Innovation Requires Capabilities, Not Just Culture

Foundation_innovation November 27, 2017

To promote innovation in their organizations, many associations focus more on creating culture than on building capabilities. A better balance is needed between the two to effectively put ideas into action.

New findings from ASAE Foundation’s Innovation in Associations study suggest that association leaders may pay more attention to culture at the expense of developing innovation capabilities.

Leaders tend to think that creating an innovation culture will lead to innovation capabilities. But innovation capabilities don’t simply emerge—they are the result of deliberately established processes and infrastructure. The study’s forthcoming research report highlights the connections between culture and capabilities and explains why you can’t succeed at one without the other.

Build Capabilities

The association leaders who participated in the study understood that culture is key to advancing innovation in an organization. The right culture creates the environment for innovation. Markers of an innovation culture include a staff that is able to freely express and explore new ideas—and a workplace where they have the freedom to fail. While association leaders did not typically give their organizations high marks for innovation culture, higher scores in innovation culture were typically associated with a greater feeling of innovation success.

However, culture alone does not advance innovation. To navigate the risks inherent in innovation, associations need the right capabilities: the processes, metrics, and infrastructure that enable leaders to plan, implement, and evaluate their activities. In this area, association leaders felt particularly unsuccessful, giving themselves low scores on both process and infrastructure capabilities.

Planning is at the root of developing innovation capabilities. Association executives can begin by setting goals and evaluating them through a data-based process. Leaders can provide the necessary infrastructure by securing funding and fulfilling identified information technology needs.

These capabilities are not just established at the top but developed across an organization. Individuals and groups should be given clearly defined roles, and staff should be involved in all of these processes. Leaders should implement ways to encourage staff involvement in innovation activities through training and rewards programs. Associations should also be pursuing co-creation with members and outside partners, which can enhance innovation capacity and also accelerate the adoption of innovative initiatives.

Assess and Implement

Leaders intent on integrating innovation into their association’s values and practices can start by assessing their organizational strengths and weaknesses to identify the aspects of culture and capabilities that are most in need of improvement. Rather than tackling everything at once, they should identify one or two critical gaps and focus on building a portfolio of innovation capabilities, with well-defined and repeatable processes and effective infrastructure support.

When culture and capabilities go hand in hand, the association has both clear success markers and the infrastructure and processes to achieve them. Staff and leaders communicate about innovation in the same language and are committed to common goals. By implementing data-based evaluation of the activities, innovation efforts can be analyzed to better understand successes—and failures.

While many association leaders are thinking about innovation, many are still unsure about the right steps to take. Innovation culture, while valuable, is not a substitute for capabilities, and both are essential to sustaining a commitment to innovation. The Innovation in Associations research results, which will be released in early 2018, will explore these and other critical elements of association innovation.