Monday, January 31, 2011

The Innovation Hub for Associations

I've been blogging about my work with the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives for a while now. Through these posts Hourglass readers got a sneak peek at the Innovation for Associations white paper we authored (here, here and here) and the assessment tool we developed for association executives to use in determining the innovation readiness of their associations (here, here and here).

Now, I'm happy to let you in on our latest adventure--the soft launch of our new online community for association professionals interested in helping us build an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community.

It's called the Innovation Hub for Associations, and can be accessed here.

We field tested it at the task force's January 28 meeting. There's still some features were planning to add to it, but the nucleus is there and working. I hope you'll take some time to visit it, create a profile, and help us build it into something that serves your needs and those of our broader community.

The core of the site can be found under the "Innovation Model" tab. There you'll find a series of discussion spaces where successful innovation practices and tools can be offered and explored by the participants. Like our readiness tool, these discussion spaces are organized into three key tracks:

a. Creating a culture of innovation in your association.
b. Designing a process by which innovation will occur in your association.
c. Providing the necessary resources (time, talent and money) for your innovation process to function effectively.

If you've got any information to share on any of those topics, please consider adding it to the Hub. Even if all you have are challenges, please share them. Part of what we'd like to do is learn about the key strategic and tactical challenges associated with bringing innovation to your association and the hundreds of other associations in our community. By aggregating this information together, we'll be better positioned to develop successful strategies for overcoming them.

This is very much a volunteer effort, so let me thank everyone on the task force and in our wider community who have shown such enthusiasm for the project and who have helped make it happen. Seeing the innovative spirit you've all poured into this makes me think solving the next round of problems will be easy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Innovating 20% of the Time

This post is from awhile back, but it's so good that I just had to comment on it. Like a lot of controversial posts on HBR, the best reading is in the comments, and this one's got 73 of them.

Too much? Okay. Let me summarize.

Chris Trimble is skeptical of Google's 20% time--their stated practice of encouraging individuals to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing innovative projects of their own inspiration. He thinks it's a bad business bet, because people can certainly generate and explore innovative ideas with 20% of their time, but no one, working by themselves, can execute, can turn innovative ideas into profit-driving realities, with only 20% of their time. And execution, as Trimble says, is the other side of innovation. Without execution, you're not innovating. You're just generating ideas.

The commenters disagree. On a bunch of levels. The first guy out of the box accuses Trimble of not understanding how to manage very talented softwate engineers. Others chime in on the same theme, leaving me with the sense that these guys could land a rover made out of old Commodore 64 motherboards on Mars and collect rock samples with 20% of their time.

Here's my take--which is similar to several of the ideas expressed in the comments, so I'm not trying to take credit for it. Adopting something similar to Google's 20% time policy in your association probably won't by itself result in the kind of execution Trimble talks about and which, I believe, you need to do innovation right. But couple that policy with a transparent process by which ideas are selected and resourced for proper execution, and you may be able to create an environment where both sides of innovation occur. In other words, give your employees the freedom to experiment, test and propose new ways to better serve your members, and then choose the best ones (according to established criteria understood by all) to be further developed into actual programs and services.

If you're lucky, maybe your contribution to the process can represent less than 20% of your time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Diagnosing the Problem

This is part of an on-going dialogue between Eric Lanke and Jeff De Cagna on the work of the WSAE Innovation Task Force and the status of innovation in the association community.

For an introduction to this dialogue, go
For Jeff’s first post on why innovation is critical to the future of associations, go
For Eric’s response, highlighting why the members of the WSAE task force decided to tackle innovation, go
For Jeff’s next post on the factors that prevent associations from making innovation an on-going priority, go

+ + + + + + +

I said at the end of my last post that as Jeff and I began discussing the factors that prevent associations from making innovation an on-going priority, we’d see that associations face barriers in three key areas—culture, process and resources.

And you know what? I was right.

