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.


Jamie Notter said...

The one I have the most immediate reaction to is the limited resources one. I just don't buy it. You can ALWAYS devote a percentage of your resources to innovation. When they asked 3Com why they only spent a few hundred thousand dollars on the development of the (wildly successful) Palm OS after Apple had dumped millions in the (failed) Newton back in the 90s, their answer: it's all we had. Whatever you've got, invest some of it in innovation.

Now I get that associations don't think they have the resources, but that's actually a RESULT of their aversion to innovation, not a cause of it.

Eric Lanke said...

Great comment, Jamie. I think that section should be titled "Unwillingness to Commit Resources." The rest of the paragraph works just fine with that title.

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