“This is not your parent’s association” is it?

This morning at The Atlantic City Makers Summit I was inspired by conversations that mayors, workforce investment leaders and the maker community are facilitating to help create space where “solutions can bloom.”

A discussion around the idea “this is not your father’s factory” was particularly intriguing. Essentially, the conversation highlighted how the world of manufacturing has changed in the last 15 to 20 years, but the perception of a factory and specifically manufacturing jobs has not followed.

The discussion made me wonder, can associations claim “this is not your parent’s association.” Has what we offer, how we lead and engage and what we aspire to be as associations really changed in the last 15 to 25 years?

Some of the pivotal questions that emerged from the discussion include:

  • What are you doing to encourage innovation that people can be excited about and attracted to?
  • How are you maximizing the strength of your community?
  • What are you doing to be welcoming?
  • What are you doing that gets in the way?
  • How do you talk about your successes?
  • Do you own and market who you are?

Are associations and the association community creating space where “solutions can bloom?”

If you have not attended an AtlanticLIVE event, check them out!  They host an array of intriguing events.

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.

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 (www.ideaarchitects.org). 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  www.gogamestorm.com

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 http://www.ideo.com/work/method-cards

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 (http://www.gogamestorm.com/?s=context+map ) 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.

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.