Monday, December 26, 2011

It's Not Innovation If It Only Serves You

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One thing I struggle with as I try to lead my association towards more innovative practice is the need to define what innovation is and is not in our environment.

There are times when we're brainstorming ideas around a table and someone will land upon an idea that seems to them to be the very epitome of innovation, but which strikes me as a change designed solely to reduce the burden of work on the individual employee.

Here's an actual example from a few years ago:

I know! Instead of printing out all those reams of paper, let's put the conference handouts on a jump drive and just hand them out from the registration desk! Think of all the paper we'll save! It's time our members entered the 21st century, anyway.

I find myself walking a fine line when shooting ideas like this down. While there is something to be said for an innovative idea that both serves the needs of the members and reduces the administrative workload of staff, ideas that accomplish the latter without impacting the former (or actually impacting it negatively) are, in some ways, the exact opposite of innovation.

In my textbook example, I knew that the conference in question was an extremely technical one, in which the presentations contained a lot of data and detailed information. And I suspected that our members had a need for those printed handouts that the innovative idea ignored. When we surveyed some attendees to get their take, those suspicions were validated.

We need those printed handouts! We take lots of notes during the sessions. It's what creates individual value for us. And the binder full of handouts serves as a reference for us after the conference and throughout the year. Please don't take that away from us!

I'm not offering this example as a criticism of the staff person who offered the idea. Far from it, I try to encourage new ways of thinking and experimentation among everyone on the staff. But I am trying to make a point. If we're not clear about the value we already deliver to our members, we'll have an exceptionally hard time creating more innovative value in the future.

Giving our members only an electronic copy of the handouts they couldn't access or edit during the conference would have actually been a step backwards for them. No matter how much time and money it saved, it wasn't the kind of innovation we need to focus on.

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