Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Catch-22 of Innovation

Lots of good lessons in this HBR post for association professionals looking to be move innovative. It's by Scott Anthony, and it's about the multiple approaches car makers are taking towards the development of electric hybrids.

Nissan believes that customers will use electric vehicles primarily for short trips around town, which mirrors most people's current car usage. The company's all electric Leaf has relatively limited range and takes eight hours to recharge.

General Motors believes that customers will expect performance that mirrors traditional gasoline-powered cars. Its Volt has a backup engine to power the car when the electricity drains out.

The problem is, no one really knows what customers will do with electric cars, because the customers themselves don't know. They don't know what they are, or what they should think of them. They don't know what's good about them and what's bad about them. Most customers have never driven one in their day-to-day lives.

It's the Catch-22 of innovation. Your association wants to deliver new innovative products that meet the needs of your members, so you ask and poll them incessantly about their needs, wants and desires. But, as Anthony says, the whole point of innovation is to change things in a meaningful enough way that it renders past patterns meaningless. Your members can't know what that next innovation is because it doesn't yet exist in their world. They have no familiarity with it.

The truth is, you'll know what customers will do with an innovation only once they've done it. And done it in real, natural environments, not artificial environments like a supervised usage test. This reality places stress on companies that need to place big bets without complete knowledge of the outcome. And it places a big premium on getting as close to market conditions as possible as quickly as possible to figure out what really happens when people start using your product.

At the last meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force, Jeff De Cagna shared with us an idea that could provide a work-around for this Catch-22. The idea is to embrace "rapid-prototyping" for new association products and services. Don't go through the usual committee development, project approval, budget allocation process that bogs down so many associations. Get something experimental into the hands of your members at the earliest opportunity, and allow their reactions and suggestions for it to drive its further development.

We even started a short discussion about the subject in WSAE's new Innovation Hub for Associations. Does anyone have real-world experience with this practice in an association. Care to comment here or, even better, on the Hub?


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