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.

Ready, Set, JUMP?

What do you want to do?  Successfully starting a project requires that you know what it is you are trying to do.  Sounds reasonable right?  Unfortunately, I have witnessed many individuals, teams, committees and even myself, get so excited about an idea that we jump into the project without articulating or even understanding the challenge. 

“It’s not that they can’t see the solution. They can’t see the problem.”G.K. Chesterton.  

Yes!  As I noted in a recent post, Framing Whats The Big Deal, if you don’t know what you are trying to solve and who you are trying to solve it for, anything can look good.”

Save yourself some frustration, frame your challenge before you jump into the project.  Here are a few questions to help you get started:

  • What is the problem(s) we are trying to address?  (Is this the root problem or a symptom of a bigger issue?)
  • What constraints impact our work (resources, time, scope, etc)?
  • What forces, trends or other issues are impacting the problem positively or negatively?
  • How would addressing the challenge make our organization stronger?

Spend some time preparing, you’ll be glad you did!

Where are you stuck?

A favorite question to pose when I start a project is “What patterns are we stuck in?”  Some people will look at me quite confused, like they have no idea what I am asking them to consider.  So I ask a follow up question(s):

  • Who did you invite to participate in this project, and why? (Who was in your last project?  Why?)
  • Why are we meeting in this space?
  • Do you engage people outside of your industry/profession in exploring the ­­__ (need, idea, challenge/opportunity)?
  • What are your assumptions about ___ (how your market accesses information, how people view your association, how your teams work together, how members want to engage with you, etc)?

Many projects falter because people hold assumptions that simply aren’t true.  Recognizing your personal/group assumptions is a great step to helping you move beyond them.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” – Chinese proverb

The Power of Questions

“What do you think?”  About what…your idea, the timeline, the member engagement, marketing strategy?  What is it you want feedback on?

I have sat through too many meetings where someone pitched an idea and then casually tossed out “what do you think?” In my experience, this question elicits a response from people who don’t like the idea or those advocating for the idea. You probably knew these responses before you asked for feedback. What about everyone else?  Don’t you want to tap their expertise and insights?  Then pose a question(s) that focuses on the key issue and invites them to engage.

Good questions are the best tool to create a meaningful conversation, to explore, to learn.  A good question frames the issue you would like to explore and provides parameters to help people start thinking.

Here are a couple of my favorite questions for exploring issues.

  • What is the most significant challenge to achieving ___?
  • What forces or trends impact the issue?
  • What knowledge or insight could help us understand this issue?

Since February is closely linked to the famous question “Be mine?”  I am making February the month of questions.  I will share some of my favorite questions, and I hope that you will pass along yours as well.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire

Framing: What’s the big deal?

Why take time to frame your challenge?  Because if you don’t know what you are trying to solve and who you are trying to solve it for, anything can look good.

Seth Godin’s recent post, Who are Your Customers is a great start to understanding your target audience.  Your audience is not just demographics.  (Would it help your organization serve me if you knew I am a white, 40ish female?)  You need to understand your audience in order to support or inspire them.  Do you know where they turn for resources and insights (who they trust)?  Do you know the challenges they face?  Do you understand the environments they work in?

Understanding your audience and the challenges they need to solve (not what they want, what they need to accomplish) will help you to frame the challenge your organization can address to better serve your members.

Clayton Christensen and colleagues developed the Job To Be Done theory that essentially says your audience is not seeking a specific product or service, they are purchasing or hiring solutions to help them solve a problem.  A simple example, you don’t need a drill, you typically need a hole.  A drill is simply one of the tools you could hire to help you solve the challenge.

To truly innovate in your space, don’t just watch what your audience purchases or the products they say they need, understand the challenges they face and the context they face them in.

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.

Innovation baggage

Simply mentioning the word “innovation” can send people spinning.  Some picture iPhones, Amazon or disposable diapers.  While others might sigh as they envision colorful retreat spaces where people are lead through “frivolous creative” exercises to generate ideas for unnecessary stuff.  These perceptions aren’t bad.  But the fact that your team could have such varied visions of innovation can make it difficult to have effective discussions about innovation in your organization.

Demystifying innovation is a helpful step in engaging people in innovation. Creating a common description of what innovation is or could be helps to break down individual perceptions of innovation and create space for people to engage in a discussion of how you could utilize innovation in your organization.

Developing an agreed upon innovation description is useful place to start.  This can be as simple as adopting a published description, such as:

  • “Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance” ~Peter Drucker, The Drucker Institute
  •  “Innovation is the introduction of something new” ~ Merriam-Webster dictionary online
  •  “Innovation is the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs.” Wikipedia, December 3, 2013

Or developing a description that fits the vision and culture of your organization.

I use a fairly simple innovation description “creating a new value for stakeholders.”  I like this description as it addresses key points for innovation:

  1. You must actually create something, not just come up with ideas.
  2. You need to serve a stakeholder. You identify who the stakeholder is – staff, the organization, members, customers, partners, etc.
  3. You must generate value for the stakeholder. Something that is perceived by the stakeholder as valuable, not just your perception of the value offered.

The description is fairly easy for people to adapt to their personal situations, which makes them more inclined to engage.

In my first association innovation project we tried using an innovation description that in hindsight, was just too complicated “an intentional management process with its own distinct set of processes, practices and tools to search for, evaluate and implement a new way, a better answer or a previously unseen possibility.” I appreciate our intention and understand the reasoning, but the description was challenging to share and engage people around.  In associations we are often trying to engage, please and serve many audiences.  But, I encourage you to keep it simple.

Getting started

It seems that everyone is talking about innovation these days.  If you found your way here, chances are you or someone in your organization is either asking questions about innovation or has decided “we need to be more innovative.”

Despite all the attention it receives, innovation is not a bad thing.  In fact, providing new value for stakeholders is critical for most of us.  The challenge is that the idea of innovation is often misrepresented or at least misunderstood.

You can’t simply declare one day that your organization will be more innovative. It’s not like installing a water cooler – plug it in and pour water.  Innovation requires people to be flexible, to work together in different ways, to let go of old habits, programs or activities, to trust. These are all part of an environment that supports innovation.

So, how do you get started?  First, you need to know what you/your organization want to accomplish.  Without a vision identifying where you want to go or what you want to be, any idea can look interesting, but it might not advance your efforts.

An innovation vision should provide a sense of aspiration.  It should challenge you to think and imagine how to achieve the desired state.  A vision provides staff a common focus point that can help them to understand why you are taking on innovation, and inspire them to seek ways that they can contribute to the effort.

Here are a few questions to consider as you develop your innovation vision:

  • What does innovation mean to us?
  • Why do we want to be more innovative?
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • What are our unexplored opportunities?
  • What story do we want told about our organization in ten years?
  • What’s not being said?

You wouldn’t create a new program without a vision or goal of what you want to achieve, and you shouldn’t initiate an innovation effort without one either.