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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Where Do You Find Truth?

A while ago I tweeted this post from Tammy Erickson, in which she makes a generational distinction for how people seek truth.

Boomers, she says, seek a single view of truth--the one best authority with the most unvarnished version of the facts. Xers, in contrast, see multiple versions of truth--seeking wisdom in the interplay of these different perspectives.

As with most generational distinctions, these are broad generalizations, applying perhaps to the groups but certainly not to all individuals in the groups. And I don't believe Erickson meant either observation as a criticism.

But for me, the post raises a larger question--as it seems to have with a lot of the commenters on Erickson's blog. They argue back and forth about whether truth is absolute or relative--an age-old philosophical conundrum that the practical side of me has little patience for.

I, instead, ask myself where it is that I find truth. And my answer comes swiftly. Wherever I happen to be looking.

Don't you? Don't we all? To use the examples in Erickson's post, some of us look to Walter Cronkite, others of us look to Mondokio--but no matter where we look, we always seem to find what we're looking for.

Case in point.