How’s Your Capacity?

What is your organizational capacity?  Are you functioning at an optimal level? Does your organization advance the community you serve, attract new members/markets and leverage opportunities? No?  Not sure?

Have you thought about how and where you invest your organization’s resources? Not just the budget dollars, all of your resources – time, energy, member attention, knowledge, capabilities, etc.  Are you investing these in building your organization?

Do you devote resources to:

  • Developing new products/resources to advance your mission, market, community
  • Attracting new markets or members
  • Adapting to market or technology changes
  • Engaging your market/members in impactful ways
  • Administering current programs
  • Sustaining (or defending) “the way we have always done it”
  • Fighting change (technology, competitor, culture, etc)

Most organizations have a mixed resource distribution. It makes sense.  You can’t focus solely on one component.  The challenge is ensuring that your resource allocations are building your organizational capacity, not stalling or diminishing it.

What do I mean? If you mapped your organization’s resources and activities what would it look like?  Are your resources and attention distributed in every direction?


Or are your resources aligned in a cohesive (or somewhat cohesive) manner?

arrows aligned

It is really easy to get immersed in the daily cycle of work and overlook how individual efforts impact the overall focus of the organization.

Making a concerted effort to ensure your resources are aligned to advance the mission, strategy and goals of your organization can help you leverage your resources and build your organizational capacity. A critical step to building this alignment is empowering your team to be part of the effort.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does your team know and understand the organization’s mission and strategy?
  • Are your staff aware of how the organization’s mission and strategy translate to their work?
  • How do staff frame and inform resource investment decisions – data, gut, strategic plan priorities, history?

“The test of an organization is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.” ~ Peter Drucker

Skip predictable and boring, leverage your team

Fast Company is a favorite read at my house. Each magazine is thoroughly read, pages dog-eared and torn out.  When I read Robert Safian’s April 2014 From the Editor column I understood why.  “If Fast Company presents only the ideas of Bob Safian, it will get narrow predictable and boring.”  

Safian gets it. One person cannot consistently create amazing work that inspires (or even appeals) to a wide audience.  “By including more voices, more ideas and more perspectives Fast Company can offer a more dynamic experience.” From the Editor, Fast Company, April 2014

The same is true for associations.  Each individual can only bring so much experience, perspective and skills to the table. To create smart innovative experiences for your members you must engage a diverse group of people and leverage their insights, knowledge and experience. 

Ed Catmull wrote in Creativity, Inc. (another fabulous read) “find, develop and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop and own good ideas.”

Three things to consider as you develop and engage your team:

  • Do your people understand what it is the organization wants to achieve?
  • Do your people have the skills they need to participate?
  • Do your teams have access to the resources necessary to succeed?

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”

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)?

Engaging people in your innovation

Innovation is not a solo sport.  It requires you to be aware of and understand opportunities, explore options and perspectives, be knowledgeable on the issues, develop ideas and test them. You could try to do this by yourself.  But, I would not recommend it.

Bringing together people with diverse experiences, perspectives and knowledge will make the process more fruitful. (In the association community we often compound the experience by engaging volunteers, staff, colleagues and experts in our innovation projects.)  While diverse groups can help the overall project efforts, successfully engaging them doesn’t just happen, it takes real work.

On one of my first “innovation” projects I was privileged to work with an incredible team.  (We invited some of the most amazing people in our community, and they agreed.)  I wish I could say it was a huge success. But, it wasn’t.  It was good, and we learned a lot.  I really wish I knew then, what I know now. Now I know that to be truly successful we needed to invite people from outside our community, design experiences that engaged them, encouraged them to share their knowledge and experience, united them in a shared challenge and invited them to explore areas that others might deem ridiculous.

One of my take aways was, don’t discount people being unwilling to step outside their comfort zone. People can feel uncomfortable or unwilling to step up and share their perspective or crazy idea for many reasons. (Culture plays a big role in this, and I will explore that later.)  But you can help to alleviate this feeling by creating experiences that invite people to engage, shows them that you value their knowledge and contribution and creates environments where it is ok to toss out half-baked ideas.

The innovation plan you develop should engage diverse individuals, value the people and their contributions, frame the challenge, share project goals, engage people with the other participants, invite them to share their perspectives and challenge them to create something new. This is not easy. But it is necessary for innovation.

Here are a few of my go to resources when I start framing new projects.  I hope they are helpful as you consider your project.

Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects.  Jeffrey is a wonderful facilitator and he has graciously shared facilitation tips on his website ( Search “facilitation Friday” to access the tips.

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers  The Gamestorming team created a webpage sharing games and other related resources

IDEO Method Cards.  The Cards highlight 51 research methods (most are very approachable) to help you better understand the people you are developing a new resource for.  More information at

What’s your favorite facilitation resource? Please share it.

Understanding the Big(ger) Picture for Successful innovation

What forces are influencing your organization/project/proposal?  It seems I’ve discussed this question and the bigger issue of organization context a lot recently. (By context I am referring to the dynamics, forces and environment that you or your organization operate in.)  I am a firm believer that you need to understand the environment and forces impacting your organization in order to effectively foster innovation, create, and implement new ideas or programs.

The idea isn’t new.  In associations we have been talking about SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis for years  Maybe because this model has been around for so long we discount the value? Regardless, awareness of the circumstances and forces impacting your organization are critical to developing your innovation efforts. If you don’t know where you are, what is going on in your community or what might be coming, any idea (including some really wrong ones) can look good!

To better understand your context, you need to get beyond your perspective (and possibly that of your personal network). I encourage you to pull together a diverse group of people from inside and outside your organization. Don’t make this a group of the usual suspects. Mix it up. Invite people with different backgrounds, colleagues from different industries, the people who like to solve challenges, maybe even the ones who challenge you. You need diverse perspectives to see the full picture and create real connections.

A simple tool to structure your context exploration is the Context Map game ( ) from the wonderful book GameStorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers. The game offers a simple framework and suggested visuals to guide your efforts.

To get the discussion started and move beyond people’s automatic responses, I recommend you create a few thought provoking questions probing the areas you want to explore. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started. 

  • Are changes in technology, education, social media or other areas impacting or threatening the products or services you offer?
  • What organizations, institutions, technologies or businesses could impact your market?
  • What forces could support innovation in your organization?
  • What forces could thwart innovation in your organization?
  • How do your primary audiences (organization leadership, members, staff, etc.) view the challenges, opportunities and forces that are or could impact your organization?
  • What do organization leaders and members value most?

Developing new perspectives or solutions generally requires looking at the world in different ways. By forming a diverse group to investigate your organizational context, you are on your way to developing a map that can inform your innovation goals and overall organizational activities.

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.

What are we doing here?

For the last four years I have explored, discussed and pursued innovation in associations.  I have been fortunate to work with amazing people who were willing to explore some unchartered ideas with me.  Some of the stuff we did was great, inspiring and yes, advanced organizations.  Other times, it was messy, challenging and sometimes it was just plain difficult to get people to listen.  Still, some of the execs stuck with it and they are doing amazing work.  Their efforts are changing their organizations…how they work, what they do and the space they operate in… and they are changing people’s perspectives on what we can do in the association community.

I believe innovation works in associations.  So in this space, I plan to explore innovation. How it works.  What are the conversations to be had?  What are the ideas to examine? What can innovation look like?

Have a question, suggestion or example of innovation, please share it.