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I have a fascination with the topic of innovation. Specifically innovation in the association environment, and especially what the association community can learn about innovation from the for-profit sector.

As the President/CEO of a national trade association, I operate daily on the sometimes nebulous border between the non-profit objectives of my association and the for-profit objectives of the member companies we serve. And it was their interest and expertise in for-profit innovation that first prompted my interest in association innovation.

In part as a result, I volunteered to chair the Innovation Task Force of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE), a group of association professionals that attempted to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. In this capacity, I was the lead author on a White Paper on Association Innovation that identified principles of innovation from the for-profit community, barriers in the association world to adopting those principles, and the unique advantages that associations have that, if better leveraged, could allow them to adopt more innovative practices.

I continue to blog about innovation in associations. Here's an index of the innovation posts appearing on this blog:

Data Driven Strategies

10/13/14 - The Importance of Sharing Survey Results
One of the things I insist on is sharing the results of our biennial member satisfaction survey with our membership. I do this for a few reasons. They deserve it, it helps increase future response rates, and it provides cover for ending programs. What other good reasons are there for sharing your survey data with your members?

03/31/14 - Being Data Driven Is Harder Than It Sounds
Slice the data one way and you'll get one view and slice it another way and you'll get another view. It's a reality we're all aware of, but in our rush to understand what's going on around us, it's a reality that's all too easy to ignore.

Engaging the Board

07/07/14 - Does Your Board Act as Your Innovation Committee?
Do you ever engage with your board members in ways that take them out of their formal role as fiduciary stewards of the organization? It can be sometimes be challenging to change the rules of engagement, but if your board is anything like mine, you will want to engage their intellects and passions in ways that help your association innovate.

03/24/14 - Who's Your "Lead User" Community?
Recognizing how difficult it increasingly is to capture the attention of your members and deliver effective communications to them, imagine how productive it would be to have a community of "lead members," interacting with your larger community in the "real world," demonstrating the value of your programs and services.

07/01/13 - When Red Lights Mean Go
We'd already gotten into the habit of using the green, yellow, and red lights to indicate relative success or difficulty in meeting our performance metrics for the year. What's new is that in addition to sorting our programs horizontally by strategic priority, I also sorted them vertically by innovation factor.


12/05/16 - Stop Calling It Failing
In innovation circles, we're often told that we musn't be afraid to fail. And I suppose that is true. But let's be careful about what we call failure and what we call success.

For-Profit Competition

01/26/15 - Is Your Association a Skunk Works for Your Industry?
A consultant, trying to shake an association executive out of his complacency, asks how he would feel if his association spent gobs of time and money developing an unique product for its membership, only to have a for-profit company sweep in, develop, and launch a competing product, at a significantly lower price, for the same audience two months after the association's launch. The exec's answer? Great!

Innovation in Association Education

06/10/19 - Is Your Content Generalizable?
Sometimes, the most rewarding kind of speaker is someone from outside my industry, speaking on how they address and solve challenges in their industry. Innovation frequently comes, after all, straight out of these attempts at cross-fertilization. To make this kind of thing work, however, it is important for both the speaker and the participant to understand which parts of the presentation are generalizable and which are not.

01/15/18 - The Idea Swap
What I like about this idea is that it at least attempts to deal with a fundamental and often overlooked reality of this situation. The reason the attendee has a challenge that is keeping her up at night is because she doesn't not how to solve it. And putting her together at a table with nine other people who are confounded by the same problem won't necessarily help.

01/16/12 - The Right Way to Use Expert Speakers
Bring in an outside speaker. Make sure she has real expertise in an area relevant to your industry. Ask her to prepare three or four pieces of content--each no more than 10 minutes in length. And then, get a group of smart, out-going members, spread them liberally through the audience, and ask them to challenge the content, speculating out loud about how it translates to your environment and what value they find in it.

Innovation in Hotel Contracts

05/23/16 - The Truly Honest Attrition Clause
My first job in association management was the meeting planner. That was in 1992. As my career progressed, there came a day when I was no longer "the" meeting planner. But even in those higher level positions, including my chief staff executive role today, it's always been my signature that goes on the bottom line of the hotel contract. And over all those years and those untold number of contracts, I've yet to come across the truly honest attrition clause.

Innovation in Small Steps

01/27/14 - Putting Something Unfinished Out There
My advice? Start small. Find some members 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. And the, whatever they say, find a way to do it.

12/17/12 - Too Many Surveys
When surveying your members, start small. Ask one question, post the results and publicly take action based on the response. Start with things that are easy to peg to majority opinion. What kind of snacks would you like served at the next conference? It may seem trivial at first. But by asking, sharing and taking action you just might get your members in the habit of responding to more of your surveys.

