Applying innovation in associations

One of the gaps I’ve noticed in discussions about innovation is an understanding that innovation can also be applied internally, within an association. We are all aware that you can focus innovation externally to develop new products and services for members and other stakeholders. External innovation can include new or enhanced products and services, how the product/service is delivered or experienced. These types of innovation are generally what people are referring to when they discuss innovation.

But innovation can also be applied internally. Internal innovation focuses on how your association is structured, your business model or how you operate. This is key for associations. Internal innovation can include how your organization facilitates and engages committees, how employees engage and collaborate, how people raise/explore challenges, the organization structure (siloed, flat, etc.).  Internal innovation focus can help you strengthen your organization.

The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think associations would be more successful with product and service innovation if they also considered internal innovation. Simply layering an innovation management process over your current association operations doesn’t guarantee that your team will effectively engage in innovation.

Organizations need a culture and leadership that are supportive of innovation if they expect staff to engage. Here are a few things to consider as you contemplate focusing on innovation in your organization:

  • Does your association have a working environment that is respectful, inclusive, diverse and motivational?
  • Does your organization culture encourage people to question established ways of doing things?
  • Do you have structures/processes (formal or informal) for people to bring forward questions and concerns, without fear of ridicule or backlash?
  • Do your staff collaborate with each other?
  • Are knowledge and information openly shared among staff and departments?
  • Does your organization accept failures, learn from them and discuss the insights?

If you responded “no,” “I don’t know,” or “maybe” to any of these questions, I would caution you to consider how you can build your innovation capacity and internal innovation focus before you jump into external product and service innovation. You might first want to consider if your staff are ready to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.

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