Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Innovation is Hard

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A little over a month ago I attended WSAE's National Summit on Innovation for Associations. As chair of WSAE's Innovation Task Force, I was instrumental in helping to frame WSAE's annual conference around the subject of innovation, and was even recognized as the chair of the conference itself. We had more than a hundred association and related industry professionals attend (a fantastic turnout for WSAE) and, true to the implied promise of the conference title, we drew attendees in from across the national scene.

The first day of the summit was facilitated by Jeff De Cagna, and its focus was on building new capacities for innovation within the association community. We weren't talking directly about making your own association more innovative (that would get more attention on day two). We were instead talking about how association professionals, the associations they worked for, and the industry partners they collaborated with could pool their ideas and organizational resources together to create new competencies and structures that would facilitate innovation in our community.

Jeff did a great job. He adeptly focused our attention on forming new peer networks for innovation. We identified a handful of common areas as ripe for innovation, self-selected ourselves into smaller working groups around those areas, and spent some time talking about what we could do to help each other move forward.

The group I was in focused on co-creation of programs and participatory decision-making--essentially having staff work hand-in-hand and continuously with members throughout the process of identifying, developing and delivering new programs and services. I was attracted to the topic because I think it's one of the areas my own association needs to improve upon. I see it as key to engaging with the next generation of members and to keeping pace with a quickly changing environment.

There were seven of us around the table and we had a great discussion. At the end of it, we made the following commitment:

Each of us will commit to a specific objective in our own organization that increases our use of co-creation or participatory decision-making in program development of strategy setting. We will then:
1. Share those objectives with one another;
2. Communicate regularly with one another to report progress, share ideas, and hold each other accountable; and
3. Develop a report on our experiences to share with the broader association community.

I can't speak for the other participants, but I left the discussion fired up and ready to tackle a new challenge. I even announced to my staff upon my return from the summit that I had participated in such a discussion, had made such a commitment, and would be working with a peer group in the weeks and months ahead to bring new ideas and practices into our association.

Then, a month went by. We had a board meeting to prepare for, a conference to plan, a newsletter to get out, a website to redesign, staffing issues to deal with. And nothing even remotely related to the commitment I had made happened.

Fortunately, one of the other members of my peer group followed up on a specific commitment she had made: polling everyone and setting up a conference call so that we could all communicate to each other the specific objectives we had set for bringing more co-creation or participatory decision-making to our associations. Last week, that call took place. Only two people from the original group were on it. Me and her.

We bemoaned the fact that so many others had dropped away, but we honestly couldn't blame them. We had almost fallen away ourselves, succumbing instead to the very real and very pressing demands of the day-to-day. But we wanted to keep the spirit we had both felt at the summit alive. Even if it is just the two of us, there was value in stepping away from the deadlines that seem to control us and spend a few moments talking about what comes next--not for the projects we're working on, but for the frame within which those projects take place.

And in that one hour I spent on the phone with her--one hour out of a month crammed with staff meetings, conference calls, and project planning activities--I came up with three good ideas for ways to bring more co-creation and participatory decision-making to my association. I've started bouncing them off members of my staff and the response has been positive. They can see the strategy behind the tactics, and they can see the value to them and the association to find ways to get them done.

This is what makes innovation so hard. It requires us to do something different. Something, initially, that has no support and no one has time for and which will never have any evidence that it will work. We have to step away from what we do at the day-to-day level, and we have to look and respond to the unrealized future we can't define but which we know is coming.

How are you going to do that? How are you going to get that done while keeping all the other balls you're juggling in the air? What if the answer was a one hour phone call every month with a peer who is juggling the same balls and who has the same desire to look beyond and change the way things are done? Would you be able to find time for that?

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