consistent with emerging "green" values of conservation and recycling.

Now, last I checked, Boomers weren't at mid-life, but that's okay, because Thornhill's not saying that they are rejecting consumerism out of any pining for the idealism of their youth, but out of necessity because so many of them have simply not saved enough for a comfortable retirement.

So that's two reasons why younger generations should expect to see Boomers in nonprofit leadership positions for some time to come. If they're not moving over from the for-profit sector to realize the world-changing dreams of their youth, their hanging on to their paychecks for as long as they can because they can't afford to retire.