Obsessive Innovation: Why Associations Must Keep Turning to What’s Next

At the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit Sunday, opening general session speaker Josh Linkner explained to association leaders the five "obsessions" of innovative thinkers and showed them how they can be adopted back at the office.

The way Josh Linkner sees it, Detroit is the perfect setting for a gathering of association executives who want to embrace innovation.

A native of the host city for this week’s 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, Linkner pointed to Detroit’s rise, fall, and re-emergence as a metaphor for the outlook association leaders must take to move their organizations into the future. A town that built itself on automobiles and manufacturing is finding new life through technology startups and creativity, he says.

The best of the best are always focused on reinventing.

“We’re finally moving on to what’s next. Instead of trying to rebuild the old Detroit, we’re trying to build a new Detroit,” says Linkner, CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners and author of Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention.

According to Linkner, creative thinking is the driver of both disruption and avoiding being disrupted. He cites examples like Dollar Shave Club and Cleveland Whiskey for their unorthodox messaging and business approaches and suggests association executives must lead their associations and their industries toward similar reinvention.

“All of us need an additional title, an unwritten one: that of disruptor, or business artist, or entrepreneur,” Linkner says.

After earning his own success as an entrepreneur, founding four different technology companies that eventually sold for $200 million combined, Linkner became “obsessed” with the methods of creative thinking, which led him to identify five obsessions of innovators.

1. Get curious. “The more obsessive you are, the more creative you become,” Linkner says. He recommends asking why—not once, but at least five times in a row. Doing so takes on the beginner’s mind, or the mind of child, and uncovers deep layers of behaviors and assumptions that are taken for granted and are where potential for disruption lies.

2. Crave what’s next. Even for associations and industries that are healthy or not currently facing disruption, Linkner urges a constant look to the future. “The best of the best are always focused on reinventing,” Linkner says.

He shared the example of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who trains his players to shout “next play” after every basket. “He’s trained his team to literally shed the past every 20 or 30 seconds,” Linkner says.

3. Defy tradition. For associations, tradition is a particularly strong barrier to innovation, but not an insurmountable one, Linkner says. His advice: Do a “judo flip” by trying the opposite of what tradition or experience would suggest, and see what happens. Kulula Airlines in South Africa has done this with something as simple as humorous paint jobs on its planes, he says.

Bucking tradition may encompass resisting natural business inclinations, as well. Rather than immediately pouring money or resources into solving a problem, Linkner says, “if you try throwing your imagination at it, you end up with a far better result.”

4. Get scrappy. Innovators like to “MacGyver” their problems, Linkner says, finding solutions in unorthodox ways using limited resources. It’s the classic mindset of the startup, but even large, established organizations can adopt it by envisioning how a brand-new startup association would try to gain traction in their own industry. “You can think that way without being the startup,” he says.

5. Push the boundaries. Genuine disruption comes from more than incremental change, Linkner says. He recommends following the “10X” test, which asks if an idea has potential for a 10-fold improvement over an existing one, whether in cost, revenue, market size, or some other crucial business aspect. Cleveland Whiskey, for instance, passes the 10X test for its method of pressure-aging whiskey in as little as a week rather than the traditional decade in oak barrels, Linkner says.

The challenge to innovate is important in any type of business, Linkner says, but for associations it carries double potential. Associations can both innovate their own businesses as well as facilitate creativity and disruption in the industries they serve, which then can return dividends back to the association. At which point, of course, it would only be time to find the next innovation.

“No matter how good things are going, we can’t become intoxicated by our own success,” Linkner says.

Author Josh Linkner, CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners. (Photos by Jason Keen and Nick Hagen)

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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