The Innovation Imperative

11th January 2022

With the right tools and mindset, any association is capable of innovating. So why is it that so many struggle to embrace the habits that would allow them to thrive? That is what Mary Byers, CAE and Harrison Coerver, with Sarah Sain, reflect upon in this special contribution to Boardroom.

Associations have been reactively innovating since the start of the pandemic – in large part out of necessity – and we want to encourage and invite associations to make innovation a proactive part of their cultures going forward. Without a doubt, the resulting return on investment in terms of enhanced member value and possible revenue, is well worth it. We’ve seen this repeatedly over the past three decades (and between us we’ve worked with more than 1700 associations) and detailed multiple case studies in the recently released 10th anniversary edition of our book, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations.

Name What Stands in Your Way

One place to start is by taking a closer look at the barriers, both real and perceived, that stand in the way of innovation.

Lack of resources, meaning staff time or budget, was cited most often as a constraint on innovation in an environmental scan we conducted with Loyalty Research Center, a professional analysis firm. We surveyed associations across different industries, with varying sizes of staff and memberships, and with a wide range of annual budgets, to get a clear understanding of association innovation today. Lack of resources was followed by complacency and lack of vision, which includes everything from an organizational structure that slows down progress to no sense of urgency to a lack of leadership.

When asked for the title of the individual responsible for leading innovation, many reported high-level executives: CEO, President, Chief Operating Officer, Executive/Association/Deputy Director, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation. Only a small contingent reported that all staff were responsible. (Our view is that if everyone is responsible, no one is.) Highly innovative organizations have at least one point person to lead the charge. Arlene Pietranton, PhD, CAE, CEO of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association notes, “I think the CEO has a key responsibility to truly foster [innovation] cultural elements and to truly walk the talk.”

When comparing “evolutionary” (smaller) vs. “revolutionary” (significant) advances, 54% consider themselves more evolutionary, while fewer – just 29% – consider themselves more revolutionary. A takeaway question for association leaders is, “How can we become an association that is more focused on significant advances vs. smaller advances?”

Of the small number of associations that budget for innovation, 40% have it as a line item in their annual operating budget and 40% borrow from reserves.

Recognizing that barriers exist is the first step to embracing innovation, and selecting one obstacle to tackle is the second step. They can be interrelated, however. For example, complacency leads to a lack of vision – which can be caused by lack of resources. Don’t let that interconnectivity discourage your team from beginning to seek out new paths for innovation.

Though the majority of respondents indicated they have permission to fail (61%) and to stop doing things which are inefficient or waste resources (57%) – and that innovation is critical to their overall strategy (57%) and they use data and insights to guide innovation (57%) – only half indicated they recognize and reward innovation. Even fewer make deliberate investments in innovation (41%) or launch/scale successful innovation effectively (38%).

There’s no way around it: Failure is part of innovation, although we prefer to substitute the word “research” for failure because you know more after a disappointment. Association boards tend to be risk-adverse and more comfortable protecting the association rather than advancing it. This is one reason it is so hard for associations to innovate. 

Board members and staff should consider scoring themselves on a “risk comfort” scale and then have a conversation about how they can collectively increase their willingness to take calculated risks. (See related sidebar.) Additionally, associations should continually be experimenting with something so that it becomes an expected part of operations rather than an occasional ask from staff.

Mary Byers, CAE and Harrison Coerver are association strategy consultants. Between them they have consulted with more than 1,700 organizations. They are the authors of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations and Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations.

Sarah Sain, CAE is director of content for Naylor Association Solutions and a writer and editor for Association Adviser.

Create a Path Forward

Once an association has made the decision to move from a weak to a strong culture of innovation, there are three stages that can help associations break down what may still be considered to be a complex and paralyzing concept. The three stages are:

  1. Create momentum;
  2. Formalize a vision and a plan;
  3. Implement and ingrain in your culture. 

The graphic below illustrates the “path of resistance” to achieving a strong culture of innovation. The “easiest” component to install at an association is giving permission – either to start doing or to stop doing. Then, as momentum builds, it is imperative that victories – big or small – are recognized and rewarded. As a more formal vision and direction begins to develop, other implementation-specific details need to be built alongside that vision in order for it to be successful. Strong innovation cultures have most—if not all–of the identified components shown here in place. 

The Produce Marketing Association has an Internal Innovation Council dedicated to encouraging staff to submit ideas that can help members or the organization’s internal operations. The group offers monthly activities and brain teasers to encourage creativity and assists when staffers get friction when trying to get a new idea through the organization. The Council launched with a brainstorming session that generated 200 ideas, which were organized into ten big projects. Staff picked which ones they were interested in working on and offsite meetings followed to develop recommendations. The association is still benefiting from the initial launch session.

If an association doesn’t have an innovation process outlined on paper, this is another place to start. We like to say, “If you can name it, you can claim it.” Doing this makes it tangible and understandable for all involved, including the Board. 

The American Speech-Hearing-Language Association depicts its process as an “Idea Journey” as follows:

Take the Pledge

Association Innovation Scan 2020

To develop a clearer understanding of the state of associations, read the report and find additional resources to help, support and encourage association transformation at associationinnovation.today.

The bottom line is that innovation is no longer an impossible concept meant for a few; it’s an imperative for all associations post-pandemic. A large number of associations are in decline – declining membership, declining participation and declining revenue. This isn’t going to change without new activity. That’s what innovation is: doing something differently to create value.

Though true innovation requires organization-wide commitment, a well-defined process and associated funding, associations are invited to take the “10% Pledge” – a commitment to regularly innovate and reinvent 10% of their activities (advocacy, membership recruitment and retention, meeting/events, communications, publications and certification) on a continuous basis. This pledge is designed to create “innovation mindfulness,” a state that eschews complacency and actively seeks new and different ways to create value. Associations that do this are more likely to thrive and win the race for relevance. Those that don’t will simply survive—or worse, continue to decline. 

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