Guest Post: Why Associations Are Bad at Innovation

Eric Lanke is the Executive Director of the National Fluid Power Association and blogs regularly on generations, leadership and innovation in associations and in society at large at the Hourglass Blog.


Maddie’s on vacation this week, so she asked me to help keep her SocialFish blog buzzing by posting something about the innovation project I’m working on.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m spearheading an effort by my state association executives society to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. And if that’s a subject that interests you, we want your feedback.

The task force has looked at several case studies of successful innovation in the for-profit sector and has drafted a list of principles that seem universal and neccesary for innovative organizations. Those principles can be found here.

But what I really want to engage you in is why associations have a hard time adopting these principles. Even knowing what needs to be done in order to innovate and become better at serving our stakeholder communities, we struggle and too often fail.

Here’s what the WSAE task force has come up with as the major reasons why:

1. Diffuse leadership. Innovative organizations have a culture of innovation that is driven from the very top. But in the association world, “the top†of the organization is sometimes difficult to define. Almost every association has a Board of Directors that governs the organization, and an Executive Director that provides operational leadership, but the interplay and degree of inerrant functional overlap between these two entities varies from association to association, and in many cases creates an environment in which leadership authority is imprecisely diffused among many individuals. In addition, some associations are said to be “staff-driven,†and others “volunteer-driven†—conditions in which the identified constituency exercises tremendous influence over the culture and activities of the organization. Even when leadership structures are clearly defined, term limits and turn-over of association Board members often make it difficult for the organization to sustain long-term strategic initiatives.

2. Low tolerance for risk. Innovative organizations are by nature risk-taking organizations—places with the freedom to experiment and fail. But many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The need for change must be clearly documented and then trial-ballooned and focus-grouped with numerous stakeholders before it can get off the ground, and then it often has to navigate a minefield of existing programs and sacred cows in order to compete for funding. What many associations deem normal due diligence procedures—financial analyses and projections—can prematurely kill most innovative ideas, by creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where none, in fact, exists. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,†in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is also often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

3. Unwillingness to commit resources. Innovative organizations commit resources to the process of innovation. But many associations have budgets they either perceive to be too small to allow for such an investment, or which are already overstretched into dozens or hundreds of association programs and activities. Innovation does not require a big financial budget in order to happen—many small organizations are good at innovation. Innovation does, however, require some investment of resources—money, staff time, expertise, management processes—and too many associations are unwilling to seriously commit a portion of these resources to its execution.

4. Complex organizational structures. Innovative organizations employ a process of innovation that is nimble and which offers clear decision points. But for many associations, decision-making is a long and complicated affair, requiring the engagement of multiple stakeholders and the approval of several layers of management and authority. Staff departments, volunteer task forces, standing committees, houses of delegates, boards of directors—there are all hallmarks of even the best-run associations, each with a defined role to play in the organization’s budgeting process and decision tree. In a poorly-run association these complex organizational structures, and the commitment to consensus-based decision-making that they require, can leave an association incapable of sustaining a productive and useful process of innovation.

What do you think? Why are associations so bad at innovation?

{ 4 comments }

Lauren August 5, 2010 at 8:47 am

Eric – These are four great categories (or perhaps, not so great?). I think there may be a few other factors (though they cross the categories you list and are by no means particular to the association world). One of them seems to be the willingness to accept new/different ideas from anywhere within the organization (bottom to top)…it seems to be quite challenging to lead/innovate from the middle (much less the “bottom”), though this is related to components within your categories 1, 2, and 4. I’d say this is more broadly related to fostering a culture of trust within the organization (I’m sure there are lots of companies that find this challenging to do)…you could even say that all the reasons you list above are symptoms of an underlying lack of trust that could reside in a number of different places/relationships…between senior leadership and their staff, between the board and association staff, between membership and staff, and even between staff peers. This is an issue with which I continue to struggle…a lack of trust seems to make any task take longer and cost more (whether directly or indirectly. Sometimes, you can’t even move a project for lack of trust.

