10 Traits of an Innovation Mindset for Your Association


Associations can’t fulfill their missions without innovation. Innovation helps organizations create and improve processes, products, services, and experiences for their members, customers, staff, and audiences. Technology helps us turn innovative ideas into reality, but innovation is powered by organizational cultures that support and nurture an innovation mindset.

10 elements of the innovation mindset to nurture at your association

#1: Creative curiosity

Curiosity is the spark that leads to innovation. Curious people ask questions, explore possibilities, and go down rabbit holes. How can we make it better? What else could we do? What if? These are the questions you want to hear around your association.

An innovative culture values lifelong learning. Staff are given the time and budget they need for professional development. Learning is built into the work of the association. Staff are expected to share information within and between departments, and keep track of trends and changes in their industry, in the association space, and in society. Everyone strives to better understand the members and market.

Curiosity and creativity go together hand in hand. Innovative minds are comfortable wandering and wondering outside the lines. They read widely. They often take an idea from an unrelated industry and wonder how it would apply to the membership experience. They don’t get trapped in the association echo chamber. They force themselves to leave behind assumptions and conventional wisdom.

How can you allow curious creativity to bloom? Give staff time to think and refill their creative wells. Encourage them to build time into their schedule each week to sit, read, and think, or go for a walk, listen to a podcast or audio book, and think.

#2: Analytical curiosity

Encourage staff to keep asking “Why?” until they get to the bottom of things, to the root of problems, and to underlying motivations. When curious staff learn about trends and changes, they analyze what it means for your members, for your members’ customers, and for your association.

Data-informed decisions are less risky than decisions made by the seat of your pants. Give staff access to the data they need as well as training to make them proficient in analyzing and leveraging data.

#3: Empathy

Innovation must be approached from a member-, attendee-, or user-centric perspective. You must understand what someone goes through to improve their experience. Member journey mapping is a useful exercise for putting yourself in a member’s shoes.

Don’t rely only on what your staff or board thinks, find out what members need by using a variety of research tools—conversations, surveys, and site visits. Be membership anthropologists.

#4: Inclusivity

Does everyone on staff have to be curious, creative, analytical, and empathetic? That’s a lot to ask, which is why cognitive diversity is essential for innovation.

Everyone has different strengths, perspectives, and experiences. However, the people who can bring a different and valuable perspective to the table aren’t always invited to meetings where innovative ideas are shared.

Often missing from the conversation are staff on the front line interacting with members and customers. They’re the ones who answer phones, respond to emails, sit at registration desks, and staff booths. They work with chapters and affiliates, and with committees and other volunteer groups. New employees and younger employees also bring a valuable perspective to innovation discussions. Pay attention to the quiet people, not just the ones who always have something to say.

Bring in outside voices too. Meet regularly with staff who work on strategy and innovation at similar associations. Invite forward-thinking people from your industry or profession to talk about trends and market developments, for example, professionals in charge of innovation or R&D at member companies.

Avoid groupthink. A continual flow of new perspectives will spark innovative ideas and approaches.

#5: Collaboration

Instead of busting silos, it’s easier to connect them. Encourage cross-functional projects so staff can practice working across departmental lines. Put a process in place for each department to share what they’re working on, and how that work impacts strategic goals and the member experience.

Innovation can lead to departmental turf wars and hurt feelings. If a new project means more money for your budget, that’s less money for mine. To make way for new ideas, you may have to sunset old programs, products, or processes. The competitive departmental ego goes on guard.

#6: Common vision

You can override the ill effects of personal and departmental agendas by rallying staff around a common cause. Leadership must explain why innovation is necessary so staff understand why their program is on the chopping block and why money is going from their budget to another.

Keep their eye on the bigger prize—organizational goals and membership value. Help staff get a clear sense of the organization’s priorities so any new idea is solving the right problems and exploring the right opportunities—those that align with strategic goals.

#7: Courage

Innovation isn’t easy, but nothing good ever is. Innovation requires:

•    Courage to think beyond accepted norms and conventional wisdom.
•    Courage to challenge “the way we’ve always done it.”
•    Courage to ask tough questions.
•    Courage to be vulnerable and accept change.
•    Courage to not play it safe and to venture into the unknown with a new strategy, process, product, or event experience

Innovation is scary. You could fail. Your ego is rightly yelling, “Danger, stay away!” No one wants to be that board chair whose term is remembered for a failed project, or that staff person who came up with the “dumb” idea that went nowhere.

You must support staff and leaders who are courageous enough to risk failure, otherwise your association will become stagnant, and nothing meaningful will ever improve or change.

#8: Experimentation

Experiment with small pilot projects. In this safety zone, you can own failure together. After every project, do a retrospective so you can learn from mistakes and identify success patterns.

#9: Agility

A recent CB Insights article set the record straight about industries that Millennials were supposedly “killing.” In reality, these industries were suffering because brands were not responding quickly enough to changes in the marketplace.

You can’t wait for three board meetings to get an innovative idea approved. Your culture and governance have to be agile enough to respond quickly to market disrupters. No more blaming Millennials!

#10: Long-term commitment to innovation

Staff must know that innovation is not the latest leadership fixation. Innovation must be embedded in your organizational culture—it’s how you do things around here from now on.

The best way to begin exercising your association’s innovation muscle is by taking on small improvements. Practice ideation, planning, testing, tweaking, and trying again, so you can build the culture and processes that will support larger innovation projects.


This blog post was originally published on the Association Learning Blog by WBT Systems.
Michelle Brien is VP of Marketing & Product Strategy at WBT Systems and a member of .OrgCommunity. WBT Systems is a proud sponsor of Solutions Day 2019.


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