It may be tough to imagine your association creating a 21st Century breakthrough product or services like Oculus Rift, Spotify or the Kindle. But it’s a reality that association business models are facing pressures that require innovation. These challenges come from many areas, including the impact of technology, changes in consumer behaviors, and more competition for customers’ attention, time and money. Through my experience with clients of all types and sizes, the associations that are “innovation ready” are the most likely to remain relevant and to continue to meet customers’ evolving needs.

Being “innovation ready” means having the right foundation from which to formulate and expand your products, services, and value. Here are seven common traits of “innovation-ready” associations:

  1. Effective governance. An effective board embraces trying new things by encouraging calculated risks. Board members value market research, support an environment of risk taking and trust expert resources to transform the association’s product development strategy into action. Some associations have a “governance culture statement” that articulates the shared beliefs, values and attitudes of an association’s board of directors. Some boards even have an innovation committee, which provides staff leaders with a sounding board to evaluate management proposals for strategic product, service and technology investments.
  2. Strategic approach to change. Ensure your strategy provides value to your customers and will continue to do so as your environment changes. It should address disruptors that could be on the horizon and incorporate a wide range of data inputs—qualitative and quantitative—to examine why and how you might need to change. It also should provide a framework for deciding what new products and services are needed in the marketplace, and what needs and desires your customers might have that they do not even yet recognize. From there, create business plans to bring your strategy to life, with enough flexibility to adapt to a changing marketplace.
  3. Empowered staff members. Transformation outcomes are as dependent on the people in the organization as much as the actual initiatives. To ensure the long-term sustainability of change, organizations must engage enthusiastic, high-potential employees. They must equip them with skills and hold them accountable for—and recognize their contributions to—the effort. Make sure the staff members feel responsible for the end result of their work.
  4. A focus on trust. This is essential to ensuring that today’s association leaders do not get sidetracked with unnecessary operational issues and that they trust staff is making the right calls in terms of what they are asking the board to engage in.
  5. Innovation fund. Funds invested in product development efforts will not always generate immediate profits. However, financial policies can be structured to enable association leaders to access and leverage funds for innovation if a prudent business case exists. One option is to create a fund or reserve earmarked for strategic investments. This provides the board with a clear separation of what is needed to invest in growth versus annual operations and what is needed for a rainy day.
  6. Collaboration. Bringing staff, board members, and volunteers together to solve issues as a team is critical for ensuring focus on shared goals. There are many powerful technology solutions that significantly enhance an association’s ability to collaborate to achieve its mission. Many associations use free or low-cost messaging tools to help people connect in a time of overflowing email inboxes (e.g., Slack, Google Hangout, Teamwork), cloud-based document sharing, and video conferencing. These solutions enable members of a team to become familiar with what other team members are doing, allowing them to bring their ideas for improvement to the table and have input in the whole process.
  7. Put failure to work. Even in environments where high-performance levels are expected, there is a place for failure. Turn regret into a resource by focusing on the “why and how”—not the “who.” Use the answers as lessons to accelerate innovation, drive growth and strengthen employee engagement. Every experiment involves trial and error, so if you anticipate negative as well as positive outcomes from time to time, you can become more risk tolerant.

Associations can be truly remarkable places to incubate creative new ideas about the industries, professions, and areas of knowledge they serve. Generating innovative products and services allows associations to continue to provide customers with relevant products and services and position themselves for sustained growth.