Monday, December 2, 2013

You Are Not Innovative

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You had me fooled for a while. You really did. I mean, you follow all the blogs, you read all the books and you go to all the conferences. And you talk about innovation all the time. You even have your own blog where you put up posts about innovation and the people you meet at those conferences tell you how great they are. But despite all that, you're not really innovative. You know how I know?

Because you never do anything that's painful.

A while ago, I read this on one of those blogs you follow:

Every organization I've observed that's serious about being innovative is filled with people in genuine pain — not just stress or anxiety or deadline pressure, and certainly not discomfort. Pain. This can be the physical strain of consecutive all-nighters to test every meaningful configuration of a website before it goes live, to the emotional pain of subordinating your vision of the innovation to the vicissitudes of customer taste. Ideally, innovators go through pain so their customers and clients won't have to.

And I've been thinking about it a lot since then, and I've realized that you don't do anything like this. In fact, you avoid this kind of pain at all costs.

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. You talk about engaging your members in the development process of a new program or service, but you don't do it. All your ideas are kept safe and pristine within the four walls of your office. And you talk about putting something unfinished out there--some prototype of some half-formed idea to see what your members can do or create with it--but you don't do that either. You haven't the resources, or the organizational support, or the courage, to do something with that much risk associated with it.

So, you're not innovative. Stop saying that you are.

But there's something else that puzzles me. If you're not willing to do these things, if you're not willing to experience the pain of innovation, then why exactly do you think that the people on your staff will be willing to do so? Because you tell them to? Because you write about them on your blog? That's a little too much like the parent who tells his kids not to smoke while lighting up another cigarette. Like those kids, your staff won't follow what you say; they will only follow what you do.

That makes sense, doesn't it? You're the one who likes to talk about organizations as systems. What kind of system develops from a leader that plays things safe, that doesn't take risks, and that avoids the pain of difficult and confusing interactions with his customers and clients?

Surely not one that's innovative.

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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. Hi Eric,

    Love this post. You manage to be confrontational without being arrogant. Yes, we all need to practice what we preach. And yes, it's easier - and less painful -- to express interest than to act.

    We also need to learn from the innovative/new/experimental steps our colleagues ARE taking, so their successes and failures can inform our own efforts. Toward that end, we have created an Innovations in Associations area of our website. If/when you (and your readers) DO come upon execs who are following your advice, I hope you'll encourage them to check out this site and/or tell Associations Now about their efforts.

    Mariah Burton Nelson, VP for Innovation, ASAE

    1. Thanks, Mariah. As a thought exercise, I decided to take myself to task in this post for not doing all that I should to embed innovative practices into my leadership of my own organization. But keep an eye out for future posts. I plan to argue back and defend the things I have done. Perhaps those will be of interest for Associations Now?