Questions are an opportunity, not a burden!

There are critical questions that associations need to be discussing. We’ve started this conversation, and will continue it.  But, before we get to far down the question asking path, I want to be clear that simply asking questions won’t make change.

Questions can open doors to new ideas, new opportunities, fresh thinking.

But, simply posing questions doesn’t bring people along.  Simply asking questions doesn’t inspire people to bring their best ideas and thinking.  Simply asking questions doesn’t generate the discussions that inspire new opportunities.

If you want people to engage in the big question discussions, they need to trust you. They need to believe that you care about their opinion, that investing their energy and thinking will be appreciated. They need to believe that what they say matters.

How you respond to people’s perspectives, their ideas, their questions, this is how trust is built.

If you ask “what worked?” then refute or belittle each point raised or pull out your phone and check email as people respond, you are sending a message “what you say doesn’t matter.”

If you ask “what should we do differently?” and no changes are made or people are discouraged from altering how they do their work, you are sending the message that we don’t intend to change, this is just an exercise to check a box or make it appear like the team was engaged.

If a team member asks a question and no one responds or people roll their eyes or sigh you are sending a message that we don’t appreciate your questions and your perspectives.

You don’t have to like every idea or perspective. But, to build trust and ultimately engagement, you do need to appreciate that everyone has a perspective and they should have an opportunity to share it.

If you want people to engage in the big questions discussions – to explore how your organization might generate new value, how you might develop new opportunities, how you… – you need to pay attention to the insights people share, the questions they ask and be willing to make change.

You need to show that questions are an opportunity, not a burden.  If you ask questions from this perspective, if you listen, if you engage people you can create a space where people feel it is safe to ask questions, where it is worth the effort to share their perspectives and it is a valuable experience to explore with you.

Go ahead and ask, just be prepared to listen and engage when you do!


What’s your message?

innov poster2

Have you been here? The poster is clever. But the reality is that many organizations have a culture that sends these messages.

I’ve seen it.  Some organizations prefer the status quo, others get so caught up in the cycle of association work they “don’t have the time to think” others are afraid of what change might bring. These organizations tend to encourage “dreaming small” rewarding work and people that come in under budget, on time and without causing any disruption or unsettled feelings. Some of these organizations even talk of supporting innovation. But, when the work starts, questioning is discouraged, disagreeing is taken as a personal affront, and new ideas are met with a chorus of excuses…“we’ve tried that,” “you don’t understand how our organization works,” “we’ve always done it this way.”

Organizational culture sets the tone for how engagement and new ideas are responded to.

With the increased competition for people’s attention, time and money why would you discourage any of your team from being engaged, thinking or striving to help your organization be stronger?  Three things to consider today:

Do you foster a safe environment for your team? Does your team feel comfortable expressing relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of being penalized or ridiculed?

 Do you nurture a culture of inquiry where people feel it is accepted to question, dissent, probe or challenge ideas, practices and opportunities?

Does your team treat each other with respect?  This doesn’t mean they don’t question, it means that they treat each other respectfully when they do.

*The poster is part of a “Save the Inventor” campaign posted at the Union Station Metro Station, Washington DC, January 20, 2015

“When the map and terrain differ, the terrain wins.”

If you have ever worked with kids, you know the truth in this statement.  The best laid plans can go out the window in a matter of seconds and you need to figure out how to take the next step quickly, before chaos ensues.

The same is true for associations.  We can create beautiful maps of our plans, but if the environment differs from what we imagined the real terrain will win.

Organizations must be flexible enough to navigate the environment and strong enough to devise and execute a change in plans. This requires:

  • Space for people to think and explore (to be aware of their surroundings)
  • People with the skills and mindsets to identify challenges and devise and champion ideas to address the opportunities and challenges
  • Organizational capability to adopt and execute a change in course

These will help you avoid the unexpected mountain or crevice.

Innovation is not a Specialty

Innovation should not belong to one department or team. A team may be charged with inspiring, encouraging or leading innovation. But, to be successful innovation needs to permeate your organization. Innovation needs to belong to everyone.

If your learning team creates a new resource, but it requires finance or publications to stop doing something or create a different way of doing something. Does the learning innovation live on or does the required organizational support make it a non-starter?

Challenging a team to be innovative and then requiring them to work in the midst of an organization where no one else is willing to adapt or innovate will ultimately lead to frustration.

You can’t change the world or your association overnight, but taking small steps to foster an environment supportive of innovation can build confidence, comfort and a foundation for the change. A few simple things to consider:

  • Host a conversation exploring “What does innovation mean to us?” Letting people know what “innovation” means and where the organization would welcome it helps focus efforts.
  • Explore what the association values most. What the organization values and rewards can guide staff actions. Do you reward – being on time, following a predetermined plan, no disruptions, harmony? Do you reward/recognize staff for piloting new ideas, identifying challenges, trying new ways?
  • Facilitate post-project reviews asking the team: What worked? What did not work? What could we do different next time? And make appropriate revisions.

Creating an understanding of innovation and an environment to support staff efforts are key steps to fostering innovation in your association.

Do your relationships limit your innovation?

Is there a short list of people that you turn to when you need to get something done?  After 15+ years in the nonprofit world I’ve built relationships that I depend on. We all have go to people who can help us quickly. But, to foster innovation, we need fresh and diverse perspectives.

Neil Perkin’s blog post “Why Don’t Big Companies Innovate More” struck a chord.  He notes that organizations work on “a well-trodden path to actors already known to each other” to get stuff done. In association’s we are guilty of this. It is easier to work in the system with people who understand what we are doing and our members, and in some cases are already in our financial system.

But, using the same old process will typically get you the same old thing. You need fresh perspectives to create something new. This doesn’t mean you start from scratch each time, you can start with small steps.

