How to Create a Culture of Innovation

By: Larry L. Robertson, CAE

Fostering the good ideas that come from staff and members is the first step toward building innovation into your organization. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy has created a blueprint for embracing innovation from its staff and putting new ideas into action. (Titled "Building an Innovation Culture" in the print edition.)

Try to imagine your favorite fast-food restaurant without a drive-through window, the encyclopedia as a set of 25 leather-bound books on your shelf and not an internet resource, or spending hours at the library conducting research instead of Googling it first. These innovations began as ideas and evolved into revolutionary products and services that provide tremendous value to users.

In associations, our members expect value from their membership and engagement with the organization. Innovation, the process of creating and delivering new member value, is a must for associations. For-profit companies understand, without needing much convincing, that they must continually provide new and improved products to the market in order to grow and even survive. With decreasing corporate support, a disruptive economy, and membership turnover, innovation is becoming more of a mandate than an option. How does an organization take the journey to innovation?

Last July, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy embarked on its own innovation journey. The mission of ASGE is to be the leader in advancing patient care and digestive health by promoting excellence in gastrointestinal endoscopy. With nearly 12,000 members worldwide and more than 40 employees, ASGE promotes the highest standards for endoscopic training and practice, fosters endoscopic research, recognizes distinguished contributions to endoscopy, and is the foremost resource for endoscopic education.

ASGE has made significant progress in not only creating an innovation system but also in fostering a culture of innovation at ASGE. Leading this initiative, I have gained some valuable insights about innovation, my organization, and what it really takes to be an innovative organization. I am in no way an innovation expert; I am a human resources professional. However, I am convinced that with a good plan, ample time, and a ready organization, any association can embrace innovation.

Our Innovation Story

Our innovation journey began with a series of conversations framed around four fundamental questions:

  • What if we had a system to consistently manage projects?
  • What if we had a mechanism to gather ideas for new products and services for our members?
  • What if we had a system to thoroughly and consistently predict the success of new products?
  • What if a certain percentage of our revenues came from new products and services?

ASGE started to lay a foundation for a new business model. The more staff talked about it, the more it became clear that it is our job to continually create value for our members. This cannot occur with a business-as-usual mindset. Though cost containment, operational efficiency, and lean staffing practices are indicators of good association performance, they will not propel the organization to growth and abundance. The only path to abundance is innovation. Through our innovation lenses, we began to picture this organization of abundance with a reduction of our reliance on industry support, more members with higher levels of engagement, and restored and sustained financial viability. We were convinced that the clear path to abundance was through innovation, but like so many associations, we didn't know where to start. It was easy to find information about innovation that focused on either the "lone genius" in the basement or the organization's "shazam" moment resulting in a miracle innovation. It was not so easy finding information on how an organization could successfully innovate to create value. Our staff had to figure that out. What we discovered was that in order for ASGE or any association to become strategically innovative, serious foundational work would need to be done and key questions would need to be addressed. Here are the top five items on our innovation to-do list that can help you begin your journey.

Create a Vision for Innovation

What is the aim of what we are trying to create? What does it look like when it's done right? At the onset, our vision of innovation for ASGE was narrow. We were looking for the right questions to ask in managing projects around new products, programs, and services. Since those early conversations, our vision for innovation has expanded from a narrow-focused methodology to a holistic, multidisciplinary framework that will enable ASGE to expand and sustain itself as a relevant and even essential resource for our members.

The envisioned framework consists of an interconnected set of practices that inspire our staff and members to use their imaginations to look beyond the obvious, explore a broad range of possibilities, identify opportunities, make informed decisions about the most promising paths to pursue, and create a shared vision for the growth of ASGE. We then defined and communicated to our staff, board, and key volunteer leaders what innovation means at ASGE.

For ASGE, innovation means leveraging the brain power of our leaders, staff, members, and partners to generate a pipeline of ideas for new products, which are then evaluated in a disciplined manner to advance the growth, relevance, and financial viability of the organization.

Do not make the mistake of having too narrow of a vision or definition for innovation in your organization. It may be quicker or appear easier, but it will not be effective. Innovation is bigger than a project or a nice thing to do; it is the catalyst to success.

Align Innovation and Strategy

When your organization's systems are separated from your organizational strategy, those systems will be seen as inefficient instead of valuable. In order for the vision of the innovation system to be achieved, it has to be positioned as a catalyst for organizational success, just as a strategic plan is.

If we accept the definition of strategy as a combination of the ends for which the organization is striving and the means by which it is seeking to get there, innovation's alignment to strategy is obvious. The outputs of our innovation system (e.g., revenue, growth, and increased membership value) are the goals of our organizational strategy. Innovation as we have defined it becomes the means to get there.

When presenting our innovation framework to the budget and finance committee, I explained that ideas for new products were strategically aligned when they fall into one of these three areas:

  • Generating revenue. Ideas lead to the development and creation of products that create value for the member and are offered in exchange for their financial investment.
  • Accelerating growth and expansion. New ventures, opportunities, and partnerships that reasonably expand our scope and reach.
  • Increasing value of membership. Enhances and expands the package of benefits to members.

During the presentation, ASGE's then-president expressed concern that not everything ASGE does innovatively will generate revenue, lead to growth, or increase member benefits. Rather, some things will be done for the good of the profession. And so a fourth area was created: opportunities and activities for the good of the profession.

No matter how many areas your organization will need to have, the key is to make sure your innovation system is aligned with the strategic goals of the organization.

