The Innovation Line That Divides Associations

A new study on innovation from Marketing General suggests that there's a distinct line separating associations that are innovative from those that aren't. Is there some middle ground here?

One paragraph in Marketing General’s new survey of innovation in the association space really stands out.

It’s not a stunningly surprising fact, but seeing it directly spelled out makes it a bit of a doozy:

Looking at the association landscape as a whole, innovation tends to play out in one of two distinct ways: The association either embraces innovation completely or ignores it altogether. There appears to be very little middle ground.

And that point, as highlighted in the Association Innovation Benchmarking Report—written in tandem with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)—should generate a host of conversations in associations that are on the wrong side of the dividing line. Perhaps it’ll get some people talking that are on the right side of that line as well.

In case you’re wondering where that dividing line lies: Of the 344 associations surveyed, 58 percent said they’ve put a focus on innovation, while 42 percent haven’t. And nearly three-quarters of the organizations that have embraced innovation have done so only in the past five years, while 27 percent have done so within the past year.

The force driving the innovation conversation internally, more often than not, is either the CEO (74 percent) or other members of the executive team (51 percent). It generally isn’t an organic culture shift (31 percent) or even a new hire (31 percent).

Behind Those Pokey Turns

So what holds associations back from making bold changes? A number of things.

When respondents were asked what they believed to be the largest challenges to overcome in attempting innovation, financial resources ruled the roost for 56 percent of respondents, but immediately behind was “fighting the status quo,” at 54 percent. Not too far behind that were a lot of cultural factors, including a slow pace of change (40 percent), getting people to accept a degree of failure (39 percent), and establishing innovation as an institutional endeavor (33 percent).

Sure, more money would be nice. But considering that respondents threw so much weight behind cultural issues with nearly every other response, you have to wonder if, collectively, they outweigh the money problem.

I’ve touched on these things in the recent past—particularly, the idea that associations are challenged by making agile turns and moving quickly. And this study lends credence to the idea that associations see innovation as a “big” change that needs to happen institutionally.

It would be nice if associations did embrace big change, of course, but there’s risk in aiming too high and forcing a significant amount of change to happen too swiftly.

Maybe we should catch our breath a second here.

A Story of Too Much Innovation, Too Fast

Sometimes doing something audaciously innovative can be a recipe for disaster.

Case in point: the story of one of New York City’s first cybercafes, the @Cafe. These days, internet access in restaurants and coffee shops is common, but it was a novel concept in 1995, and it earned the cafe and its founders a huge amount of press out of the gate.

In an interview with Vox, cofounder Glenn McGinnis noted that the cafe’s owners were so ahead of the times that many people—even the restaurant’s employees—didn’t understand what the @ symbol meant. A relatively small issue, but it highlights just how bold the idea was.

Now, obviously, there was a lot of potential for the idea to succeed, but the execution proved problematic.

The biggest was that @Cafe decided to spend $9,000 per month on a dedicated T1 line, which provided 1.5 megabits of speedy internet at a time when people were used to pokey dial-up, if they used the internet at all. This big expense meant that the cafe couldn’t afford air conditioning, which it needed to cool down its server room. (Plan B? A garbage can filled with ice, replenished every two hours.)

This innovative environment drew a lot of interest from Madison Avenue firms that were helping corporate America get online in the late ’90s, but despite heavy buzz, it failed to hold on past 1996.

“It was horrible from the beginning! We never, ever broke even,” McGinnis recalled in the Vox clip. “It was the most stressful thing … it was very stressful.”

Another way to put it: Too much innovation at once can be precarious to the bottom line.

Learn to Harness Innovation

The Association Innovation Benchmarking Report helps diagnose a problem: Associations either have innovation or they don’t. For some that don’t, the problem is a big one.

The report strongly recommends having a strategic plan for innovation. But most associations surveyed (65 percent) don’t have such a plan in place; they chose not to set an innovation goal for themselves institutionally.

Of the organizations that didn’t set a goal, nearly 80 percent of the 215 respondents to that question said they didn’t do so either because they didn’t know how to measure such goals or because the goals were always evolving and they couldn’t pin a goal down.

Associations clearly know that innovation is an important issue, but they struggle to capture it and harness its power. If they can get it under control, they can make it work for them at a steady pace.

It doesn’t have to be everything all at once, either—innovation can be implemented in pieces.

Based on this study, innovation appears to be a black-and-white issue for some associations. What we really need are some gray areas, so organizations that don’t consider themselves innovative can find ways to rev things up.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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