11/28/11 - Film Directing Lessons in Innovation and Leadership
The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas CAN BE. The bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas ARE.

10/17/11 - The Chief Detail Officer
The Chief Detail Officer isn't the person responsible for coordinating all the details. It is the person responsible for finding small things that cost little that have tremendous impact and making sure they are done right and consistently.

Innovation Myths

10/23/17 - Peer Surveys Protect the Status Quo
I have to admit that if the results would have shown my association to be different from its peer group, I would have either dismissed the survey as faulty, or figured out a way to convince myself that what we were doing, although different from most of our peers, was right and appropriate for our situation and our association. That's how powerful the barriers to change are in most organizations.

10/20/14 - What Makes for an Innovative Idea?
When you say the truly innovative idea out loud for the first time, people don't nod their heads and write it down on their to-do lists. Everyone's hearts beat faster and they find themselves torn between a desire to support the potential of what has just been described and a not-unrealistic fear that they are not up to task of providing what the potential may demand of them. It's not something that we just work into our procedures. Indeed, it is something that we may need to abandon some of our procedures in order to achieve.

10/07/13 - Burn Your Own Box
It's no longer enough to "think outside the box." The latest catch phrase I'm hearing in the innovation circles I run in is "burn the box." Having exhausted all the creative and wonderful ideas that came from climbing out of the box, we're are evidently ready to finally destroy the damn thing and venture out totally on our own. Wait. Are you sure? Which box, exactly, are we burning?

08/13/12 - Are You One of the 83%?
I believe that 83% of CEOs responding to a recent survey think of themselves as innovators, but I find it impossible to believe that many CEOs actually are innovators. If they were, I dare say the association community would have nothing to worry about.

Innovation Networks

10/22/18 - Other People See Connections You Don't
Getting a member into this headspace can be extremely beneficial. Because they are different from you, because they have different perceptions, and see different connections, there's no telling what kind of elegant solution is going to arise from these open and honest discussions.

11/20/17 - 80% Is Good Enough
And a common theme I heard emerge was the need to push partially developed products and services out to our members, and then to refine them based on the feedback received from the very users that the products and services are intended for. 80% is good enough, one of my staff members said. And, another added, you probably can't really get to 100% without the interaction with the marketplace.

04/13/15 - Listen to the Outsider
It gave me a good feeling. Like I was the star pupil solving a puzzle that had eluded the rest of the class. But even as a kind of Pavlovian dopamine reward flooded my brain, I realized there was a more important lesson to be learned here. A practical, real-world lesson about letting outsiders come to the inside of your organization and turning them loose on some of your thorniest problems.

11/07/11 - Secrets of Innovation
This really is one of the secrets of innovation, isn't it? Bring outside perspectives into your organization and allow them to identify new opportunities hidden by your internal culture and demographics.

Knowing Your Customer

03/10/14 - Scavenger Hunts and Industry Knowledge, Part 2
It was an experiment, and it worked better than I could have imagined. Why? I believe because it was relevant. The connection between what we were doing and its relevancy to our jobs was evident.

03/03/14 - Scavenger Hunts and Industry Knowledge
Always on the lookout for ways to increase my and my staff's understanding of the industry we represent and the technology it produces, we're launching an experimental program at this year's trade show--a kind of staff scavenger hunt where the items sought are components manufactured by our members and, hopefully, at work in their natural environment.

02/17/14 - Look (and Understand) Before You Leap
Rather than focusing on becoming less risk averse, I would suggest that associations work to become more knowledgeable about the on-the-ground reality of their industry or profession. This will put them in a position to make confident decisions balanced with the right measures of risk and benefit.

12/16/13 - Capturing Useful Intelligence
I spend some time every year in the environment of my members--mostly in the form of visits to their offices and manufacturing facilities. Most of the time, however, I find myself talking about the things our association is doing, instead of listening to the things the member is trying to achieve.

03/11/13 - A Faster Horse
What if, once we got the fifteen members around the table we didn't ask them what we should do? What if we instead told them what we thought we understood about their world, and then what we planned to do differently in the year ahead to help them succeed in that environment?

01/30/12 - The Mind of the Community
If you want your staff to better anticipate the needs of your members, to understand how your members' community will react in predictable and unpredictable situations, you need to make them part of it.

12/26/11 - It's Not Innovation If It Only Serves You
If we're not clear about the value we already deliver to our members, we'll have an exceptionally hard time creating more innovative value in the future.

10/10/11 - Help the Customer Succeed
I've had personal experiences, walking as a guest through a manufacturing facility, and stopping a person in the middle of some assembly function to hear them describe exactly what they are doing on how it benefits the customer. Now, think about the world of associations. How many association staffers really know who their customers are and what they need to succeed in their environments?

