Monday, September 24, 2012

Things We Must Do

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I had the pleasure of facilitating a few roundtable discussions at WSAE's second annual National Summit on Association Innovation last week. Our topic was "Creating a Culture of Innovation."

The first thing I did was reflect on the presentations we had heard prior to the start of our roundtables. WSAE brought several valuable perspectives to our attention, and as I listened to their calls for our organizations to do things like taking more calculated risks, rewarding creativity, and facilitating collaboration across all our stakeholder groups, it occurred to me that the challenge before us was not just in figuring out how to do these things once, but how to do them systemically. How were we going to build cultural assumptions, systems, and infrastructures across our organizations so that these innovative practices didn't just happen episodically, but continually and automatically, without the people in the organization having to consciously direct them?

That was, in part, the challenge I put before the roundtable participants. And I asked them to start by identifying the barriers they saw present in their organizations. The things they knew would stand in the way of such radical thinking.

The barriers they identified won't surprise you. Boards that don't support change. Staffs that don't have time to think, much less tackle complex problems. Cultures that reward the status quo and seem pre-wired for risk aversion. It was the usual litany, but as we began to discuss possible strategies for addressing them, several things became clear.

First, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to these problems. Every person in every organization faces a different set of problems. There are certainly some common themes, but the CEO in the organization with a forward-looking Board is going to have an easier time than the junior staffer in the organization whose boss trashes all her ideas for change. That's just the way things are.

Second, regardless of the barriers arrayed before them, individuals in troubled organizations must begin to take action. When asked to summarize all the output of all the discussions at the end of the conference, I decided to frame my comments around this core idea. I decided to speak up. I decided to challenge people. I decided to call everyone's attention to what we already know but which some of us are not willing to face. If our organizations are going to change, it is us who recognize the need for change who must do the changing.

And we know what to do. That's the third takeaway I got from the roundtable discussions. The specific path forward isn't always easy or clear, but we know what big changes need to be made. In short, we must:

1. Create a sense of urgency around the need for innovative change. In our cluttered lives, the only things that seem to get done are the things that come with a sense of urgency. Next week's Board meeting, next month's newsletter, next year's annual conference--they're all screaming for our attention. We must find ways to create the same sense of urgency around building innovative systems in our organizations. It doesn't happen now because it's at the bottom of everyone's to do list. Move it up and start working on it. More importantly, talk to others in your organization and see if you can move it up their priority lists as well.

2. Educate our Boards about the rewards the come to organizations that successfully innovate. The good news is that there is no shortage of information and thought leaders in our environment with real stories about the value of innovative change for organizational performance. We must bring this information to the attention of our leaders. More than one association CEO at the conference was already using Race for Relevance as a primer and discussion guide for their Board meetings, but R4R is not the only conversation starter out there. Find one that will work in your organization and bring it to the attention of your Board.

3. Create a process for sunsetting programs. If you do nothing else, please do this one. We're all being crushed under the weight of legacy programs and out-dated processes. It really is possible to stop doing things, and I would urge you to find one thing to stop doing this week. Once you do that, and discover that the world does not come to an end, you can begin working on the challenging task of linking your organization's strategic priorities to a systemic process that evaluates program and process alignment with those priorities, and brings those found lacking to a timely and a respectful end.

In closing, I reminded everyone that change takes time, and if we are going to be successful, it is critical for us all to extend our visions. Knowing that the road ahead may take many years to traverse,we must begin thinking about the people and processes within our organization who can best serve as consistent advocates for change over the appropriate time horizon. If they're not already apparent to us, then our first task should focus on building them.

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