Why Innovation Is an All-Staff Effort

Even small associations are complicated entities, which is part of why they resist change. But diverse groups that remember the organization's core mission can keep it from getting stale.

Nothing lasts forever, even if you’ve lasted more than a century.

Last week brought news that General Electric will be removed from the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Index. GE had a 110-year run on the big board, and the move made news not just for its impact on investors but for more metaphorical reasons: The change had something to say about the shift away from a manufacturing economy, the faith we put in literal household names, and (especially) how giants are at risk of being crushed by their own weight.

Innovation is most likely to occur and originate with the people who are closest to the work.

The reasons for GE’s failing fortunes are complicated, and it’d be pointless to try to armchair-quarterback the company’s next move. But one thing that’s clear is that GE has long been a company with an identity crisis, with a hand in (and out of) a host of industries–housewares, finance, healthcare, energy, aerospace. Diversification has its virtues—successful departments offset less-successful ones. But as the 70s heyday of conglomerates taught us, diversification also sowed confusion and mismanagement. (Why was an auto-parts company running a movie studio, again?)

Associations are no less immune to this problem, as a place where employees wear those proverbial many hats: They’re meeting producers, customer-service providers, publishers, educators, advocacy professionals, purveyors of nondues-revenue mechanisms. It can be easy to be pulled too much in one direction or another amid those roles if you don’t have a clear sense of mission. And it can be almost impossible to come up with new ideas that can bolster your organization if you don’t have a clear sense of identity.

Polina Makievsky, senior vice president of knowledge, leadership, and innovation at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, wrote recently at the Stanford Social Innovation Review about some of the flawed mantras that consume nonprofits when they start thinking about innovation—that the CEO needs to lead the charge, that the ideas need to be big and transformative, or that they need to restrained and careful. It makes more sense, she argues, to build innovation discussions around the people the organization was created to serve.

“While most nonprofits intend to deliver the best services, programs, and results for communities, their approach is too often driven by staff beliefs, mental models, and ideas of what people need and how people behave,” she writes. “While it is natural to look at the world through one’s own perspective, it is problematic because organizations are likely to develop a solution that works for their staff and organization versus the end user.”

The end user or key stakeholder, she writes, is central to any innovation project. And that’s not a bad shorthand for associations either: It’s always worth asking, Is this project meaningful to our members and/or customers? The clearest answer to that question isn’t necessarily going to emerge out of a meeting of staff VPs and board members, though. Rank-and-file members ought to have a role, as should the staffers who often have more touch points with them. “Considerable evidence suggests that innovation is most likely to occur and originate with the people who are closest to the work, and closest to the consumer or end user,” she writes.

That’s why it’s also valuable to have people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences when it comes to having these conversations. Diversity is top-of-mind for a lot of job-seekers—a report last year from the Institute for Public Relations found that 47 percent of millennials considered a diverse and inclusive workplace as an important factor in their job search, substantially more so than other generations. The silo mentality that associations are often fearful of can start with a failure to get a variety of opinions in the room. Addressing that requires signaling that you’re open to those opinions.

GE’s troubles won’t be fixed by one or two staff confabs, no matter how diverse. But if its fortunes improve, it’ll likely be a function of it having a clearer sense of what direction it’s going in, and clearing away its distractions. And that’s as valuable a strategy for a state association with a five-person staff as it is a massive corporation that was a long-time blue-chip stock—until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

What does your organization to do to promote effective conversations around innovation? Share your experiences in the comments.

(andresr/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!