Beware These 9 Barriers to Association Innovation

The association community is full of bright, optimistic professionals whose minds are sparking with promising and innovative ideas. But, ideas aren’t worth much unless you put them into action. The biggest barriers to association innovation are the people, processes, and practices that make up your organizational culture.

9 Barriers to Association Innovation

Take a tough look at your organizational culture to see whether you’re tolerating these barriers to innovation. You know what they say… the first step to solving a problem is knowing you have a problem.

#1: Internal politics and competition

Sometimes, outdated or ill-fitting technology holds an association back from pursuing change, but usually people are to blame. Or, more accurately, the organizational culture is causing dysfunction.

Dysfunction rules when departments compete for resources, and are more concerned with their own agendas than organizational priorities. Silent turf wars result when one department sees another department’s project encroaching on their territory or staff time.

Turn this warped perspective around by planning more cross-departmental projects involving staff at different levels. You may not be able to eliminate silos, but you can connect them. Encourage communication and knowledge sharing between departments so staff understand what’s going on and why.

Help staff keep their eyes on the prize—larger organizational goals. Spell out expectations: when an innovation project is approved to go forward, all departments are expected to support their colleagues. All for one and one for all.

#2: Rewarding the wrong behavior

What happens to employees who question the way you’ve always done it? What about the ones who go out on a limb by suggesting a process or practice change? Are they putting their reputation, raise, promotion, or job at risk?

Reward the behavior you seek. Performance evaluations should reward managers and staff who make a positive impact on the organization by:

•    Suggesting and trying out new ideas for improvements and changes—no matter the result. 
•    Making an effort to increase their skills and knowledge.
•    Working with others to achieve organizational goals.

Employees who try to do the right thing shouldn’t be punished for coming up short. 

barriers to association innovation

#3: Resistance to change

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” 

“We tried that once and…” 

The human ego craves safety—it’s our survival instinct at work. That’s why so many organizational cultures are rooted in the past—it’s what they know. 

Innovation can be threatening to staff and members who are invested in legacy programs and processes. A change to their way of doing things could make them feel dishonored or incompetent.

Include all stakeholders in innovation projects, especially those who are tied to the old way of doing things. They need to feel like they’re an important part of the change, plus they have knowledge to share. You don’t want them to feel threatened by change, and get defensive or obstructive as a result.

Nurture a forward-thinking, change-receptive culture by supporting cross-departmental ideation sessions where colleagues can tackle problems and opportunities together. Have a process for collecting and reviewing new ideas, and for bringing new perspectives to the planning table.

#4: Lack of permission and privilege

Innovation isn’t for the privileged few. You shouldn’t have to occupy a certain level in the org chart, work in a favored department, have seniority, or be part of an office clique to contribute your thoughts and ideas. When you always invite the same people to meetings and ask the same people for their opinion, you’re missing out on valuable perspectives. Innovation conversations must be intentionally inclusive, not exclusive. 

Give everyone on staff the permission and responsibility to help solve problems and explore new opportunities, especially those who have the most contact with members and customers. Create a safe space or process for new ideas to emerge without fear or consequence. Encourage those who normally don’t have a voice to share their thoughts in a way that’s most comfortable for them. Listen up and down the org chart and across generations. 

#5: Time anxiety 

People make internal cost/benefit analyses when it comes to change because time is a non-renewable, limited resource. When you’re swamped with work, it’s easy to keep doing something the same old familiar way because it takes less time. 

Change is stressful. It means you have to find time to attend project meetings, set up new processes, and figure out something new. Who has that kind of time? Because innovation projects pile on to an already full plate, work with staff to delegate or put tasks on hold so the project doesn’t become overly burdensome.

Time-starved employees aren’t likely to come up with innovative ideas in the first place. It takes time to better understand your members and market. It takes time to read, think, and learn. Give staff time to slow down and think. Create meeting-free blocks in everyone’s schedules. Set aside time every week for professional development. Dedicate 20 minutes in weekly meetings to pie-in-the-sky innovation discussions so everyone has a chance to contribute.

barriers to association innovation

#6: The role of the IT department

Association staff with ideas for innovation often have to work with an overtaxed IT department who’s more likely to say “No” than “Maybe” or “Yes.” Staff should see their IT colleagues as partners who help them explore new ideas and plan innovation projects, not as buzzkills.

If your IT team is spending most of their time on network management or help desk requests, they don’t have the bandwidth to be technology advisors to other departments. It’s better to outsource IT operational tasks so they can focus on more strategic and meaningful work. 

#7: No budget for innovation

Staff shouldn’t have to spend time and energy making the case for investing in innovation. Associations need an innovation budget along with a process for approving and prioritizing new projects.

#8: Lack of strategic vision 

Resources are best invested in projects that further the mission and improve the membership experience. When staff have a good understanding of organizational goals and strategies, they’re less likely to propose ideas that are out of alignment with the mission. 

Staff must have a sense of which ideas align with strategic goals and which don’t. Rejection is demoralizing. It dampens the will for sticking your neck out. If your idea has been rejected once, you’re less likely to try again—unless the organizational culture encourages you to do so. Seeing your fall from grace, colleagues will be hesitant to follow your example.

#9: Lack of agility

Ideas are great, but you need to act on them. Some organizations are aware of the disrupters in their changing market, but don’t do anything about them. You need people on staff who constantly scan the horizon for signals of disruption and change, and a process that takes their “intel” and turns it into a topic for discussion, evaluation, and action. 

But don’t just rely on these “scouts.” Everyone on staff must understand the process for submitting an idea, and the criteria used for evaluating their idea. 

Agility takes practice. Start with small pilot projects. For a greater chance of success, make sure you have people on staff with project management expertise who can guide these projects. Test, evaluate, tweak, and try again. Know when to move forward and when to walk away with lessons learned. 

Innovation doesn’t have to be a large undertaking. You can improve a process so it provides a better user experience. Maybe next you try repurposing content to create a micro-credential, or creating a blended learning experience in conjunction with your annual conference. Cultivate an innovation mindset in your staff, scrutinize your organizational culture for innovation barriers, and start flexing your innovation muscle.

change management
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