Value is the association industry’s word of the hour. Customer expectations for online commerce are driving the preoccupation to deliver tangible member benefits paired with exceptional experience.
Tired thinking won’t get you to your value happy place. To meet the moment, make an ongoing commitment to innovation. .orgSource senior consultant, Elizabeth Lucas and I recently discussed this topic on the Association 4.0 Podcast.
Most leaders know that standing still is not an option. But association professionals sometimes struggle with creating a culture of innovation and a nimble organization.
Open the Windows
“A culture of innovation helps associations become resilient, generate new revenue streams, and succeed in the face of extreme challenges,” Liz observes. “This idea isn’t just an opinion. A 2018 ASAE Foundation research study identified a strong correlation between innovative initiatives and success.”
Don’t expect that breath of fresh air to happen by itself. If you want to change perspectives, open the windows. “Intentionality is super important,” Liz advises. “The ASAE Foundation study identified the board and CEO as critical in this process. They must be partners in experimentation and creativity. Then, every staff member, no matter how junior, should be encouraged to contribute.”
Democratizing ideas is essential. When you don’t engage the entire team, you’re wasting precious resources. During my consulting engagements, I sometimes discover staffers whose talent isn’t being fully utilized. In this competitive environment, every asset counts.
“A more equitable attitude toward participation allows people who might have been previously ignored during conversations about innovation to step forward,” Liz noted.
Liz identified these eight strategies you can use to jumpstart a culture of innovation in your organization.
1. Identify the Right Innovation Culture
Analyze the innovative behavior that is part of your current operations . Then describe the new qualities and actions the team wants to implement. Create a list with one column that represents the present and another for your desired future. Discuss and agree upon what is needed to make the shift from column one to column two.
2. Make innovation part of strategic planning.
Review your strategic plan and assess where there is room for growth. Consider what kind of initiatives could expand your horizons.
Most organizations hire a consultant to support strategic planning. Before you engage a facilitator, discuss their approach to innovation.
Share your goals for growth and consider a variety of tactics for integrating creative thinking into the process. Talk about the culture you are shaping and the capabilities you have and may need.
3. Support data-driven decision-making.
Take a hard look at your data. Analyze membership and sales numbers to identify where there are challenges or room for improvement.
Member personas are another area for exploration. Determine whether the products and services on offer are directed to the right audiences. Survey your members to assess whether they are finding value in the benefits you provide. If the responses and statistics are lackluster, do the research to learn what initiatives will be more impactful in an ever-changing environment.
4. Prioritize innovative activities.
Make room on agendas and in strategy sessions for brainstorming. Replace the naysayers with enthusiasts who say “yes, and what more can we do.”
Identify the natural innovators in your group and give them a format and venue for creativity. Help them to become influencers who stimulate partnerships across departments.
Get employees in the habit of brainstorming together. Make it easy and comfortable to offer suggestions. Foster a supportive environment that discourages snide comments and eye rolls. Respect every idea.
5. Create a nimble development process.
In the quest to please members and boards, association professionals can become fixated on perfection. The concept of the minimum viable product (MVP) allows for flexible expectations. Approaching product development with the outcome designed before it’s been market tested is too rigid and slow. Waiting to unveil your widget to the world until it is flawless, is waiting too long.
The MVP frees developers from being prisoners of a culture that demands answers before the important questions have been asked. It is the brainchild of Eric Ries, author of that entrepreneur’s bible, The Lean Startup. Ries describes product development as a journey of discovery. He emphasizes that an MVP does not mean you create minimal products. This is the definition he offers:
The MVP is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.
This attitudinal shift takes practice. But with diligence and consistency, the adjustment becomes easier. Innovation can flow unfettered by preconceived notions of what success should look like.
6. Invest in human and systems capacity.
If a technology deficit roadblocks creativity, begin budgeting to address the problem. Strive for fully integrated platforms that promote collaboration and include robust analytics.
On the human side, don’t leave key positions unfilled. Relieve staffing constraints by hiring freelancers to bridge the gap. Contract employees are a good way to evaluate which project configurations are conducive to more efficient work.
To free employees to brainstorm and undertake new projects, review current programs and determine whether there are activities that can be sunset. Don’t cling to a leader’s pet rock that offers limited return on investment.
Professional development is a great path to new thinking. Recognize and reward employees who grow their skills.
“Remember,” Liz observes, “you can scale innovation to capacity.” A squad of Steve Jobs wannabees isn’t necessary. “Innovation can be as simple as keeping your eyes and ears open to what your stakeholders are experiencing and what they need. Then, acting on those fresh ideas.”
7. Put innovation in the budget.
When my business partner, Kevin Ordonez, and I were interviewing leaders for our Association 4.0 books, we discovered that a number of executives are already budgeting for experimentation and growth.
Liz offers these recommendations. “One strategy is to assign a percent of the operating budget to innovation pilots. For organizations with limited resources, this can be difficult. But you can start small, say with half a percent. Another option is to use a range of five to 10 percent of the annual revenue. Or you might find a partner to help with financing.
“The scale of the project/s will guide how the funding is secured,” Liz advises. “A process innovation might not require any capital. Whereas a technology initiative could call for an investment that can be amortized over several years, and potentially paid for from future profits or reserves.”
8. Inspire the leadership team.
Liz emphasized the importance of the board and CEO’s leadership early in our conversation. But board members can be reluctant to risk an unknown future that might involve failure or disapproval.
If the CEO and the staff do a good job presenting the data and outlining the need, that objective information should sell itself. Even when the numbers are clear, it’s not always easy for an insider to paint this picture. A consultant can be helpful in providing motivation and developing convincing arguments.
You might imagine that innovation is just for the heavy hitters and that smaller groups can’t play in the creative sandbox. “Not so!” says Liz. “A 2022 ASAE Foundation research study demonstrated that size and professional affiliation don’t matter. With the right mindset, every group can integrate innovation into their culture.”
At a time when there is great uncertainty, competition is fierce, and we are called on to deliver value that changes with rapidly shifting needs, that’s excellent news.