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The power of being an innovative leader

We spend a lot of time talking about strategic planning - it's one of the things we do for a living! We work in an international membership industry that exists in one way or another to foster safe environments for innovation and ideation; and there is an increasing expectation amongst professionals that their membership bodies should and can provide that safe space for creativity, the sharing of ideas and problems, and the definition of innovative solutions to unanswered conundrums.

We’re witnessing however an increasing frustration with an apparent reluctance amongst association leaders for their organizations to be innovative. Is this down to just a natural aversion to risk or a natural aversion to innovation?

Innovation come from the members first, and over the years we’ve benefited by working with some amazing organizations, allowing us to see their invention and enterprise in practice. Whether it be in healthcare or construction, we’ve witnessed the industry of members saving lives through new approaches in clinical care and medicine, to members who are seemingly defying the laws of physics by building infrastructure that through their innovative design enhance the human condition. Yet, in terms of professionals’ associations, we seem to be continually aggravating the status quo, and we suggest there is a growing disconnect between what members are capable of and are driving each other to achieve and what their associations are doing to embrace innovation.

Obviously, while you can always be evolving, you can't be in a constant state of revolution. You've got have stable periods of business as usual. But there is an increasing concern that as organizations work on defining and delivering their new strategic plans, some membership bodies are exhibiting a hesitancy to embrace innovation and consequently risk becoming irrelevant to their current and potential members.

So, what do we mean by innovation within association terms? Well, in simple terms it means assessing performance and where appropriate embracing the opportunities to do things differently. It means realizing efficiencies and adopting fresh approaches to deliver membership services that enrich an individual’s experience of membership and enhance the value and impact of the organization and its members.

It involves generating viable ideas and going beyond the traditional ways of doing things. It modifies business models and matches them with the evolving needs of the market, resulting in better products and services.

Organizations that support innovative thinking are most likely to develop unique and workable concepts that can solve existing problems and penetrate relevant membership markets. Hence, as innovation is valued and prioritized, competitive advantage is formed leading to business strength and financial resilience.

A lack of innovation can however be a symptom of other issues within an organization: perhaps it reflects an inability to embrace technological change, or a lack of sufficient resources to do justice to innovation, or maybe it relates to something more fundamental. Maybe it's about leadership, maybe it's about the board themselves - their vision, their appetite for risk, their understanding of their delegated authority and responsibilities.

But how do you turn that corner? How do you flip that switch? How do you embrace and cultivate a culture of invention and innovation? Is it a strategic plan? Is it the creation of an innovation or an R&D committee? Is it a conversation with the membership about what they believe? What needs to change to make this happen? Well, being innovative is like getting in shape. You can't just decide “I'm going to be five sizes smaller” and diet for only one day or “I’m going to get strong” and go to the gym just once. It's a process - it's ongoing and it’s forever. There's no full stop at the end of the innovation sentence. If you want to be innovative, it has to be something to which you commit and in which you agree to invest.

Empower staff and volunteers to work and think innovatively. Encourage them to focus on result and outcomes and grant them the ability (no, the responsibility) to challenge the status quo and to identify creative ways to drive change, recruit and retain members, improve the general prosperity of the organization, and diversify and increase income. Diversity of experience and expertise fosters creative ideation, better problem solving, shared learning, and more robust decision-making. All of which are required to underpin an innovation culture. Crucially, an innovation culture understands the value of risks and failures, both of which are essential components of success. Innovation culture does not like failure, but it acknowledges how failure can help the organization in numerous ways. It also sees failure as a part of innovation, and it places high regard on evaluating risk levels for discovery, successful implementation, and feedback. It celebrates success, but it deals with and learns from risks and failures.

Finally, innovation requires the board to understand and accept its responsibilities to the organization. A fundamental principle of ‘good governance’ is that the board exists to protect and promote the interests of the organization, not directly those of the membership. Boards benefit from memberships’ delegated authority and as such they are empowered and entrusted to make decisions as required, which includes investment in innovation. Too often we hear board members cite their concerns about membership opinion...

“we can’t do that, what will the membership say”

...but often this cognizance of the member voice can lead to a paralysis in decision-making, and a neglect of the board’s moral and legal obligations to protect the interests of the membership body. Boards must reflect the member voice in their deliberations, but they do not exist to represent their memberships. Instead they exist to ensure platforms exist to advocate, educate, and innovate, and this principle should apply in equal measure to both the internal leadership of the organization as well as to the provision of the organization’s value proposition.


You can listen to our podcast on leadership through innovation by subscribing to Association Transformation on Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon Music, or wherever you access your favorite pods.

Contact us to discuss ways in which we can support your innovation, leadership development, and plans for cultural change.


T: +44 7815 626 630

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