Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't Wall Yourself Off From Your Community

This is part two of my reaction to Jeff De Cagna's excellent article on business model innovation for associations in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now. In part one I talked about how the primary challenge for associations in innovating is a cultural one, and how organizational priorities need to move away from established structures and towards whatever mechanisms help the organization deliver better value for its members. Now, I want to focus on one of the ways to do that.

Here's the relevant quote from Jeff's article:

Associations must learn who their stakeholders are and what moves them as people, not just where they work or what products and services they buy.

The WSAE white paper on innovation calls this understanding the mind of your community. In the for-profit case studies our innovation task force studied, those organizations were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn’t want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods these companies used for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used continually throughout their innovation processes and served as a constant guide for their successful decision‐making.

Associations should be really good at this. Unlike the for‐profit companies we studied, whose community is generally comprised of customers external to the organization, and association's community is made up of its members—and members typically comprise a number of established networks internal to the organization. Boards of Directors, committees, task forces—even supplier networks and, sometimes, staff departments—they all provide associations with a direct connection to their community that for‐profit corporations committed to innovation would envy.

Associations should be good at understanding who their stakeholders are and what moves them as people, but many of them don't. Many of them have had walls put up between their staff people and their members, preventing the staff from really getting to know the members as people and understanding what their true motivations are. In most cases, these walls didn't get built on purpose. They just sprang up naturally. Like weeds in the garden, no one has to tend them and help them grow. And like those weeds, purposeful action is only necessary if you want to keep them away.

Perhaps you've heard of these walls? They go by a variety of names. One of the tallest is called fear. Specifically, fear that you'll look foolish or unprofessional in front of your members. Another one goes by the name of pretending—pretending that we never make mistakes and know exactly what we're doing at all times. If you're leading your association under either one of these premises, you'll never understand the mind of your community, and without that understanding you'll never develop the innovative products and services you'll need to keep your association strong and robust in our uncertain future.

Here are the ground rules: We're all people. None of us is so smart that we can't be taught something new. We all work hard and do the best that we can, but we're going to make mistakes, and that's okay. When they happen, we'll own up and try to learn something useful. We're all in this together, and the only way we're going to succeed is by helping each other.

Now start tearing down those walls.

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