I’ve been thinking about innovation lately and how our industry approaches radical market changes like the ones we’ve experienced in the last few years. We talk about innovation as if by saying the word we can instantly become innovative, but I see so many organizations that struggle to overcome challenges or launch new programs. Innovation in your association is critical to long-term growth, but first it’s necessary to create an organizational structure that makes innovation possible.
Marketing General Research for Innovation
Recent research from Marketing General shows associations that value innovation and see themselves as innovative tend to attract more new members and experience higher renewal rates than those that don’t. Innovation, therefore, isn’t just a new trend to follow. It can directly influence the bottom line.
With that said, however, only 30 percent of associations describe themselves as extremely or very innovative. The remaining 70 percent consider themselves anywhere from moderately to not-at-all innovative, and I’ve been wondering if and how that expectation might change.
When associations write new strategic plans, I think most are creating living documents that they use as day-to-day guides. Increasingly fewer associations are writing plans that hit the shelf and stay there. Implementing those plans, however, is difficult because of the demands of ongoing programming and the need to keep revenue above a certain level. Many organizations simply don’t have the bandwidth to pursue new initiatives or new projects, but they don’t have the luxury of simply continuing business as usual.
Associations aren’t typically known for their cutting-edge responses to market changes. The strength of the association community tends to lie in fulfilling missions and serving members. Associations are, however, in increasing competition with for-profit companies that operate with substantially higher budgets. Often, associations don’t fare well in the comparison, but they must compete to survive.
So what’s going to help us, not just survive, but thrive in this new environment? Here are several suggestions for creating more space for innovation:
1. Apply your innovation energies to streamlining your current programming.
Evaluate each program for its congruence with your mission and its effectiveness. Eliminate those that no longer serve the broader membership. Automate as much as possible. Reduce the amount of time your team spends with repetitive tasks. Ask and answer hard questions about the amount of data you collect and store. Create self-service possibilities for members through your website, and allow members to join and renew memberships, for example, without initial staff involvement. Allocate the time and resources your staff saves to working on new projects.
2. Create an innovation czar.
Give that person the authority to gather a team, hire experts and consultants, and build a new program. Create a protocol for piloting new ideas. Solicit ideas from members, staff and the board; allow the innovation team to evaluate the new ideas.
3. Keep the energy up.
Support the innovation team so that it is accomplishing meaningful tasks. So many teams meet once or twice and then allow the drive to lapse, relegating any great ideas they might have to failure.
4. Invest enough in new initiatives to provide viable tests.
Make sure you’re evaluating the actual program, instead of how the program operates when it’s under-funded.
5. Assess your industry’s appetite for innovation.
Associations serve industries that have wildly different personalities and that operate on a broad continuum from traditional to more non-conformist. For example, think about the difference between associations serving CPAs or physicians and those serving snow boarders or marijuana growers. Neither personality is “right” but the associations involved approach their missions in very different ways. A particular industry’s personality can influence the level and type of innovation of its association. What’s radical for one organization could be old hat for another. Insider knowledge of the industry can guide your initiatives and expectations.
Your senior team and middle managers know how to advance projects and initiatives, and they have developed skills to do just that. By removing some of their day-to-day chores and helping them manage the occasional crisis, you can create time for them to innovate. If you can provide an innovation team to lead the process, you can change the expectations of your team, board and members, and help your association thrive regardless of what market changes might be next.
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Questions about how to encourage innovation in your association or how to better organize your day-to-day process? Contact Dennison & Associates today for a consultation.
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