Making Innovation Happen

12/10/16 - Constraints + Creativity = Innovation
My association sponsors an undergraduate education program we call the Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge. In many ways, it is a textbook example of innovation -- and how it is design constraints themselves, coupled with creativity, that allows it to flourish.

02/08/16 - Why the Wild West Isn't All Bad
I contend that by placing responsibility on the individual staff person for solving their own technology issues, it encourages professional development, innovative thinking, and better customer service.

12/07/15 - Innovating the Lean Startup Way
When it comes to applying lean startup methodology to our product and program development processes, what some associations perceive as liabilities are not liabilities at all. They turn into advantages because the lean startup method "favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over tradition 'big design up front' development. As such, it's ideally suited for resource-poor environments."

09/24/12 - Things We Must Do
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; (2) Educate our Boards about the rewards the come to organizations that successfully innovate; and (3) Create a process for sunsetting programs.

08/28/12 - Association Superfans
The best thing you can do to turn a member in a superfan is to put them in control and let them define and maximize the value they can derive from the association. Forget the free stuff. If you give them anything, give them the tools they need to create their own meaning.

10/24/11 - Why Innovation Is Hard
It requires us to do something different. Something, initially, that has no support and no one has time for and which will never have any evidence that it will work. We have to step away from what we do at the day-to-day level, and we have to look and respond to the unrealized future we can't define but which we know is coming.

Online Tools

12/19/11 - Innovation Does Not Happen Online
There are those in our community who would have you believe that online communities are a prerequisite for innovation. But, of course, they're not. In fact, I think that sometimes the online community piece actually gets in the way.

Principles of Innovation

02/06/12 - No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse
As an association leader, you should clearly want to foster and facilitate a style of idea exchange that helps your organization innovate and develop on-going generations of breakthrough products and ideas. But, like making computer mouses, it is important to understand that there is no single individual in your community who currently knows or will ever know what that next innovative product will be, how to bring the idea behind it about, and how to build and deliver it once it is.

09/12/11 - There Is No Recipe for Innovation
I have increasing skepticism for the idea that there is a single innovation model that will work for everyone in the association community. We want innovation to be an established, predictable process, because established, predictable processes are easy for us to manage and master. But your innovation solution is going to be messy, and different from mine.

09/05/11 - Recipes for Innovation
Close collaboration of people with different perspectives, executives supportive of experimentation, obsessive attention to detail coupled with an iterative prototyping process, and small, stable teams who know their jobs and who they're innovating for--these seem to be principles of innovation that are consistent across many platforms.

Stop Doing Things

07/09/12 - Too Many Choices
To be innovative we absolutely have to try new things, but innovation equally requires us to stop doing things as part of a continuous improvement cycle. Spend some time branching out, trying new things, and then spend some time pruning back, funneling resources into the areas that have shown the greatest potential.

Taking Risks

12/04/17 - I Don't Know How To Do That
So where does this impulse come from? It was a fear of something I didn't fully understand, and it came from the same place that all such fears do. The place of uncertainty that keeps us from trying something new, to rely again and again on the things that feel comfortable but which ultimately don't bring us success.

12/02/13 - You Are Not Innovative
You had me fooled for a while. 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. But despite all that, you're not really innovative. You know how I know? Because you never do anything that's painful.

11/04/13 - What If I Make a Mistake?
Innovation means taking risks. It means doing things we don't fully understand. It means launching things that aren't yet finished. And all of that means making mistakes. And being comfortable with it.

04/22/13 - We Can Only See the Destination By Moving Towards It
If we're going to create something new--and get to a place we've never visited before and for which we have no directions--we need to find a new way of doing things. And we can only find that way, not by standing still and predicting what we must do, but by moving towards it with openness and courage.

07/30/12 - Why We Don't Take Risks
If you're not willing to step outside your comfort zone and actually do something different, something unpredictable, something whose value has not yet been determined, then innovation is not going to happen and you will remain part of the problem, not the solution.

06/04/12 - Association Concept Cars
Associations should absolutely produce concept cars, if by that we mean proposals for radical new programs or services that have the potential to excite their membership bases and wildly exceed their expectations. Even if the association has no ability or intention to deliver these programs, just by proposing them it demonstrates a commitment to innovation and a willingness to swing for the fences.

04/16/12 - Taking Risks to Avoid Loss
Organizations and the people in them are unwilling to take risks because they are trying to avoid a perceived loss of prestige or reputation. But what if we redefined loss so that it was associated with doing nothing instead of doing something?

Working with Committees

01/13/14 - Engaging Members in Your Development Process
Engaging our members in the process that develops new programs or program improvements in our association is one of the most complicated and difficult things that we do. What makes it so complicated and difficult? I think a lot of it boils down to misunderstandings of where decisions have to get made.

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