User Innovation v. Producer Innovation

A recent piece in MIT’s Technology Review by Eric Von Hippel (excerpt freely available, subscription required to read the entire piece) on the topic of the sources of innovation got me thinking about innovation and associations.

The innovation faith is being widely preached in the association world these days, and many of us have converted. But that brings with it a certain amount of pressure, namely, to come up with great new ideas (since that’s really what’s at the root of innovation).

But there’s hope: YOU don’t have to come up with all the great new ideas in order for your association to be innovative. You just have to be open to new ideas, recognize them, and be ready to pursue them, no matter what the source.

How does that play out for associations? Technically, we’re all in existence because of our members (remember them?), to serve them and their professional or industry needs.

Does your association allow room for innovation, aka great new ideas, from the people who actually use what you produce – you know, your members and other audiences?

What mechanisms do you have in place to solicit their ideas on a regular basis? No, not just the board – the “regular” rank and file members. We all tend to be guilty of the fallacy of composition when it comes to our boards, including the board members themselves, but in reality they tend to speak mostly for their own needs and not be some sort of objective, impartial voice of the membership as a whole.

Once ideas bubble up from the membership, what happens next? Do you do anything with them? Do you even reserve the capacity (time, money, staff, other resources) to do anything with them?

Regardless of the outcome (because not all new ideas are necessarily good), how do you let people know what happened and why?

The thing is, your members are a lot closer to what you’re doing and producing, ostensibly for their benefit. Why not ask them what they think about how you can make your offerings better for them, and then try to do something beneficial with what they tell you?