Emily Rabbitt is manager, research content and knowledge resources, for the ASAE Foundation.
For innovation to take hold in an organization, you need more than a great idea. You need a culture that fosters innovation. New research from the ASAE Foundation explores how associations are creating environments where innovation can flourish.
Associations have a reputation for risk aversion and a resistance to change. But recent ASAE Foundation initiatives indicate that innovation is not only possible, but is in fact taking root across the association community.
The foundation research report Associations Innovate: The Journey From Intent to Action identifies effective practices for fostering innovation in associations and the challenges they must overcome to create change. In addition, projects in the Innovation Grants Program (IGP) illustrate how these practices contribute to successful innovation initiatives.
Both the research and the IGP grant recipients’ projects demonstrate the importance of a supportive and inclusive culture in promoting innovation success. These are some of the steps associations can take to create a culture that’s more conducive to innovation.
Create with stakeholders. Bring the broadest possible group into the process to foster collaboration and ensure ideas are generated by diverse perspectives. Staff, volunteers, members, and external partners can represent their needs in crowd-based activities like hackathons or design thinking.
Partnerships are another route to co-creation. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists’ grant project uses Mixed Reality Simulation (MRS) as a training tool for therapists. The idea was originally brought to AAMFT CEO Tracy Todd by a connection in higher education. From there, it developed into a mutually beneficial partnership: The education institution gets to use MRS with its students, while AAMFT gets to use the technology to support members at all stages of their careers.
Get comfortable with risk. Research participants commonly cited resistance to change and excessive risk aversion—particularly among prominent stakeholders—as barriers to innovation. To instill a culture where staff feel comfortable taking risks, create a framework that promotes low-cost, measurable experimentation and allows staff members the freedom to fail. Leaders can expand innovation capacity as they learn from successes and failures.
Clear a path for innovation. For innovation to become a permanent part of an organization’s culture, staff need to know how to develop and advance their ideas. While innovation requires out-of-the box thinking, there are tools associations can use to plan, manage, and evaluate innovation processes.
Associations can create specific communication channels devoted to innovation or establish a point person to help employees develop an idea. The American College of Cardiology gives employees the option to receive training in Adobe Kickbox, which provides a framework for staff to build their idea. This kind of pathway invites greater participation across staff.
Take a strategic view. Strategic alignment is key for innovation to succeed. Association executives and the board share responsibility for making innovative practices part of the organization’s culture and for ensuring that these efforts are aligned with organizational objectives.
At the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the board adopted a strategic blueprint to guide the organization. Its new vision, which was conceived by staff and the board, reflected strategic objectives and was accompanied by success indicators. The microlearning project that received the IGP award garnered support because it was aligned with an organizational goal to drive effective education solutions.
Becoming a more innovative organization does not happen overnight. To foster great ideas, associations need to establish ways for stakeholders to collaborate, build systems for staff to try out their ideas without fear of failure, and learn as an organization from each new attempt at innovation.