Thursday, July 29, 2010

Barriers to Innovation in the Association World

In one of my last posts I shared the principles of innovation we've drafted as part of the "innovation for associations" white paper being written by the WSAE Innovation Task Force. It's part of an effort by my state association executives society to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community.

I'm sharing the draft pieces of the white paper here on Hourglass to hopefully get some feedback from a broader cross-section of the association world. The next piece talks about the barriers to adoption many associations experience when trying to embrace the innovation principles. It goes a little something like this:

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Barriers to Innovation in the Association World

The principles of innovation described above were derived from case studies of innovation in the for-profit world. Associations are similar to for-profit organizations in many ways, but different in many others. As such, it is not surprising that associations may have some difficulty in embracing all aspects of the innovation principles. This section describes the barriers to adopting these principles that appear common in associations.

1. Diffuse leadership

Innovative organizations have a culture of innovation that is driven from the very top. But in the association world, “the top” of the organization is sometimes difficult to define. Almost every association has a Board of Directors that governs the organization, and an Executive Director that provides operational leadership, but the interplay and degree of inerrant functional overlap between these two entities varies from association to association, and in many cases creates an environment in which leadership authority is imprecisely diffused among many individuals. In addition, some associations are said to be “staff-driven,” and others “volunteer-driven”—conditions in which the identified constituency exercises tremendous influence over the culture and activities of the organization. Even when leadership structures are clearly defined, term limits and turn-over of association Board members often make it difficult for the organization to sustain long-term strategic initiatives.

2. Low tolerance for risk

Innovative organizations are by nature risk-taking organizations—places with the freedom to experiment and fail. But 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. What many associations deem normal due diligence procedures—financial analyses and projections—can prematurely kill most innovative ideas, by creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where none, in fact, exists. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is also often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

3. Limited resources

Innovative organizations commit resources to the process of innovation. But 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. Innovation does not require a big financial budget in order to happen—many small organizations are good at innovation. Innovation does, however, require some investment of resources—money, staff time, expertise, management processes—and too many associations are unwilling to seriously commit a portion of these resources to its execution.

4. Complex organizational structures

Innovative organizations employ a process of innovation that is nimble and which offers clear decision points. But for many associations, decision-making is a long and complicated affair, requiring the engagement of multiple stakeholders and the approval of several layers of management and authority. Staff departments, volunteer task forces, standing committees, houses of delegates, boards of directors—there are all hallmarks of even the best-run associations, each with a defined role to play in the organization’s budgeting process and decision tree. In a poorly-run association these complex organizational structures, and the commitment to consensus-based decision-making that they require, can leave an association incapable of sustaining a productive and useful process of innovation.

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I'm really interested in what the readers of The Hourglass Blog think about all of this. I'll keep posting additional sections of the draft paper as we write them, and I encourage all of you to share your thoughts and comments.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Art of Leadership

I was recently inspired by this post from Hugh MacLeod on his Gaping Void blog. I've mentioned Hugh once before here on Hourglass. He's a cartoonist that works on the backs of business cards--and has really good insights into what it takes to be a successful artist and, perhaps surprisingly, a successful leader.

Here's the key bit from this latest post, in which Hugh dissects why most artist's blogs fail:

Your typical artist’s blog usually consists of little more than a photograph of the latest art piece, with a brief description like, “I painted this yesterday. I like how the purple dog clashes with the green sofa.” Or whatever.

But the reality is, most people are not reading your blog because they have an inherent love for purple dogs and green sofas. They’re reading your blog because THE PERSON YOU ARE inspires them. They’re not reading your blog because they’re thinking of buying your paintings, they’re reading your blog because the way you approach your work inspires them. It sets an example for them. It stands for something that resonates with them. IT LEADS THEM TO SOMEWHERE THAT THEY ALSO WANT TO GO.

I think the same concept applies to leadership in almost any endeavor--and especially in associations. In our world of diffuse authority and conflicting priorities, it's often less about choosing where you want to lead people and then taking them there. It's more often about finding out where people (i.e., Board members, volunteers, association members, staff people) collectively want to go and then inspiring them to take the steps necessary to get there.

To do that you have to set an example that demonstrates to these various stakeholders that you're open to the possible, that "the leader" is going to value forward-thinking and risk-taking over preserving the status quo. They often say it's not the destination, it's the journey--but I think it's not even the journey. If you really want to make an impact as an association leader, you have to focus on the mode of transportation. How you do business will always be more inspiring to others than the business you do.

That seems obvious to me. But Hugh really caught my attention when he equated this lesson to blogging of any kind:

That’s also the REAL job of any blogger: To be a leader, not fill the space with pretty “content”. Why? Because whatever your blog is about--art, tech, politics, culture, entrepreneurship, sex, it doesn’t matter--it’s either leading people somewhere worthwhile in a meaningful, positive way, or…

Nobody’s frickin’ reading it, end of story.

Here's hoping you're reading Hourglass and that it's leading you somewhere worthwhile.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Principles of Innovation

The fourth meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force was held on July 16, 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 how innovation is successfully employed by the organizations profiled we hope to identify practical strategies for applying innovation in the association environment.

