Sunday, June 5, 2011

Real-World Innovation for Associations

I had a fantastic opportunity this past Friday—an opportunity to take the principles and ideas about innovation that are being developed through my work with the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives, and apply them in a real-world situation with a real-world organization. I accepted an invitation from a national professional society to present the information we have developed on innovation in associations at their Board retreat, and help them determine how it applied to them and what specific steps they should take.

To help set-up the conversation, I asked each individual Board member to complete the innovation assessment we have posted on the Hub for Association Innovation, and then I presented their aggregated responses back to them. In some cases the results surprised them. In other cases they didn’t. But I think everyone would agree that it created a lot of great dialogue on where they needed to focus in order to become a more innovative organization.

From my perspective, this organization has pretty much already adopted a culture of innovation among their top leadership. The Board has recently culminated a process in which a new organizational mission and vision have been identified, and are now contemplating a name change in order to better reflect the changes in their environment and how the association is repositioning itself to expand and better serve its membership base. Unlike a lot of other organizations facing similar issues, this one has bravely identified that change is necessary, and its leaders are ready to drive cultural change within the organization appropriately.

In order to perpetuate that change, however, one key area they identified for themselves was leadership development. Having arrived at that place where the current batch of leaders were willing to drive for necessary change, what guarantee did any of them have that the next batch, or even the current leadership one layer down in their organization, would similarly embrace what they were trying to do? We talked about tackling the problem from both the process side of the coin—an immediate need to engage with existing leaders throughout the organization and incorporate their thoughts and ideas in the work of reinvention—as well as from the culture side of the coin—a longer-term plan in which the individuals in their organization with the appropriately innovative approach to leadership were identified and groomed for future involvement.

There was a thoughtful pause in our discussion when one Board member reminded everyone that (probably like a lot of other organizations, I thought), given their existing leadership criteria, those individuals with the appropriate mindset and leadership skills, may not currently be “electable” to leadership positions. It was one of those moments when you can see by the look on people’s faces that everyone together is wrapping their heads around the true scope of what they’re dealing with. It was intimidating and invigorating at the same time.

I think another big issue for them will be nimbleness, and a willingness to experiment in front of the members. Again, like a lot of other associations, it seemed like their processes for launching new programs are being hampered by the overly complex nature of their organizational structure. There are perceived risks that need to be managed—financial risks, yes, in launching programs that haven’t been properly vetted or embraced by their potential customers—but more pressingly reputation risks, the idea that the association must protect its reputation by never allowing unsuccessful or half-formed programs out of the gate.

We spent a lot of time talking about the need to design an innovation process—and build an innovation culture—that operated on the exactly opposite principle. That lots of half-formed programs were going to be launched, not to embarrass the organization, but to engage directly with their members in helping to decide which ones were worthy of additional support and development, and which ones should be allowed to suffer an early demise.

Some Board members got really hung up on the issue of failure—a word I deliberately threw out on the table and wanted them to talk about. They thought we were talking about encouraging people to fail. It was great when one of the Board members themselves helped to clarify. No, we’re not encouraging people to fail. We’re encouraging them not to be afraid of failure. Well said.

It was a remarkable experience—one I hope to repeat for other organizations as we continue to define our evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. If there are any Hourglass readers that would like to share their experiences in trying to adopt the principles of innovation, I’d be happy to have the dialogue.

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