Monday, January 27, 2014

Putting Something Unfinished Out There

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Eight 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.

Which I dealt with in more detail six weeks ago in Capturing Useful Intelligence, and:

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.

Which I dealt with in more detail two weeks ago in Engaging Members in Your Development Process, and: 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.

Which I want to expand upon this week. I've been protesting in these follow-up posts that I had been intentionally hard on myself in that original post. It was partly to make the point about how difficult these things are, but, in this last case, I think the criticism is actually the most justified.

Truth be told, I don't put prototypes or unfinished ideas out in front of my members to see what they can do with them. I believe that very few of us do. And why is that? Refer to the reasons listed in my original post.

You haven't the resources...

What do I mean by resources? Is that money? Well, yes, more money would certainly help, but I'm actually talking about a more precious resource here--the thoughtful attention of your members.

How much time does your average member spend interacting with your association? It probably varies by organization, but I'd bet most association leaders are not satisfied with their organization's honest answer.

I think there's a natural tendency to capitalize on this precious resource, and too often that means only putting your best foot forward in every interaction. This may be the only time I talk to this member this year. Wouldn't I rather connect her to something I know provides value instead of some wild experiment?

The problem with this line of thinking is that for some members, the chance to try something new, to tinker with something and help make it better for their industry or profession--that's exactly the kind of value they're looking for.

or the organizational support...

This one runs deep. One person can't do this alone. One person putting unfinished work out there will be labeled a lunatic, risking the brand image and identity of the association.

If you're going to run open experiments in front of your members, the whole organization has to be behind it. The CEO has to talk about it. The Board has to accept it. The line staff have to do it. The members have to embrace it. If any one of these pieces isn't aligned, there will be dashed expectations, and someone will get fired or someone will quit.

or the courage, to do something with that much risk associated with it.

And if that's the situation you are in, then courage is an absolute necessity. Sticking your neck out is never comfortable, but if you believe change is necessary, then stick it out you must, because change won't come without it.

My advice? Start small. Find some of the members I mentioned above. The ones who like to tinker and want to try something new. Maybe you only need one. Get together and talk about something that isn't working in your organization and solicit their help in addressing it. Whatever they say, find a way to do it. Not in a big way, not plastered on the front page of your magazine, but in a small way, a guerrilla way, on your own, without help from anyone else. Maybe it's not even a program at that point. Maybe it's just a document--a document with a combination of words on it that no one has every suggested before.

Then, share it with another member. Get their feedback on it. Adapt and advance the concept. Repeat and keep repeating.

If you do it consistently, you'll realize two things. First, the thing you're working on will never be finished. At some point it will turn into an actual program, but it will always be open to another interaction and another interpretation. And second, that's a good thing. Believe it or not, putting something unfinished out there will become not just less scary, but enjoyable and productive for everyone involved.

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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

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