We've now examined enough case studies where we feel ready to start writing a "white paper" on innovation for the association community. This white paper will describe the traits—or principles—that we believe are necessary to create a culture of innovation within any organization. It will then describe several barriers to the adoption of these principles that appear common to associations. And, if all goes according to plan, it will also begin to explore some unique qualities of associations and other strategies that associations may leverage to overcome those barriers.

We started working on the paper in earnest at our July 16 meeting. Based on the discussion we had there, I wanted to share my draft of the "Principles of Innovation" section.

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Principles of Innovation

Among the case studies of successful innovation we studied, the following four principles appeared universal and necessary.

1. The culture of innovation was driven from the top of the organization

Like most organizational cultures, innovation began with the leadership of the organization. Several different leadership structures existed, but the organizations with innovative cultures invariably reflected a commitment to innovation among its most senior leadership, and organizations that wished to adopt an innovation culture had a leadership team that embraced, advocated for, and supported that change. Attempts to drive innovation from the middle or only one portion of the organization invariably failed, because any innovative action that fell outside the boundaries of the existing culture did not receive the leadership support or resources it needed to get off the ground. The lesson that these organizations learned was that a commitment must be made at the very top in order to create a culture of innovation, and that leadership must drive the cultural change necessary to support and re-organize the organization for that function.

2. Commitment of resources to the process of innovation

Like all successful business processes, innovation did not happen without the appropriate resources to support it. Employee schedules included time for engagement in the innovation process, money was allocated in the necessary budgets to allow the process to move forward and to capitalize on the ideas it generated, and management personnel were in place to oversee the process and make sure it ran effectively. Although the process mechanics varied across the different case studies we examined, some of the common attributes of the successful processes of innovation were:

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 that 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 communities 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 and clearly understood by all participants.

3. Understanding the mind of the community

All organizations serve a community in one form or another, and innovative organizations have developed mechanisms that provide a keen understanding of what’s on their community’s mind. In the most successful cases, it went beyond an awareness of the constituent’s needs. These innovation processes were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn't want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used throughout the innovation process as a constant guide for successful decision-making.

4. Freedom to experiment and fail

The innovative organizations we studied all viewed failure as a natural and necessary part of the innovation process. Within the boundaries defined above, ideas were given the support they needed to succeed or fail, and when they failed, the focus was on learning from the experience rather than assigning blame. One company’s motto was “fail often to succeed sooner,” and they encouraged their employees to ask for forgiveness, not permission.

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I'm really interested in what the readers of The Hourglass Blog think about all of this. I'll keep posting additional sections of the draft paper as we write them, and I encourage all of you to share your thoughts and comments.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Internalizing the Externalities

In all the coverage about the mismanagement behind the Gulf oil disaster and the corporate and governmental response to it, this analysis by Gregory Unruh on the Harvard Business Blog really stands out. For me , his last line says it all.

Internalize the externalities yourself, or society will internalize them for you, at much higher cost.

In the case of British Petroleum--take responsibility for the consequences of your actions (or inactions) or the federal goverment will force you (and your industry) to take responsibility through regulation--likely in ways you'll find more unpleasant and more expensive than if you had taken responsibility yourself.

I think the same axiom holds true for association leaders. In dealing with your members, take responsibility for the consequences of your actions (or inactions) or your members will force you to take responsibility in ways you may find more unpleasant and more damaging to the relationship.

Thinking back on some of my own experiences in making changes that negatively affect a small segment of the membership but which better serve the industry (or profession) as a whole, I'd say that there are clearly situations in which taking responsibility and communicating proactively is the only way to adequately protect a member's relationship with the association. The challenge is to "fix it before it breaks," because once the relationship is broken, no amount of retroactive posturing can repair it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Losing Trust Is Now a Good Thing

When I read this excellent post from Tammy Erickson about the evolving nature of the employer/employee relationship--which she characterizes as a loss and then an attempt to regain trust--I couldn't help but wonder how the generation now entering the workforce will react to this changing landscape.

After all, it was a wholesale loss of "trust" between the employer and the employee during the layoffs in the 1980s that has been pegged as responsible for the now infamous Xer cynicism. Back then, employers dropped their obligation to provide lifetime employment and loyalty-building benefits, and as a result, a generation of employees learned to fend for themselves, and all the while were chided by their elder colleagues for abandoning their loyalty to their employers, hopping from position to position like gadflies as it suited their own interests.

But now that all seems like ancient history. Listen to how Erickson describes the new equation that she says will form the basis of trust between corporations and workers in the decades ahead:

The organization will provide interesting and challenging work. The individual will invest discretionary effort in the task and produce relevant results. When one or both sides of this equation are no longer possible (for whatever reasons) the relationship will end. So if the organization no longer has interesting or challenging work for the individual to do, or if the individual is no longer willing or able to engage in the work — to invest the levels of discretionary effort required for excellent results — it is in everyone's best interest to part ways.

Sound familiar? The painful trail of independence that was blazed by Xers will now evidently be held up as the model for everyone--employees and employers--to aspire to. It's not just a reflection of the difficult times we have lived through. It is the better way for employees and employers to conduct themselves, bringing them both into closer alignment with the realities of the modern workplace.

And how, I wonder, will the Millennials who embrace this methodology be treated? Will they be called ungrateful and selfish and cynical the way their Xer colleagues were? Or will they instead be lauded for the foresight and savviness and entrepreneurship? Let's wait and see.