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

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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.


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