Here are four steps that can help you infuse fresh perspectives into your project:

  • Invite someone from outside your organization/market to participate in the planning or at least share feedback
  • Connect with someone doing a similar project in a different field and learn from their experience
  • Ask a colleague who you have not worked with to participate in the project
  • Engage a member(s) and listen to their insights

Infusing your work with fresh perspectives will start you on the path to creating innovation.

Build Your Innovation Confidence

Most associations won’t drastically change their patterns unless they are facing a burning platform and have to jump. There is generally too much momentum supporting the way “we have always done it”.  But, this does not mean you can’t innovate.  It just means you have to build confidence, comfort and a plan for innovation in your organization. 

Start with small steps that expose your team to what innovation looks and feels like in your organization. Small steps can be something as simple as having a real discussion about what worked and what didn’t work at your last event and making changes based on the insights, asking your members what they are trying to accomplish and listening, or testing a new process or technology for a project. Small steps will help to build your innovation skills, your organizational confidence and your colleague’s buy-in.

Taking small steps isn’t avoiding innovation. The small steps build innovation confidence. Small steps show your team that you are serious about making change and that you want them to come on the journey.

Small steps are part of leading real change. Take a small step toward innovation today. Here are a few you could try:

  • Have an honest discussion with staff or members exploring “how we could improve ____ (an existing program, resource, process, etc) to better serve members, our mission or the organization?”
  • Engage people from outside your association, industry or profession in exploring a need, idea, challenge/opportunity, etc?
  • Celebrate staff attempting new ideas or activities, even if it didn’t work as planned.
  • ·         Have a “How might we…?” discussion challenging your team to think and explore other ways you can serve a need, address a challenge or embrace an opportunity.

I encourage you to check out David Kelley’s TED2012 video How To Build Your Creative Confidence it is an easy introduction to helping people build their confidence to do something different.

“The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.”  ~ Austin Kleon, “Show Your Work”

What does it take to be a great leader?

This is such a tired question, but stick with me.  The follow up questions posed by Roselinde Torres, BCG in her TED Talk stopped me.  I absolutely love what she challenges us to consider:

  1. Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
  2. What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?
  3. Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?

Imagine what we could accomplish if we spent more time exploring these questions. What could your organization achieve if you were surrounded by people “preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday, but also for the realities of today and all the unknown possibilities of tomorrow”?  

Take the 20 minutes to listen to the TED video

How do you create a culture for innovation?

I spend a lot of time talking with people about how they can foster a culture for innovation – how they can structure and align resources and support to encourage innovation in their team.  And I am regularly surprised at the lack of awareness or disregard for dealing with culture issues.

So when I came across Tom Agan’s CEOs as “innovation organizer” concept (HBR Blog: Can’t Find a Steve Jobs?  Hire an Innovation Organizer Instead) I was intrigued.  He claims that executives should serve as innovation organizers that create “environments ripe for innovation.” Makes sense to me, an exec’s job is not to do all the work, but to foster a space where the work can be done.  Right?

So if, you wanted to encourage an environment or culture supportive of innovation, what things could you consider?

1.What do you reward (with compensation, recognition, promotions, etc)?

  • no changes –  just follow the plan
  • small steps – things members ask for or other groups are offering
  • listening to member needs or market trends and developing new ideas
  • partnering with other groups on new ideas

2. Do you acknowledge what staff attempt to do (pilots or new activities)?  (It is a lot easier to do the same old thing than to develop a new way to try something.)

3. Does your team have the skills they need to innovate (facilitation, collaboration, decision making, etc)?

“What should we stop doing?”

If you are going to pose the question “what should we stop doing” you must be prepared to discuss the responses, honestly and without judgment. Otherwise you risk setting the impression that you don’t really plan to make any changes which can result in turning your staff off.

My personal experience with this question has not been good. At one association staff were asked to post suggestions of things the organization could stop doing. I posted my recommendation to stop a program.  Shortly after my post went up I was approached by the senior staff member who oversaw the program and asked to remove my recommendation. No discussion, no asking why I made the recommendation, just the request. So, I removed the post and ended my engagement in the effort.

At another organization I recommended we stop hosting a program that I led.  The executive staff member was basically offended and told me that I could not understand the organization mission if I wanted to end this program.  This time there was a little follow up discussion, but the tone and questioning were not encouraging or engaging.

Thankfully, I am not a shrinking violet, so making these recommendations was not difficult for me personally. But for staff less comfortable expressing their opinion, these situations could have marked the end of real engagement.

Both situations could have been salvaged with a good discussion.  Had senior staff been prepared to have real dialogue about the programs or my insights I think I would have listened. These could have been opportunities to inform me of program value or information I was unaware of or explore other ways that we might better meet the goals of the programs.

Here are a few questions you might consider if you start this discussion:

    • How does the program/resource serve your mission?
    • How does the program serve a core member segment?
    • How else could we serve our mission?
    • How could we improve the existing program to better serve members, the mission and the organization?
    • Which of our programs could we emphasize instead?

You could also try using the Five Whys Game to better understand why staff are recommending a program or resource be ended.  The game essentially poses five why questions to try to get beyond the surface of a challenge and discover the root cause.

Are you ready for Bold?

How can we do something so big others will have to follow? 

I like this question, it’s a little cheeky.  But, it opens the door to a space many of us don’t venture into…“how can we do something?” not “what should we do?”

How can we make a bold move? In my experience associations don’t embrace this question. We tend to take incremental steps.  While I am a proponent of using small steps to build your innovation culture, capacity and comfort, sometimes bold is the right move.   

Have you considered how can you build your organization capacity for greatness? 

  • How can you ignite your team?
  • What expertise can you leverage?
  • What should you get rid of?