Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Innovation Problem for Associations

Jeff De Cagna had another great article in the April 2011 issue of Associations Now that I just got around to reading on one of my recent plane rides. “Six Design Principles for Business-Model Innovation” provides association executives with his usual thought-provoking push into territories we should really be spending more of our time in—but often don’t. It’s definitely worth your attention.

It also reminds me of the online discussion Jeff and I had a few months back on our two blogs about innovation for associations and the work of the WSAE Innovation Task Force I chair. In the spirit of that discussion, I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts and reactions to Jeff’s article.

I’ll start with something I suspect Jeff and I agree on.

Our thinking about future business models needs to focus on maximizing the value of better outcomes for our stakeholders, not preserving the traditional structures and inputs we often regard as most important.

This is about as clear as any statement I’ve read about the fundamental challenge facing associations when it comes to embracing innovation. The work of the WSAE task force is predicated on the idea that innovation is a process—one that relies and people and creativity—but a process nonetheless, and like any process it needs to be clearly defined, resourced and continually improved in order to work. In this regard innovation can be viewed as another association business practice—like program management or marketing—something that all organizations can do, albeit with varying levels of expertise and success.

But that’s not the problem. The innovation problem for associations is not about process. It’s about culture. It’s not just changing what we do, it’s changing how we do things. It’s putting a new objective in front of us and retooling the organization itself so it can get serious about pursuing it. And that objective, as Jeff says, is maximizing the value of better outcomes for our stakeholders.

I know what you’re saying. That’s already our objective, Eric. Look at our mission statement and our fifteen-page strategic plan. They’re all about maximizing value for our members.

And they are. At this point in our history, the association world has strategic planning down pat. But what are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve those finely wordsmithed objectives? How about the organization itself? Or at least the mental image of the organization that exists in our minds and the minds of our members?

It’s a great question to ask. Or maybe just run it in your mind as a thought experiment. If your mission could be achieved by changing what is perceived as the foundation (or core service, or value proposition) of your organization, would you do it? Would your Board chair? Are you sure? Here’s a provocative idea. If your answer is no, it means only two things. One: you won’t achieve those objectives about maximizing value for your members. And two: those objectives aren’t aiming high enough anyway.

We put an innovation readiness assessment up on the WSAE Hub of Association Innovation. It’s really just a short survey to help association professionals determine non-scientifically where their organizations are when it comes to embracing innovation, and which areas they may want to start working on if they wish to change things. There are four questions that relate to the leadership culture of your organization, but I think the most critical one is this:

Is your leadership willing to drive cultural change in your organization if that is what is needed to achieve your goals?

Start there. You won’t be able to innovate until you can honestly answer yes.

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