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

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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.


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