When conference keynotes talk about innovation, they share stories from companies with deep pockets, like Disney or Google. I’ve never met an association professional who can relate to that. Most associations can’t afford the innovation luxuries enjoyed by these corporations, especially when next year’s budget is a guestimate at best. What you can afford is frugal innovation.
Associations have always innovated. You have to if you plan to survive and thrive in changing times. You must respond to emerging needs and increase your association’s value to your members and market.
Sometimes, innovation means a big scary project if that’s what it takes to position yourselves as indispensable to your market, like revamping membership models or governance traditions. But innovation also comes in small packages too, like improving a data collection practice or automating an onboarding process.
12 essentials for frugal innovation
Associations are more successful when they have a culture and process that encourage innovation. Tony Rossell, senior vice president of Marketing General Incorporated (MGI), recently shared a finding from MGI’s 2020 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report: associations with a defined plan or framework for innovation had more success growing membership and meeting other challenges.
Here are 12 practices that will help your association innovate frugally.
#1: Set the right tone with your leadership culture
Staff executives must set the right tone for both staff and volunteer leaders. In many associations, board directors are too legacy-focused. They resist change because they don’t want to see any hiccups or failures on their watch. It’s the C-suite’s responsibility to educate the board on the need for experimentation as the only way forward.
A bottom-up approach to innovation must be encouraged from the top. Good ideas don’t just come from leaders. Innovation must also be driven by staff.
The board must understand the need to invest in technology which frees up staff time, provides useful data, and delivers valuable online experiences to members and customers.
#2: Develop a framework for innovation
Innovation must be aligned with your association’s mission, goals, and strategy. You don’t want anyone wasting efforts on misplaced ideas. You need a framework for collecting and evaluating ideas from staff, defining goals, and establishing success metrics.
Everyone on staff must know how to pre-qualify and advance their own ideas. Some associations have a staff task force who oversees the innovation process and provides guidance to colleagues. Set up a digital channel to collect ideas so people don’t have to speak up in front of others.
#3: Understand your members and market
Train staff in using design thinking to discuss and create new products and services. Design thinking is a “human-centered, collaborative, and iterative approach for deeply understanding an audience and their challenges in order to generate effective solutions.”
You can’t wait for a biannual survey to understand member needs. Find tools that allow you to tap into member and market needs right now, for example, pulse surveys, website and newsletter polls, and platforms like PropFuel. Watch conversations on social media and in your online community.
#4: Accept “good enough” results
Think of innovation as an improvised fix. It doesn’t have to be perfect right off the bat. Adopt an agile mindset and practices: test, assess, tweak, and try again. Instead of spending a year building something, you’ll save time and likely end up with a winner.
#5: Repurpose existing resources
Understand what other departments are doing and what they’ve already done. Reuse and repurpose existing resources so you get more value from what you already have.
Look at data as an asset. What data do you have that members would be interested in? There’s a reason research like MGI’s membership marketing benchmarking report and Billhighway’s chapter benchmarking report are so popular. People want to know how their organization compares with others.
Speaking of chapters, look for examples of chapter innovation that you can scale up for other chapters or for the entire membership.
#6: Establish regular cross-departmental communication and collaboration
Encourage cross-departmental initiatives. A recent ASAE article described an association’s government affairs team who needed a better way to educate policymakers. They reached outside their department to communications, membership, and marketing staff for their perspective and insight, and came up with a successful solution.
Schedule some hot seat, mastermind, or hackathon lunches or end-of-the-day meetups where staff can share their problem or idea, get input from colleagues, and brainstorm solutions. Ask department heads to identify new issues for these cross-team collaborations. Announce the new project, invite participation, and accept all comers.
These collaborative efforts boost motivation and morale. It feels good to contribute to or influence projects outside your usual area of expertise. Plus, they help tear down the curtains in between departments. Staff see what others are doing and find additional areas for collaboration.
#7: Edit ruthlessly
You need to sunset low-value programs and products if you want to free up staff time for potential high-value projects. Sunsetting allows you to leverage your strengths instead of shoring up weaknesses.
#8: Build innovation into performance expectations
Every job description must require technical and data savvy. Staff must know how to get the most out of the technology on hand and how to securely collect and access data.
Encourage staff to submit innovation ideas. Require every employee to have at least one innovation goal. Put the onus on department heads to encourage their team to collaborate with other departments by both inviting and providing insight.
#9: Provide project management training
ASAE Foundation researchers used a maturity model to score association business innovation readiness for a new series of reports. Participating executives scored their associations as lagging in “operational agility” due to a lack of a project management process, metrics, and budget.
Most association staff lack basic project management (PM) training even though they frequently find themselves managing or serving on a project team. PM training would decrease the likelihood of preventable project mistakes and give staff the confidence to pursue more innovative projects.
Work with a consultant to develop PM training for staff or encourage staff to find online training. Larger associations often have a project management office (PMO) that oversees projects. If yours doesn’t, at least establish some standard PM processes and guidelines.
#10: Consult technology partners and consultants
Technology partners and consultants work with dozens, if not hundreds, of associations of all shapes and sizes. Consider them a valuable resource and ally in your innovation efforts. They can share new practices, programs, and products they notice with you.
They can also help you get more value out of your existing technology. Talk with them about your challenges and ideas. You may learn of new ways to leverage your technology, improve how you’re using it, find out what upgrades are on the roadmap, and hear about ideas for new practices.
#11: Stop talking to the same people all the time
A diversity of perspectives creates the conditions for new ideas. Listen to newer or younger staff—they’re not sucked into your organization’s groupthink yet. Talk to members who aren’t in the leadership echo chamber.
Cultivate a professional network with staff at other associations, chambers, and membership groups. Introduce yourself to people who are struggling with the same issues or who are doing something you admire.
#12: Know what’s possible
Hear what people are thinking about and get exposed to the latest news and trends. Schedule time to read association industry blogs and publications, participate in online discussion forums and social media groups, and attend webinars and virtual conferences. Get involved in your AMS users group. Attend their virtual user conference and other educational events.
Innovation doesn’t require deep pockets. You can practice incremental innovation. Do what you’re already doing better. Add value. Target more effectively. Make resources more accessible. Spend less time on processes. Leverage your data.
Be bold. Dare to experiment and become even more indispensable to your members by practicing frugal innovation.