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, â€œthe topâ€ 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 â€œstaff-driven,â€ and others â€œvolunteer-drivenâ€ —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 â€œprice of failure,â€ 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?