Other biggies seem to be good internal communication structures (whether they’re formal or informal) and knowledge management. Again, these aren’t particular to associations. If staff members (not to mention volunteer leaders and other members) have no way to access what others know and what’s been tried before (as well as what has worked/not worked and why), then how can they hope to innovate in a meaningful way? Or at least with some helpful context?

I’m really interested in finding out more about your evidence-based model of innovation so will be scooting over to your blog to see if I can learn more!

Scott August 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

Great summary. I do also think the level of innovative initiatives could (but not always) be tied to the type of industry/membership an association represents. But for what it’s worth, here are my keys to an innovative organization.
Vision – there must be a clear cut vision of what the organization should be. As opposed to ‘mission’ – a clear statement on what the organization should do. Leadership – leadership that embraces that vision and works to implement strategic goals to reach that vision. Finally, trust – the board and the staff must trust each other.

But leadership is key…

Linda Ridge August 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I’ve been consulting on association development and innovation for three decades and I certainly agree with your principles. I’d like to add a few thoughts to the mix of reasons why assoctions aren’t good at innovation.

Too many association leaders, staff and board, think strategic planning and innovation are the same thing or that strategic planning is a part of or directly results in innovation. Until they understand the difference between the two, they’ll focus on traditonal strategic planning (which most of them understand) and forsake processes that lead to true innovation (which most of them don’t understand).

Most associations don’t know HOW to be innovative. It takes a dedicated, funded, ongoing program of R&D. Learning how to do the kind of R&D that leads to innovation is an absolute prerequisite many associations ignore.

I agree with the need for a diverse, forward thinking group to work on innovation. But associations, in an attempt to be inclusive, kind or politically correct, put the wrong people on the bus. Too often folks who are involved and invested in what currently extists are appointed to innovate for the future. I suggest that associations should NOT expect people involved with a current activity to be great innovators in the same arena. Just because they are good at, say the association’s education programming, doesn’t mean they’ll be good innovators for education. First off, they aren’t very objective. They have a vested interest in what ‘is’. They have producers bias and emotional connections to what they work so hard on now prevent them from fully considering that something else would be better. They are usually too busy keeping the current activity flowing to design something new. And if they were great innovators in their area of expertise, they should have been doing that all along. I’d minimize the number of ‘now’ folks and appoint more of those who carry no ‘how it is’ baggage and no preconceived notions about what is good or what is possible.

And finally, the most innovative associations I know are those that were forced into it by crisis. Your top down commitment principle is correct. It takes leadership from both board and staff to grasp and champion the need for innovation and leaders who can continuously make a compelling case for the ongoing effort and financial support.

Eric Lanke August 5, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Great comments, everyone. Let me pick up on something that seems to be a theme–this issue of trust.

I attended (and participated in) a session on innovation with ASAE’s Jennifer Blenkle at the Council for Manufacturing Associations Leadership Meeting today (those of you who follow @hourglassblog on Twitter already know this). We spent some time talking about trust in associations, especially as it relates to creating and sustaining a culture of innovation.

There were a lot of good association CEOs there who understand that if you want to foster a culture of innovation in your organization, you’re going to have to “walk the talk” when it comes to trust. A CEO, after all, who preaches innovation, but doesn’t trust the staff to come up with innovative ideas–killing each one as they come up as too expensive, too impractical, too stupid, etc.–isn’t going to succeed in building a culture of innovation.

But for me, here’s where trust really comes in when we talk about innovation. A working innovation process is going to generate more ideas that can be acted upon. Someone, somehow, is going to have to decide which ones get the green light and which ones don’t. That’s unavoidable. And it may be tempting to say that it’s the CEOs job to do that–and it is–but only to an extent.

The CEO of an innovative association doesn’t just decide which ideas win and which ones lose. She communicates clearly with the entire team HOW these decisions will be made–the criteria by which the ideas will be evaluated and the conditions that must be met before they will be greenlighted. And everyone who submits innovative ideas must UNDERSTAND these criteria and SUPPORT them as the appropriate benchmarks to use in driving innovative change in the organization.

If the CEO and staff trust each other enough to have that discussion–the ideas that are generated will hit the mark more often than not, and everyone will accept the fate of the ones that are dropped.

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