Monday, December 16, 2013

Capturing Useful Intelligence

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Two weeks ago, in You Are Not Innovative, I had a bit of an argument with myself--chastising myself for not doing all that I could to set a truly innovative example for my association. In the post, I leveled three essential charges against myself, including:

You talk about the need to learn more about the environment your members operate in, but you don't do it. You never go out into that world to capture any useful intelligence.

I'd like to think I was being a little too hard on myself. In fact, I do spend some small amount of time every year in the environment of my members--mostly in the form of visits to their offices and manufacturing facilities. Perhaps there are six of these visits every year--and upon reflection that seems likes ridiculously few--but there is another, even larger problem with these visits. Most of the time, I find myself talking about the things our association is doing, instead of listening to the things the member is trying to achieve.

That's usually the purpose of the visit, you see. The frame is: "Hey, you're new to the association. Why don't I come down for a visit, tell you about all the great things we're doing, and make sure that you're talking full advantage of all the services we have available. Who knows? We might even find a place for you to get engaged as a volunteer."

I'm beginning to realize that a better frame may be: "Hey, you've been in the association for a while and we've hardly ever had any kind of contact. Why don't I come down for a visit, listen to your plans and objectives for the year, and see if I can learn anything about the challenges you're facing. Who knows? I might even hear something that helps me do my job better."

I actually tried to do some of this on my last such member visit. Even though the meeting had been set up under the existing frame, I purposely let the member talk first, asking him to tell me about his world. What products did his company make? How were they faring in the marketplace? What objectives did his company have for the year? What were the biggest obstacles that might prevent him from achieving them?

It was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot. On the positive side, as measured by the challenges facing this one particular member, I learned that my association was focused on the right set of issues. But on the negative side, I learned that my association wasn't doing nearly enough in those areas to really make a difference in this member's world. We had long-term plans. He needed some short-term fixes.

But there was another challenge associated with the experience. The next day, at our staff meeting, I shared as much as I could about what the member had told me--about the niche his company filled in our industry, about what he was trying to achieve, and what challenges he was wrestling with. There were a lot of nodding heads around the table and a bit of expanded conversation. It was useful as far as it went, but it could only go so far. It was one member's story, and while we all looked for the tidbits that reinforced for us the reasons for what we were already doing, we shied away from those that revealed that we were falling short of the impact we were hoping to make in the lives of our members.

And that's what really brought about that original accusation against myself: Never capturing any useful intelligence. Information is one thing. We can gather a lot of information about a lot of our members. But how will we decide when to act on that information? How will we know when anecdote passes into data, and when will we decide to act on data that tells us things we may not want to hear?

These are two challenges that will face any organization that wants to act in a more innovative fashion.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. This is a great post Eric and probably mirrors what many of your exec colleagues experience. I my first association (where a lot of our members were in the same town as our HQ), we were encouraged to have meetings with members in their offices instead of ours whenever possible ... strictly for anthropological observation purposes. Every year or two I "loan" myself out pro bono to a long-time client for a week just to be in their office environment and reacquaint myself with current norms in an organization's environment.

    "We had long-term plans. He needed some short-term fixes." This observation is huge and one I encounter more regularly for my own work, as well as the work of the associations I am trying to support: How can we be of greater service TODAY?

    "How will we know when anecdote passes into data" might possibly be a bit too passive given what your innovation aspirations are. As you know, innovation often occurs at the margins so a few anecdotes may be all the data you need to consider prototyping some short-term value fixes that members seek. And if not, what system might the association experiment with to share anecdotal evidence with more members and to assess whether their experiences are the same or different?

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. The question about anecdotes turning to data is offered also because some people use it as a smokescreen to get away with not doing anything new. What? You want me to change my behavior because of what one person said? That is an attitude that can kill the innovative impulse in its tracks.