Find a Product-Development Methodology

At this point, we were clear about what our innovation vision was and how that vision aligned with the organization's strategy. What was not clear was how ideas turned into products. We needed a process but also a discipline. Innovation needed to be treated as a subject that could be systematically understood and taught, step by step, to individuals and teams and would eventually become part of the structure of the entire organization.

We sought the help of Taunya Land, president of Leading Solutions Group, Inc., to help us build a framework for turning ideas into products. Land is the creator of the Product Lifecycle Leadership Model, which was built upon fundamental product development principles used in for-profit organizations. (See sidebar "Building the Product Lifecycle Leadership Model" below.) As you follow the steps of the model, the product evolves, and the feasibility, design, functionality, and value of the product is developed and tested, thus ensuring, with a high level of certainty, the success of the product. The model is not a cookie-cutter approach and can be scaled to fit the readiness level of your organization. We have customized the activities relative to each phase of the model and have started using it to vet new ideas.

Create a Pipeline of Ideas

An essential component of any innovation system is a mechanism to generate ideas and opportunities for new products. In November 2010, I created the SHARP Idea System (Specific, High impacting, Achievable, Relevant, and Problem solving). SHARP ideas represent the deep insights, experiences, and knowledge of our leaders, staff, and members. Everyone who submits a SHARP idea must submit it using the SHARP Idea form, where the submitter qualifies her idea by answering five basic questions:

  1. What is your idea, and how would it work?
  2. What problem does your proposed product idea solve?
  3. What specific group(s) would benefit from executing your idea?
  4. If this is a revenue-generating product idea, who will buy it?
  5. Are there others who have introduced this idea to the marketplace, and, if so, what is ASGE's competitive edge relative to the competition?

The completed form is submitted to a designated email address. I conduct an initial review of all ideas and then present them to the Innovation Steering Committee, which consists of the CEO and chief finance, operations, and communications officers. The ISC can reject the idea, send it back to the originator for more information, or endorse the idea to move ahead. When an idea is endorsed to move forward, a product manager is selected, and the idea moves to the first phase of our version of the Product Lifecycle Leadership Model. The SHARP Idea System is currently being piloted with the staff. We have received an idea from a member of the ASGE Governing Board and from a current committee chair. The goal is to launch SHARP to all stakeholders and the general public later this year. Since November, we have generated 18 ideas, with the majority of those actively in progress.

Assess Organizational Readiness

I define organizational readiness as the ability to act upon and implement innovative ideas and strategies and to successfully come to grips with the operational, political, cultural, and financial demands that will follow. Even with the most inspired vision and innovative products, an organization may simply not be in a position to effectively implement new ideas. At ASGE, we assessed our organizational readiness along three dimensions:

  • Cultural. Does our culture allow individuals to think imaginatively to create and introduce innovative products? How do our senior leadership operating styles and directives (spoken and unspoken) support innovation? Do our individual and collective mental models disruptively challenge the established "way we do things around here"? What is our tolerance for change, risk, complexity, ambiguity, and flexibility?
  • Process. Do our general business processes and practices enable or hinder strategic innovation? Are we process averse? Do we find value in robust methodologies and tools designed to drive innovation? Are we activity oriented or results oriented?
  • Structural. Do we see our human capital as "belonging" to a department or function, or are our people members of a giant pool of talent to be deployed to innovative initiatives that require their specific strengths and expertise? Are we set up for optimal communication and collaboration between and among teams in the organization? Do we have enough of the right people?

Through our assessment, we uncovered areas that will need attention as we implement our innovation system. These areas are not deal breakers by any means, but left unaddressed they can adversely affect our ability to execute our business model of innovation.

Learn by Doing

Innovation is not the end. Unlike a project that has a defined beginning and end, strategic innovation is a journey: a journey of exploration, experimentation, critical thinking, decision making, action, results, and learning. As with any journey, you'll make mistakes, take wrong turns, get lost, and experience frustration. But you'll learn. You'll then have an opportunity to incorporate that learning as yet another step toward building a foundation for sustainable innovation.

Sidebar: Building the Product Lifecycle Leadership Model

By Taunya Land and Larry Snyder

The need to achieve stronger return on investment has intensified in nonprofit organizations. Striking a balance between profit-generating products and ones that may run at a loss but are essential to an organization's mission is a vital strategy.

At the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, the primary objective was to establish a culture of innovation to drive new product and service offerings. ASGE is using Leading Solutions Group's Product Lifecycle Leadership Model (PLLM) as the framework for greater discipline and innovation and to manage all new ideas from staff, members, board members, and other key stakeholders. The outcome will be strengthened risk mitigation, pricing, marketing, and organizational readiness.

The PLLM is a robust framework by which a product or service is managed from inception to retirement or redesign. Within each of the six phases of PLLM, the activities, decisions, and investments necessary to select, plan, develop, market, deliver, and sustain a member benefit and product or service revenues are managed. Each phase is tailored to align with the mission and culture of the organization, with a "Go/No-Go" decision at the end of each phase. The result delivers oversight of cross-functional work and gives visibility at all levels within the organization.

PLLM Phases

Taunya Land is president and Larry Snyder is vice president of Leading Solutions Group, Inc., in Raleigh, North Carolina. Emails: [email protected], [email protected]

Larry L. Robertson, CAE, is senior director of human capital and innovation for the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy in Oak Brook, Illinois. Robertson is presenting "Strategic Innovation: Lessons from the Journey – Part 1" at the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in St. Louis. Email: [email protected]

Larry L. Robertson, CAE