Embrace a Culture of Innovation

Most associations tell me that innovation is important to them, and I, of course, agree. But the overall track record on innovation in the association community is not that great. Twelve years ago, some fellow consultants and I wrote a short book titled, We Have Always Done It That Way: 101 Things About Associations We Must Change. Two years ago (10 years after the book was released), I went back and looked at all 101 things and gave an admittedly subjective “grade” (pass/fail) on all the things that needed changing. For example, “embrace social media” was one of our suggestions back in 2006 (remember when everyone said it was a fad?). For that one, I gave a passing grade, as I think the association community, for the most part, has embraced social media. Do you know how many of the 101 things secured a passing grade?


In 10 years.

That’s not rapid innovation, folks. So, we’re saying we need innovation, but we’re not really doing it. In cases where the say/do ratio is off, there is almost always one culprit: workplace culture. If you have not aligned your culture so that it values the specific behaviors you need to succeed (including behaviors related to innovation), then you are sowing the seeds of failure. The good news is, culture and culture change are not as impossible to manage as people seem to think. There are three basic steps: what is, what should be, and what will be.

Step 1: What Is

Avoid the urge to start by defining your perfect “culture of innovation.” Instead, get rigorous about defining what your culture actually is. Take the good/bad out of it, and dig into exactly how you do things in your culture, particularly around innovation. In our culture assessment, we actually break innovation down into 8 individual building blocks, including things like creativity, future focus, and continuous improvement. You need to know: how much are those things valued and present inside your culture. Of course, those are the “conceptual” sides of innovation – we also ask
about experimentation, beta testing, and risk taking (which includes supporting failure). We see lots of associations who are embracing the concepts in the culture, but haven’t figured out how to support people in doing the actual work of innovation.

You need a clear picture of how your people experience your culture right now, because that is always the starting point for your culture change efforts. If you start moving in a new direction without clarifying and acknowledging your starting point, you are bound to get more resistance. People tend to resist being simply told to go in a new direction, but if you can tell a more complete story – showing them the culture as it is right now, and then making a case for why changing it would make people more successful – then they are likely to support the change efforts.

Step 2: What Should Be

That “making the case” part is the heart of step 2. Once you understand your culture as it truly is, you have to be able to show people how that culture either supports or gets in the way of what makes you more successful. Culture is not about being cool or cutting edge. The whole purpose of having a culture is to make your people and your organization more successful. So while I generally think innovation is a good thing, you will actually have to make the case that it’s what is needed to drive your success. I point out all the time – if you’re a nuclear power plant, I’m not sure I want you to be very futurist around innovation. I don’t want people “hacking” things and taking risks.

Associations, of course, are not nuclear power plants, so to get clear on why you need innovation, start asking yourself some key questions:

  • What makes you stand out from your competitors?
  • What are you already admired for internally and externally?
  • (And my favorite) What are your superpowers?

Once you get clear on your success drivers, you can go back and look at that detailed picture of how your culture treats innovation, and you’ll start to see whether or not innovation should be a priority. Then you can start focusing on the change.

Step 3: What Will Be

Here’s some more good news: culture change is not that hard. Sorry to use a boring sports analogy here, but all you need is a simple “playbook” of culture change efforts to address your priority areas. Let’s say your association looks like that classic example above, where the concepts of innovation are supported but the actions are not. What do you do?

You run some plays. You change existing processes or structures to make it clear that you value those kinds of actions and behaviors. Maybe you’ll change your monthly or quarterly organizational dashboard to include “experiment metrics.” Literally all your employees would be reporting regularly on how many experiments they ran AND what percentage of them failed (side note: if all your experiments succeed, you’re not pushing the boundaries enough). If you started doing that, you would quickly see people actually running experiments (to avoid reporting lots of zeroes). Or maybe you could run a technology play, like adopting idea management software, where everyone in your school has the opportunity to suggest ideas for innovation, and then vote them up or down. By crowdsourcing idea generation and evaluation, you end up with a much broader range of ideas to work from.

End Game: Culture Management

Once you run those plays, you’d take a couple more out of your playbook and run those. Or maybe one of those first plays didn’t work the way you thought it would, so you pull it out to make some changes and put it back in. The point here is that you shouldn’t focus on culture change as a thing you do at a single point in time. Instead, you should build the ongoing capacity for “culture management.” You need people, processes, and systems in place to make sure your culture is continuously aligned with what makes you successful. It’s the only way you’re going to make innovation a reality inside your association.

Jamie Notter is a co-founder and culture consultant at Human Workplaces (humanworkplaces.net). He is the co-author of two books (Humanize and When Millennials Take Over), and his next book, The Non Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, comes out in
January 2019.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Peshkova

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