Monday, October 20, 2014

What Makes for an Innovative Idea?

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I spent some time this weekend reviewing proposals for ASAE's Innovation Grant Program. It's one of my volunteer activities, and like a lot of those functions, I had to find time away from my professional responsibilities in order to get it done. That might be a future blog post--as I'm convinced that many association staff don't comprehend that the work their volunteers do for their associations is done at night and on weekends.

But that's not what I want to tackle this week. Instead I want to reflect a little on what makes an innovative idea innovative. I won't speak about any particular ASAE proposal I reviewed, but the whole activity got me thinking about what separates the truly innovative ideas from the run-of-the-mill change efforts that so often masquerade as innovation in our industry.

First and foremost, I think, the idea has to be disruptive. It has to introduce something brand new into the environment or it shouldn't count as innovative. Every association worth the name is already focused on continuous improvement efforts, and those efforts are critically important. In our associations, we have to be working collaboratively with staff and with members to make sure this year's programs are better than last year's programs or we'll quickly find them irrelevant to the stakeholders they're designed to serve. But the often incremental changes that are a staple of these improvement efforts can't honestly be called innovation.

Because, and secondly, the innovative idea has to contain within it the very real possibility that it may not work, or that you or the team you have assembled may not be able to pull it off. Continuous improvement efforts work precisely because they are predictable and achievable. Let's set next year's general session in a chevron pattern, or let's record that session and put it online, or let's go visit more new members this year. You say them and everyone nods their heads. Sure, we can do that. It's just a matter of working the change into our pre-existing work structures and procedures. Important, and not without risk as the changes compete with well-established habits and limited resources, but conceptually containable and practically doable.

On the other hand, 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.

A few days ago, I was exposed to just such an innovative idea in the professional life I lead when not fulfilling volunteer obligations for ASAE and the other organizations I'm involved with. I don't know if I or my association can pull it off--but if we can, it will be a disruptive change for our organization and the industry it serves. And it provided an interesting standard for the proposals I reviewed this weekend to live up to. Which of these proposals, I found myself asking, have the potential to bring the same kind of disruptive change to their organizations and their industries?

Seems to me that if we're going to try and help organizations achieve their innovation goals, we should be helping them do the things they're not sure they can achieve rather than the ones they know they can.

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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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