Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
To spark innovation, associations need the right leadership and culture to bring good ideas to the forefront.
Mention the word “innovation” to an association staffer, and you might get an eye roll. That’s because this overused buzzword gets a lot of lip service but not as much action, says Mike Nichols, vice president of operational excellence and professional development at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).
“CEO support really is critical for innovation,” he says. “But next to that, you can’t just say you want an innovative culture. You have to give people access to the right tools, resources, and processes necessary to act.”
At NBAA, staff have been trained in how to use design thinking to create new products and services. They’ve studied the product-development lifecycle and, when necessary, can sunset products that have outlived their value.
“It’s about creating a culture where staff feel ready and able to take risks,” Nichols says.
Cultivating an innovation culture takes time. Nichols began at NBAA four years ago. Step one, he says, is to appoint innovation leaders—NBAA formed an innovation task force committee at the get-go.
Step two is to devise a plan. Even if your association doesn’t have a budget dedicated to research and development, you can set aside time for brainstorming. NBAA’s process involves setting staff goals and establishing an ideation review that takes place in each of the organization’s business divisions.
Our definition of innovation includes small and incremental improvements too.
“When our innovation committee was formed, we had a requirement that every employee had to have at least one innovation goal,” Nichols says. “Now, we have several divisions with new projects going, including new conferences, seminars, and member resources.”
Nichols cautions against limiting your idea of innovation to big or bold initiatives. “Our definition of innovation includes small and incremental improvements too,” he says.
For example, one simple idea was to reduce the number of NBAA member categories, which now makes recruitment easier. “We realized a few operating categories were exclusive and didn’t really matter as much,” Nichols says. “So, we said, ‘Why don’t we consolidate and make it easier to join?’”
NBAA also has found ways to bring members and industry partners into its innovation work. Once a month, the association hosts an “innovation lunch-and-learn” at its headquarters.
“We realized we could bring people in from the aviation industry to talk about innovation from their perspective,” Nichols says. “Not only is it inspiring for our team to listen to others, but they can also learn about practical tools and thinking that businesses use.”