Don’t Let Your Game-Changing Ideas Disappear

Your association's next great project won't necessarily come out of a brainstorming session. Keep an eye on your staff and members' individual experiences too.

Talking to 100 associations will give you a few ideas about how to run an association. More than 100, even.

One of the fun parts of being part of the team that worked on the “100 Associations That Will Save the World” package in the latest issue of Associations Now is the sheer range of ideas coming out of the organizations that are featured. Whether the emphasis was research, education, government relations, public safety, or something else, there’s a breadth of ways that organizations are meeting their mission and making a difference in the wider world.

The solutions that came out of these singular experiences started with one person fostering their curiosity about the problem they were seeing.

But one thing that struck me in the course of working on my own batch of stories for the package is that the range isn’t just about the ideas themselves, but how they come into being. The germ of a great idea doesn’t always come out of a volunteer committee or a senior-staff meeting. Sometimes they come from one person having a singular, enlightening experience—and an organization that’s savvy enough to take that experience and make something of value from it.

Consider the case of Sapna Budev, now executive director of the Sign Research Foundation, who had an epiphany when she attended a conference on wayfinding and saw that three important stakeholder groups needed a way to better communicate with each other. That realization led to the creation of a manual that’s now the primary guiding document on wayfinding signage.

“There were all of these different areas where people were just a little bit ignorant of each other’s needs, through no fault of their own,” as she put it.

Jane Moore, CEO of the Missouri Hospice and Palliative Care Association, had that kind of experience when a state budget manager told her that if she was going to appeal for funding for end-of-life care, she needed to be able to show how it was going to save the state money in the long run. And at IEEE, a member worked on telecommunications projects to support people displaced after natural disasters in India—an experience that inspired IEEE leadership to make that idea scalable.

The solutions that came out of these singular experiences started with one person fostering their curiosity about the problem they were seeing. When Budev noticed the communication problem within the signage community, one of the first things she did was figure out whether it had already been addressed.

“I wondered if there was something that existed that was a user manual—not a book, there’s tons of books on wayfinding—but something that the average layman could pick up and understand all of the steps in a very simplistic way,” she told me. “The costs associated, what kind of materials are the right ones to use, what kind of design process they should expect, like a timeline, all of these things.” Turns out, that simple manual didn’t exist, until the organization took the initiative to make one.

Associations have a lot of established ways to gather up ideas: mind-mapping sessions, ideation retreats, and so on. But good ideas don’t always come out of such deliberate contexts. Often they come out of an individual experience or challenge—one that might vaporize if organizations don’t encourage people to surface them.

Making those ideas visible can help make them actionable. An article at Association Success published earlier this year spotlighted the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America, which created a physical space in its offices—dubbed a “parking lot”—that preserved those kinds of “why don’t we … ?” or “I just noticed …” ideas. Collecting them in this way allows the organization to sort and prioritize. More importantly, they don’t slip through the cracks, and employees see their ideas as valued.

Not all of those ideas will be winners. But neither are all that come out of that dedicated ideation session. The crucial thing is that you create an environment where those stray ideas get a chance to be heard. You might uncover one that’ll be worth keeping for 100  years or more.

(patpitchaya/iStock/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

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