Help Your Board Embrace Innovation

A commitment to innovation needs to start at the top of your organization. For CEOs, that means getting their boards comfortable with innovation and explaining to them how doing so will ultimately benefit the organization for the long term.

Innovation isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to build a strong, effective organization.

And sometimes just as complex is getting a board to commit to changes that may shift the way an association looks, acts, or operates. But according to Mary Byers, CAE, author, consultant, and CEO coach, approaching your board with a well-defined strategy around innovation can be a good start.

“Your innovation strategy should be clear and one that can be easily carried over from one board to the next,” she said. “Show the board new things you’ve done because of the strategy; focus on the wins, as well as the small pilots.”

Byers shares ways that CEOs can not only help their boards embrace innovation but also explain to them the benefits of doing so.

Explain Experimentation

According to Byers, CEOs should explain to the board that innovation is iterative, meaning that the organization will need to test, recalibrate, and test again before launching a new program or benefit. It’s also a good idea to help the board recognize that, when it comes to innovation, not everything you test will launch or go to market.

“For-profit companies start with the beta test, and I think that’s something associations can also do—gather a small group to test and provide input to help us build our programs and services will make us more successful overall,” she said.

In addition, CEOs should take time to talk to their board about why innovation is important for the organization.

“There’s a concept called ‘dual transformation’: it’s about serving today’s members and association while also building for the association of the future,” Byers said. “Use terminology like that with the board so the board understands the reasons behind your proposals.”

Present Options

When bringing ideas for new products, programs, or services to the board, Byers suggests proposing at least two options for their consideration.

“I’ve heard from boards that they don’t like to make a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision, which would happen if you only gave them one option,” Byers said. “Boards like to have options that are ‘riskier’ or ‘less risky,’ so if there’s something they want to pursue but they don’t want to go all in, having several options to choose from allows them to say yes to your proposal.”

Before the conversation, think about whether you want the board to make a directional or decisional call on a project.

“Craft the conversation so the board knows whether you want them to come to a decision by the end of the meeting, or whether you want input that you can take back to your staff and then prepare a proposal at a future meeting,” Byers said. “Having that terminology and approach can be really helpful.”

Make the Process Easier

Budgeting for innovative projects and ideas can be a useful way to not only weave the idea into your culture but also make the proposal process easier.

“Including a line item or budget for innovation means senior staff don’t need to go to the board for resources every time they’re planning for a new project or program,” Byers said.

One of Byers’ association clients had an innovation fund they could tap into as needed. Whenever the organization worked on new initiatives, the executive director was transparent and communicated regularly with the board, so the board always knew when the money was being used.

“Having the fund allowed the association to be continuously testing and experimenting, without having to wait in between board meetings,” Byers said. “When you’re on a board, you want to be part of successful projects, so it’s less comfortable to say, ‘We’re going to try this and see what happens,’ but that’s what innovation requires.”


Hannah Carvalho

By Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now. MORE

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