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Driving Association Innovation

Posted By Administration, Monday, November 20, 2017

Driving Association Innovation
By Mike Dwyer, Chief Executive Relationship Officer, Association Headquarters

We all believe that associations must be innovators of new products, services and ideas in order to remain relevant. It is often true, however, that association boards tend to be conservative when it comes to challenging the status quo. And, when they do think about imaginative ways to grow membership or meet the needs of a new or different demographic, shift the strategic focus of the association they lead, or even brainstorm new and inventive ways to increase the relevance of their associations, they tend to be mired in the old way of thinking: members will support our association because we provide the only forum for them to interact. But this thinking is flawed and can be dangerous given the reality that associations have more competition than ever, particularly from for profit entities. 

Associations must begin thinking along the “innovation continuum” -- the concept of constant improvement -- looking at its activities through a multitude of angles and perspectives. 

There are many – including myself – who believe that a major key to the success of this idea of an “innovation continuum” is tied to the concept of process as well as product improvement. That is to say, the process by which associations innovate is as important as the products and services that arise out of the process itself. At last year’s Society of Association Executives meeting for the Mid-Atlantic region, I sat in on a session presented by Amanda Kaiser from Kaiser Insights, which provided some insights into this concept of Association Innovation. Her firm had been hired by the National Business Innovation Association to delve into the challenges associated with breaking the bonds of the status quo in the association community. As a result of her research, Ms. Kaiser noted six fundamental elements that lead to innovation for associations.

  1. Define Innovation. To quote from her research, “The first step in focusing the organization on innovation is coming up with a consistent definition for innovation that is understood by all.” She goes on to define it as the process by which associations create and launch a product or service that brings real value to its members.
  2. The CEO is key. The success – or failure – of developing a culture of innovation is directly tied to whether or not the CEO embraces the idea and drives it within the organization. 
  3. Culture AND process carry equal weight. Without arguing which comes first, Kaiser suggests they are equally important in driving innovative thinking.
  4. Change management is hard but crucial. We all can agree that change is difficult but Kaiser’s research clearly suggests that associations must obtain the discipline to prepare, equip and support all stakeholders to successfully adopt change in order to drive organizational success via innovation.
  5. Structure is important. Associations must provide certain tools to engage in innovation, namely, budget, process, staff resources, etc., or failure is certain.
  6. Encourage ideas! Listen to members because innovative solutions come from listening to their challenges. Encourage all stakeholders, including staff, to ideate. 

It may seem very straightforward, but I think we can agree that too few of our clients think in these terms. Kaiser’s research provides a very nice overview of how to successfully innovate, engage in change, break the bonds of the status quo and ensure there’s a future for associations who embrace a culture of innovation. How are you helping your clients find a path to innovation? 


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