That’s what the WSAE Task Force on Innovation concluded in its white paper, and that’s why WSAE has decided to launch an online community (formal announcement coming soon) where crowd-sourced discussions can take place—discussions focused on identifying successful strategies for overcoming barriers in these three areas.

I’m not saying that Jeff’s diagnosis of the barriers that keep associations from innovating is wrong. Rather, I think that the four major barriers he sees—sameness, politics trumps everything, markets vs. membership, and plans matter more than possibilities—are symptoms of the larger disease that afflicts our community. When the task force dissected the problem we focused on four slightly different symptoms—diffuse leadership, low tolerance for risk, unwillingness to commit resources, and complex organizational structures—but I think both our symptoms and Jeff’s symptoms point to the same problem. Too many associations do not have a culture that embraces innovation as a strategic and operational necessity.

I will pick one particular bone with Jeff, but it leads to a larger point. I think he overstates the homogeneity that exists in most associations when he describes what he means by “sameness”:

Sameness is the defining characteristic of the association experience. Associations bring together people who are alike in more ways than they are different: same fields, same jobs and, thus, similar ways of seeing and thinking about the world.

Well, yes, Jeff, associations bring together people who are alike—same fields, same jobs, etc. That’s what makes them associations. But at the same time, every association that I’ve worked with has been challenged in one way or another by the diversity that exists within its own membership. One's a medical society that has both practitioners and academics. Another's a trade association that has both manufacturers and distributors. Every constituent is the same in the sense that they all see the value of associating, of coming together in support of the association’s mission, but within that boundary there is always a surprising amount of diversity. There are different perspectives on the issues, different ideas for solving the challenges, and different needs that seek to be served.

So, what many associations lack is not diversity of perspective—ask any working association executive how many different perspectives are competing for his or her attention every day. What many associations lack is a culture that seeks to leverage its internal diversity of perspective for effective and innovative problem solving.

Diagnose it however you like—politics matter more that progress, membership matters more than markets, plans matter more than possibilities—they are all good descriptions; maybe better than diffuse leadership hiding behind complex organizational structures and an unwillingness to risk and commit resources. But the underlying problem is the same. Too many associations embrace a culture that seeks to stifle rather than encourage its own diversity of perspective. And in this struggle for unity, they validate what Jeff is saying about sameness:

Sameness also shapes the typical association value creation process itself: everyone must be treated the same, receive the same benefits and participate in the same activities. Unfortunately, this homogeneous way of being engenders an inherent resistance to radical and disruptive thinking that is very hard to overcome.

To their detriment, they have defined diversity of opinion as part of the problem, not as part of the solution.

How can we change this? Well, I think it starts by recognizing that:

Innovation thrives in vibrantly imaginative environments filled with diverse experiences, divergent points of view and the creative friction they inspire.

Divergent points of view? Creative friction? Associations have those things in spades. We've been working for years to minimize them at our Board tables and in our special interest groups. It's high time we reveresed direction and started finding better ways of using them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Prescription for Innovation

This is part of an on-going dialogue between Eric Lanke and Jeff De Cagna on the work of the WSAE Innovation Task Force and the status of innovation in the association community.

For an introduction to this dialogue, go
For Jeff’s first post on why innovation is critical to the future of associations, go

+ + + + + + +

In his most recent post, Jeff calls out WSAE’s white paper on Innovation for Associations for not explaining why associations need to make innovation central to their work over the next ten years, and for offering a fairly generic definition of innovation—a process that effectively generates and applies creative ideas to the achievement of defined objectives.

Guilty as charged.

One thing we discovered early on was that everyone in our self-selected group of volunteers that make up the WSAE Innovation Task Force—all association execs and staffers of one stripe or another—had a slightly different perspective on what innovation was and what it should be doing inside their associations.

• Innovation is using technology to streamline operations and deliver new services.

• Innovation is sunsetting legacy programs and developing new programs more aligned with the current needs of members.

• Innovation is getting the older generation to let loose the reins of control and fast track members of the younger generation into leadership positions.

