Innovation: Small Staff v. Large Staff

In the past 14 years, I’ve held a variety of positions in association management: senior staff in a mid-sized professional academic society, senior staff/acting CEO for a small ed-tech association, consulting, and now mid-level management at a large medical trade association.

Each place has had upsides and downsides. The academic society was in my “official” field (from undergrad and grad school), so I was really engaged in the meat of what we did and felt a deep personal connection with my members. I had the opportunity to manage a fantastic team, most of whom I’m still in touch with 14 years later. But tradition weighs particularly heavy on an august association of PhDs. Even though I had good internal support to try new things, there was only so far we could go. And the annual meetings were murder!

The small association was nimble and innovative, and I had pretty much totally free reign to try anything I wanted. We turned on a dime and had an AMAZING mission and community. Unfortunately, resources – staff, time, money, capacity, space – were a constant problem. Comes with the territory, but we constantly struggled to figure out ways to push all our great ideas forward on the cheap (or preferably, the free).

Consulting brought lots of fun, exciting variety, and I got to meet and work with terrific people from all sorts of associations, finding out about worlds I never would have encountered otherwise (and I got to work with a metallurgy organization staffed and led by a bunch of guys who reminded me a lot of my dad, which rocked – I love engineers!). But I was often in the position of turning over a bunch of (hopefully) useful recommendations that would have an immediate positive impact, with an “OK! Let me know how it goes!” It killed me to mostly not be able to help make change happen.

Large organizations allow you to be more specialized, so you develop deeper expertise in your areas of responsibility. Resources are rarely a serious impediment. And once again, great mission (there may be a theme here). But decision making can be glacial, and it’s often not entirely clear who needs to be involved in a given decision until you’re down the path and someone’s upset they’ve been left out.

So here’s my question for you, association peeps: how does one bring some of the good things small staff organizations enjoy with regards to new ideas and nimbleness to a large organization?

That’s not rhetorical – I’d really like your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Innovation: Small Staff v. Large Staff”

  • Such a great question. Cross-functional conversations and teams can help, but I think there has to be an instilled commitment to, and requirement for, action and experimentation. Once a certain threshold for analysis and due diligence has been met, the commitment should bee to full-steam ahead action. There always can be more people consulted, more data gathered, but the real learning will only come when an actual program or service gets in the hands of the stakeholders.

  • Love this question! I'd say (of course) use your social media management work to help do this. When you're sharing important internal and external news and dates and activities, for the purpose of figuring out when and where and how to share that information online, you can start creating a spirit of internal collaboration and communication that often wasn't breaking through the silos in any other way before.

  • I reflected on this a bit more today. My first association staff went from 4 to a total of 15 folks in a couple of years. While that's still small, one of the dynamics that changed was the ability of individuals to be aware of the whole. The accidental cross-pollination that fosters innovation (as so nicely described in Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From) becomes more challenging when individuals can't embrace or be aware of the whole.

    As Maddie notes, social media can help with that as it makes it easier for individuals to make things public, but (1) committing to do so, and then (2) committing to review others' contributions and react to them is required for the connections to be made and the innovations to occur. You put up this great post, but the rest of us had to notice your FB update or Tweet about it, read it, think about it, and then comment on it.

    I wonder if a lot of people see remaining connected to the whole (and doing the work I just described) as critical to if not their own success, then to the organization's success. In reflecting on the work I've done with larger associations, I'd say it's pretty mixed.

    Large organizations probably need to refresh their rituals and processes (staff meetings, intranets, break rooms, and more) to intentionally facilitate interactions, public sharing, and cross pollination.

  • The CEO has to adopt this philosophy, or it won't work. So educate and persuade CEOs.

    In small associations, everybody is in contact with everybody else all of the time. That interaction is taken for granted.

    In large associations, that may have to be designed, perhaps a la Jeffrey's reference to rituals.

    If the CEO is committed, it can happen. If not, it surely won't.

  • I'm with David that the CEO plays a critical role in institutionalizing this as a cultural norm, but I also think every individual helps create culture. In this case, how I choose to share information, ask for input, reach out and engage with colleagues can help change “the way things get done around here.”

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