Monday, April 30, 2018

Design Constraints Make Innovation Happen

I participated in a SURGE Spring 2018 session on co-creation. Don't know what SURGE Spring 2018 is? It's an online, virtual conference put on by Association Success. Sessions have been recorded and are being posted this week (May 2-4, 2018). Mine will be posted on May 4. Go here for more info.

Don't know what co-creation is? You're not alone. In planning for our session my fellow panelists and I decided that we needed to start with a definition of the term -- and then discovered that we all had a slightly different one.

Here's mine. Co-creation is when an association and its members work together to create something that has value to both the association and its members.

The session was a fairly free-wheeling discussion of that topic. I think it was a good one, but I won't try to recap it here. What I'm doing instead over a series of posts is highlighting some the the new thoughts that occurred to me as I listened to the comments of my fellow panelists.

I already talked about one: The Process is the Product.

Here's another. Design constraints make innovation happen.

"Design constraints" was actually a new term for me. But once I heard it, I realized I had been describing them using different words when I've talked about the need for staff to keep the keys to the resource closet in their possession in any co-creation activity.

One perceived danger of associations co-creating with their members is the idea that members, if given the chance, will gobble up all of the association's resources for their pet projects. By resources I mean money, yes, but I also mean staff time. How, someone may ask, are we supposed to support a hundred different projects for a hundred different members?

I think the people asking those kind of questions are missing the point. Hopefully, when you apply the principle of design constraints the point of this exercise will make itself more clear. Just because most associations are not in a position to allow co-creation to take place at whatever level their members would define, that doesn't mean that those same associations can't allow co-creation to take place at levels that they themselves define.

In other words, an association might invite its members to come in and co-create a program or a service with it but, in doing so, that association can legitimately place limits on the amount of resources that will be applied to the project.

Our members, the association might say, tell us they need a program that serves a particular need, and we want a group of members who feel that need to work collaboratively with us to build that program. But in doing so, know that the association has only so much to spend on the program, and only so many staff hours will be dedicated to its development and delivery.

Those limits on available resources are the design constraints (or the keys to the resource closet). And here's the best part. They are what makes actual innovation happen.

Anyone can design and deliver a program with unlimited resources. Doing it with constraints on those resources forces fresh ideas and creativity into the process. Not only is the association co-creating needed programs with its members, it is doing it in a way that fosters new ways of thinking and new ways of getting the work done.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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