For every challenge cited, “innovation” was the preferred solution, but the corresponding methods and practices needed to bring about change were very different.

Hence our generic definition of innovation. We had to establish a baseline understanding of what we were talking about or we weren’t going to make any progress. Or if we did make any progress, it would be limited to individual advice for individual situations, and there would be little or no benefit for the larger community of association professionals we were hoping to serve. In this way, I believe our group of association professionals is but a microcosm of the association community at large. Look at the magazines and blogs, attend the conferences and webinars, and you’ll see that we’re all talking about innovation, but there are surprisingly few of us that are really speaking the same language.

What about making the case for innovation in the first place? The most honest answer for why such an appeal doesn’t appear explicitly in the white paper is probably because the people on the task force felt the need for innovation—however they initially defined it—was self-evident.

• “If I don’t figure out how to harness technology to streamline what we do and deliver better service to my members, online competitors are going to leave me in the dust.”

• “If I don’t figure out how to stop doing the things that only matter to a few and start doing the things that matter to the bulk of my members, lots of people are going to stop paying their dues.”

• “If I don’t figure out how to get the dead weight off my board they’re going to drag my association down into utter irrelevancy.”

These are the kinds of concerns association executives share with one another when the door is closed and they know their volunteers won’t be listening. This is our business case for innovation. Whatever lack of consensus exists in our community with regard to the need for innovation, it exists only because some executives have identified the threats that are jeopardizing their futures and others have not.

Jeff’s prescription at the end of his last post is, I think, the correct one:

What associations need right now, however, is a genuine commitment to an accelerated and intensive process of continuous experimentation, shaped by empathic understanding, driven by meaningful co-creation with stakeholders and constantly attentive to the power of serendipity.

That’s easy for Jeff to say. In the next series of posts, on what factors prevent associations from making innovation an on-going priority, I believe we’ll see that associations—even those with executives that have identified the threats—face barriers of culture, process and resources that make Jeff’s prescription, necessary as it is, a difficult pill to swallow.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jumpstarting an Essential Conversation

So, not too long ago I got an email from Jeff De Cagna:

The post he was talking about, Next Steps for Association Innovation, is where I detail the work I've been helping to spearhead as the chair of the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives, and its plans to launch a new online community dedicated to innovation for associations and to host a National Summit on Association Innovation at the WSAE Annual Educational Conference in September 2011.

Now, in my opinion, Jeff would be perfectly justified to take WSAE and its efforts to task for coming very late to a party he started throwing years ago. If you don't know Jeff, he has been talking about the need for associations to embrace innovation for as long as I can remember, which means he's probably been talking about it even longer than that. And, personally, Jeff has always impressed me with his consistent ability to ask the questions most working association executives don't want to hear, but know they should be thinking about. So when I got this email, I responded in kind:

What followed was a telephone conversation and a series of email exchanges where we agreed to trade a few posts on each other's blogs about the work of the WSAE Innovation Task Force and the status of innovation in the association community. Jeff will start on his blog, then I will post on Hourglass, then Jeff, then me--the two of us trading ideas and building on each other's thoughts as we explore three critical questions:

1. Why is innovation critical to the future of associations?
2. What factors prevent associations from making innovation an on-going priority?
3. How can associations embrace innovation more easily?

Readers of both blogs are invited to participate in the conversation by posting comments on either site. We'll both be reading them all, and incorporating your ideas into our discussion as well.

I'm hopeful that with Jeff's keen understanding of our industry and its challenges, as well as his natural flair for the thought-provoking, we'll be able to generate some substantive dialogue and help advance this issue for our community. And I'll be along to lob in some spitballs, just to keep things interesting.

Please join us!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Does This Frighten You, Or Inspire You?

I tweeted this TED video out a little while ago, with the question, "Does this frighten you, or inspire you?" The video is of Margaret Gould Stewart, YouTube's head of user experience, and she's talking about how the ubiquitous video site works with copyright holders and creators to foster (at the best of times) a creative ecosystem where everybody wins.

