Sunday, March 27, 2011

Listening Up

In my last post, I talked about something I called 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 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.

And where should I find inspiration for how to resolve this conundrum? Where else but in a blog post by Umair Haque. If you're familiar with Haque, then you know he's all about creating a new definition of success in the corporate world--one not based on profit but on human satisfaction and enrichment. With that as his context, in this post he rips into traditional mechanisms of marketing, espousing a new strategy for engaging with customers, something he calls "listening up." And throughout, by simply substituting "members" for "customers" he provides a recipe for how association professionals can address the Catch-22 of innovation. Here are just a few salient excerpts:

Listening up means spending time actually talking to your customers, about not just their "wants" and "needs" but about their hopes and fears, their opportunities and threats, their greatest achievements and biggest regrets.

How many conversations like this have you had with members of your association? How many opportunities have you had for such a conversation that you've squandered on tactical and programmatic details? Forget about what kind of benefits they want from you. What kind of people do they aspire to be?

Listening up means empowering as many people inside your organization as possible to spend time talking to your customers to have those conversations, and empowering them to talk to one another openly.

How many people are there in your organization? How many member contacts do they have every week? What if you instituted a practice of talking openly with your staff about your members--not just what they complained about, but about what they're striving to achieve? Forget about serving those needs for a moment. Let's just develop a habit of understanding the world our members live in and sharing those insights with each other.

Listening up means asking questions that matter--and then being tough enough to hear that, just maybe, yes, you really, honestly do suck at having real, tangible, lasting benefits.

I believe this is the hidden fear that keeps us from truly engaging with our members in the way Haque describes--the fear that our services don't measure up to their expectations. But what better way is there to build those benefits--not just for today but for our innovative futures--than these simple (in concept) but difficult (in execution) recommendations?

The WSAE white paper on innovation talks about the need to understand the mind of your community. By doing what Haque recommends that becomes elementary because the community is no longer something external to your organization, something difficult to understand whose needs you still must serve. By creating this kind of dialogue with your members you become part of their community and you will develop an intrinsic understanding of what is necessary for it to succeed.

Photo by vagawi


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