Does Your Team Help or Hinder Innovation?

Innovation August 26, 2019 By: Jon Bassford, CAE

Volunteers and staff might hesitate to embrace a new project or idea. But a few management practices can help association leaders advance innovation.

Innovation is tricky stuff. People are psychologically wired to resist change and fear the unknown. The association industry has additional cultural barriers that get in the way of innovation—staff longevity and volunteer dedication, to name just two common obstacles.

Any association professional who has been around awhile has likely heard a manager, board member, or volunteer say things like, “That’s not what we do here.” Or “That’s not what was intended when the organization was founded.” Or, perhaps most frustrating of all, “You don’t understand how our organization operates.”

These types of statements don’t come from a negative place, but rather a place of deep reverence for the organization that volunteers and staff serve. But this devotion poses an immediate challenge: It breeds a culture resistant to change. It can be an obstacle to adopting new technologies or recruiting the next generation of members. It’s a major hindrance for any association seeking to test new ideas or reevaluate its mission and value proposition.

If your board members, staff, and other volunteers have entrenched viewpoints and seem determined to maintain the status quo, then it’s time to put a few management practices in place that can overcome hurdles to innovation.

Many Ways to Innovate

It starts with association leaders removing the words “can’t” and “don’t” from their vocabulary.

Innovation expert Charles Prather writes in The Manager’s Guide to Fostering Innovation and Creativity in Teams that “total leadership commitment from the top is the single most important factor in a company’s level of innovation competence and its innovation success.” In other words, the organization’s leaders have to drive innovative practices through their behavior and their management strategies.

Still, the necessary behaviors can be held back by fear. For example, there’s a common belief in associations that innovation requires large capital expenditures, which many organizations simply don’t have. Although large-scale innovation may be what some organizations need, it’s important to remember that innovation comes in many shapes and sizes.

Operational innovation, exemplified by strong leadership, doesn’t always involve large expenditures. Most of the time, it requires critical and strategic thinking to find new solutions and opportunities. Often, operational innovation is predicated on developing solutions from a more creative mindset.

If an organization intends to commit to innovation, its leaders must dare to believe that products and services can be continuously improved.

If an organization intends to commit to innovation, its leaders must dare to believe that products and services can be continuously improved. Once you start to believe in continuous improvement, the leadership’s plans for innovation can include any number of solutions.

Six Steps

Here are six basic steps that an association’s senior staff can take—and can encourage in board members—to lead the organization with the future in mind:

  1. Lead a culture of innovation intentionally from the top down.
  2. Cultivate an environment of trust and openness.
  3. Allow ideas to come from anyone at any time.
  4. Bring in outsiders for a fresh point of view when reexamining old ways of doing things.
  5. Conduct strategy meetings that focus on cultivating ideas before vetting them.
  6. Be open to ambiguity. Give your staff leeway to run with ideas before you get bogged down in specifics.

A dedicated board and staff are undoubtedly an asset for any organization. But to avoid certain pitfalls, associations with devoted volunteer leaders and staff who may resist change needed to manage the organization with an eye toward nurturing innovation. Staff and volunteer leaders alike should be ready to welcome new opportunities and solutions at every turn—and always be open to the beauty and possibility of change.

Jon Bassford, CAE

Jon Bassford, MBA, JD, CAE, is a association management consultant in Washington, DC.