Watch it if you have a few minutes. TED videos are always 18 minutes or less, but this one clocks in at under 6.

- - - - - - - - - -

OK? Now, how do you feel?

This frightens me. The woman is so full of corporate groupthink slogans, the video is more chilling than a George Orwell novel. You are a participant in the digital rights ecosystem? By empowering choice, we can create a culture of opportunity? I think that we can all agree that joy is definitely an idea worth spreading? Who does she think she's kidding? YouTube is a venue where pirates steal other people's property and dress it up for their own financial or frivolous interests. And what kind of supercomputer do they have masterminding the whole thing? It grinds through 100 years of video every day, comparing it all to millions of reference files in its database? Who built that for them, the Department of Homeland Security? This future we're moving into scares me, and I'd feel better is the whole Internet just shut itself down.

This inspires me. I can't believe what's becoming possible today. This woman is right, the complex web of relationships that is the Internet is now solidly positioned as the digital engine of our cultural landscape. Art and culture have always depended on sharing, with each new participant adding some unique idea but depending on some common form to deliver and touch the wider audience. YouTube and sites like it now allow this sharing to occur interactively over hours and days rather than asynchronously over years and decades. The speed is quickly outpacing our existing copyright laws, but the potential for creativity and an individual's unfettered access to the marketplace of ideas is simply astounding. Where's my Flip video camera?

Which camp do you fall in? And what impact will that have on how you run your organization?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Are You Looking Forward to 2011?

I was at a New Year's Eve party last night with a group of friends I don't see as often as I would like. We spent a lot of time catching each other up on each other's lives, and I was struck by how much some of them were looking forward to 2010 being over. Why? Because their 2010s have been really bad. One lost his job. Another's business is still down and is going through a divorce. It reminded me how bad things still are for a lot of people and how much my own optimism about the future can sometimes seem out of place.

So looking back on the last year of The Hourglass Blog, I find myself asking if it's been able to make a positive difference for our community. The numbers certainly show more people and more pageviews than 2009:

But I'm a little distressed at the smaller number of comments that we've received this year over last. We launched Hourglass in February 2009 with the hope that it would be a conversation--a platform on which in leaders in Generation X and in the other generations could discuss the challenges of leadership itself. In part, we wanted to try and answer the question: Do generations really matter to leadership? Is leadership a set of universal skills that are learned by each new generation as they rise to take the mantle from their predecessors, or does leadership mean something different to each generation, and therefore our leadership systems will constantly change as each new generational perspective comes into power?

Since our launch we've posted on a variety of related issues, with my own focus more and more on efforts to define and promote innovative practices for the association environment based on successful models in the for-profit world. Through these explorations and others, Hourglass has allowed me to meet and interact with a number of amazing people and learn from the wisdom many of them have freely offered. On a personal level, this interaction and learning is one of my primary motivations to keep Hourglass growing and expanding.

But if there is one community I want Hourglass to reach and provide value to, it is the GenX association executive. In response to the question we posed earlier, I am convinced that leadership does mean something different to this generation, and that their unique perspective and approach to leadership is something that should be more widely shared and developed.

This is one of the reasons I changed Hourglass' tagline earlier this year. Rather than the originial "exploring generations and leadership in associations and in society," I felt "exploring a new generation of leadership issues in associations and in society" was more descriptive of this sense of mission. I would like to see Hourglass become a community where GenX leaders share their ideas and refine their practice to better themselves and their organizations.

And to that end, I have a challenge for you in 2011. If you are one of the executives I'm speaking of--a member of Generation X currently in charge of a professional or trade association--let's hear what you have to say on Hourglass this year. Commenting on something Jamie or I post is fine, but what would be even better is a post or two of your own. You know there's something about the way you run your organization--or the way you would like to run your organization--that is different from the generation before. Tell us about it. Use the community that is building here as a sounding board for those ideas, and help us build a new set of best leadership practices for the next generation and beyond.

Are you interested? Contact me at