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

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. This is part 3 of 3.

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

Part 3: Innovation is dead; long live innovation!

Does that mean that association professionals should give up on innovation? That we should focus steering our ocean liners of continuity through the turbulences of progress and change, relying on the tradition and the ‘tried-and-tested’? I don’t think we should, and all association leaders who participated in our study agreed.

Now, that we can frame the challenge – the fact that standard innovation models will simply not work for most associations – we can work towards new models. We can identify the innovation methods and tools that help associations deliver results for our members, our teams and our sustainability. 

What could such an approach look like? Luckily, there's no need to guess, just look around us. There are many association professionals out there innovating and are often happy to share their insights. 

Less talk of innovation, more proactive problem solving

When most people think of innovation, they think of trendy tech people engaged in endless brainstorming, finding creative ideas and experimenting with beautifully designed prototypes. While there is nothing wrong with these approaches, innovation is essentially about finding useful solutions: “An innovation is a feasible and relevant offering such as a product, service, process or experience with a viable business model that is perceived as new and is adopted by customers,” confirms Gijs van Wulfen, author of the FORTH Innovation Methodology. Let’s explain to our board, our teams and our partners that innovation is not blue-sky thinking, it is simply a smart tool for problem solving. 

While this may not sound as glamorous as ‘disruptive innovation’, experience shows that it’s often the little things that can make a big difference in the long run. Not sure that that means? Here are some concrete examples that were shared with us during our innovation research:

  • Tweaks to the statistical reporting helped to speed up delivery and to create bigger value for leadership
  • Renegotiating existing sponsor partnerships helped to create significantly more value for both the association and the sponsors
  • Running key governance and member meetings virtually helped save significant money on travel and allowing for more agile working and collaboration.

Results of the question "What would help drive innovation in your association?" from Interel's survey.

Investing in Association Innovation

When lack of time and resources are ‘the’ key barriers to innovation, and when a need for more innovation has been identified as essential by the very same association, the solution seems easy: it is time to invest in innovation: by hiring more staff or by investing in new solutions. 
From our discussions, we learned that some associations have come to the same conclusion and started acting on it
  • One society has just strengthened and grown their internal conference organising team, allowing them to offer more value and better service to their participants
  • Another European alliance is hiring an additional staff member as communication and projects officer.
  • Four associations invested in technology. Two developed their extranet, offering members better services without increasing staff time. Two others invested in member management and invoicing tools, allowing them to automate some administrative work. 
However, to the majority of associations, the option of this kind of ‘hard’ investment is simply not available. Tight budgets or a frugal leadership make it unlikely that any new resources can be dedicated to innovation anytime soon. What can be done? It’s time to get innovative with innovation. But how? Let me share some examples:
Creating innovation partnerships can be a great way to create innovative impact without spending any hard cash: One association reported that they partnered with one of their members which is working on a large-scale initiative with the potential to become global. Without interfering in the implementation work, they agreed a 'win-win' deal whereby the member involves the international association, in exchange for support in promoting and communicating the initiative. Two other associations have created industry partnerships to offer exclusive access to knowledge and resources to their members.
Last but not least, here’s my favourite no-cost innovation tip – one that has probably generated the most positive impact in my work with innovation in the last 10+ years: Empower your staff to become a team of problem solvers
Touted as ‘fostering an innovation mindset’ in the relevant literature, it’s really nothing more than encouraging all team members to keep their eyes open for problems and to discuss these openly. It’s essential to make it clear that this is not done in order to assign blame or to highlight failures – on the contrary. Identifying a problem is the first step to finding a solution, and this is best done together, as a team. 
In addition to promoting innovation, it also has a very welcoming side effect: it empowers people in their jobs. None of the talented, dedicated and multifaceted experts working for associations want to be treated as mindless executors, they want to make a difference with their work. 
In short, invite your team to be curious, honest, supportive and to take full responsibility for their work. Lead by example. And – voila – your innovation task force is born.



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