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Association innovation: It’s now time to make a change! (1/3)

Benita Lipps from Interel breaks down the topic of innovation and how associations feel about this much-hyped word...
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This article originally featured in HQ Magazine. It has been republished with Meeting Media Group's full permission.

Benita Lipps from Interel breaks down the topic of innovation and how associations feel about this much-hyped word...

I am big fan of creative innovation, and have seen more than once how a little tweak at the right place can change an entire organisation for the better. After moving from science to association management, I naturally made it my mission to continue innovating in this new setting – and still remember the exact moment that I realised it just wouldn’t be all that straightforward…

It was during one of these rare face-to-face board meetings that most international associations can only afford to hold once or twice per year. Everyone was in the same room, on the same page and eager to find new solutions to long-standing challenges: how to become more relevant to members, how to ensure a solid financial basis, and how to run the association more efficiently without compromising on quality.

My team and I had invested much effort in preparation: analysing data, researching solutions, and discussing our suggestions with the relevant board members. This was a tried and tested approach – so what could possibly go wrong?

No doubt some of you, deeply familiar with this kind of settings, are already chuckling at my naiveté and hubris: everything can go wrong! And it did: discussions focused on the minutia of implementation, it was pointed out that something similar had already been tried unsuccessfully in the past, doubts were raised if members would accept such drastic changes, or if these decisions should be taken at this point in time. Nothing was outright rejected and it was decided to revisit some of these ideas at a later, undetermined date.

So, what went wrong? That’s when I realised: nothing went wrong. It’s just that associations are risk-averse by their very nature and design. Consequently, innovation and associations are hard to match. They are like fire and ice, like father and son the Cat Steven’s song:

     It's not time to make a change,

     Just relax, take it easy

     You're still young, that's your fault,

     There's so much you have to know

Does that mean that there is no chance to innovate in an association? That the time for change will never come? From my experience, the answer is absolutely not. It’s just that associations require a different approach to innovation and that the models that may work for tech start-ups, blue chip companies, or even NGOs won’t cut it in the association world.

Part 1: The Quest for Association Innovation

This January, my team and I set out to test the following hypothesis: innovation is possible at associations, but it needs to follow a different path than in other sectors to be successful.

In addition to talking to our client associations, we invited the international association community to share their experiences: To date, twenty-two were kind enough to respond, letting us know what innovation means for them, and what they consider the biggest challenges and opportunities.

What is association innovation?

In order to figure out how to innovate in associations, it really helps to understand what innovation actually is. There’s just one little problem: innovation is one of the most overused words in business, education and marketing this decade. To quote Michael O’Bryan:  "Like Miss America contestants wanting world peace, the term ‘innovation’ has become the canned response of executives, politicians, and educators to the question, 'What do we need to be successful?’"

There are of course many insightful definitions - and anyone interested will be able to google those in a heartbeat. What I believe we are lacking though is not a notion what the word ‘innovation’ stands for, but what innovation means concretely for the everyday realities of associations.

When talking to diverse associations, three areas were mentioned regularly as the areas where associations need to – and can – innovate: increasing member value, efficiency in operations and improving financial stability.

Results of the question "What does 'innovation' mean for your association?" from Interel's survey

This is part 1 of 3. Read part 2 to find out what barriers to innovation arise in associations.

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