Turning Ideas into Reality

Also known as “the hard part.”

I’ve been working with an association lately where the focus of the engagement is on transforming the organization. I’m specifically working with them on a membership transformation, but a piece of that is looking at transforming programs, products, and services. So we’ve been talking a lot about innovation.

Now, this is not their first time at the rodeo on the subject of innovation. In fact, they’ve been working on innovation initiatives for almost two years. The problem hasn’t been ideas – their staff members have come up with a bunch of good ideas, big and small. The problem has been: what happens next?

In fact, research demonstrates that this is where most innovation initiatives get hung up (seriously – I was going to link to an article, but I found WAY TOO MANY). And I’ve heard this same complaint from a wide range of other association colleagues.

The reason it all falls apart? It’s usually because no one on staff has business plan/business development skills, because there’s no budget allocated, and because no one has primary responsibility. In other words, “we solicited your ideas, but we have no plan for what to do next.” You can’t change the game with no dedicated resources.

The fact that this means that nothing changes is bad enough, but even worse, it’s totally dispiriting to the staff members who honestly and enthusiastically contributed their ideas.

But, as I’ve discovered in doing some interviews, there are associations who are having success at this. The common themes include:

  • Dedicated “new initiatives” budget – like Google’s famed and now long gone “20% time,” if you’re serious about innovation, you have to put some skin in the game. And don’t forget the cost of staff time, and the fact that you can’t create change with 5% of this person’s time, and 10% of that’s person’s time – someone will need to take primary responsibility, and that person will likely need to shift some of her other responsibilities to someone else to make that happen.
  • Documented process – there are a lot of good resources out there on this, but you need to have a way of reviewing ideas that includes some level of formality and objectivity, and some criteria for approving things, to keep your innovation initiatives from devolving into a popularity contest. And part of your process better be a formal review of expected revenues. Not every initiative your association takes on needs to make money, but you can only have so many “loss leaders,” and your choices about them must be conscious and informed.
  • Senior staff champion – someone with the weight of authority in the association needs to stand with each approved project to make sure that, when the person actually running with it needs help or resources or answers, she can get them. And senior leadership needs to be fully on board with this, and follow the process themselves.

What has your association learned about innovation success?


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