What Blocks your Capacity to Innovate and What You Can do About it

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I have spent, it seems, several lifetimes trying to help associations, universities and other knowledge services break out of the status quo and grow.  But growth today is based on an organization’s capacity for constant innovation. I often wonder if there has been any significant progress in the innovation capabilities of the kind of organizations I have worked with for over two decades now.

 In 2002 an HBR article asked this question: “How do you get your people to think creatively—to challenge the status quo—while still keeping your everyday operations running smoothly?” To answer it, the article identifies companies that have been able to “come up with great ideas over and over again” and interviews those who have been able to inspire innovation in them.

The answers of what worked point to the still lingering gaps in most associations 16 years later; gaps that keep them stuck in the status quo and unable to leap to a next level. These answers also add up to a playbook for a new type of leader, who is aimed at growth and is unafraid of leading disruption, where and when needed. 

Make innovation the norm, advices Craig Wynett, the general manager of future growth initiatives at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. “By serving it up as something exotic,” he explains, “you isolate it from what’s normal.” 

Countless organizations attempt to catch up with today’s market through innovations that are restricted to new, special programs, such as, innovation, engagement, technology or customer service programs.  The problem is that Instead of actually transforming themselves -- becoming organizations capable of thinking outside narrow categories and challenging the status quo; engaging and inspiring others and integrating technology into the way they think about their challenges and options-- they continue to behave the same way. By limiting innovation to isolated, marginalized pockets, they fail to develop the new cultures, ways of thinking, practices and capabilities that will allow them to compete on a higher level.

Wynett has an additional word of caution. “Isolating innovation from mainstream business," he says, "can produce a dangerous cultural side effect: Creativity and leadership can be perceived as opposites. This artificial disconnect means that innovators often lack the visibility and clout to compete for the resources necessary for success. Only when innovators operate with the credibility of leaders will innovation become a productive part of everyday business.”

The lesson to take away? When creating a new initiative as a step to a new direction – for example, collaboration among silos, increased customer service, innovation and engagement—make sure to position it within your core business and provide its leaders and champions with visibility, credibility and authority to carry it out.

 Put aside ego, says Thomas Fogarty who invented the first balloon catheter to be used therapeutically, practices cardiovascular surgery at Stanford University Medical Center and created start-up companies.  I would add, put aside all attachment to things as they are (which I suppose are extensions to our egos).

“Getting people to expand their views—to see a situation through others’ eyes—often raises ego issues,” Fogarty says. “People don’t want to believe that they’re doing things in ways that are less than optimal. In fact, one of the hardest things about innovation is getting people to accept that the way they work just might not be the best.” 

Attachment to legacy programs and conventional formulas for benefits; and the unwillingness to question the fundamentals of the way associations do business are perhaps the greatest obstacle to change facing associations and many other conventional organizations. Consider, for example:

  • If there is a problem with an overbearing, stifling board do you look for solutions that call for improvement (better communication, board education and selection) or do you seriously question the effectiveness of the current governance model for today’s market and look for alternatives?
  •  If retention is a challenge for you, do you look for improvements in things like marketing, communication and product mix or do you reconsider your assumptions for what members value and the very basis for creating and delivering value to them?
  •  If your industry changes dramatically, do you only look for ways to expand your market for your current business and value proposition (e.g. through global expansion) or are you open to re-thinking the very nature of the business you are in and, hence, value proposition and business model?

In most conversations among executives or in strategic planning processes the starting point is the first answer, while the serious re-thinking of the fundamentals of the model almost never occurs.

Hire Outsiders, is the solution offered by Hal Tovin, the group executive vice president of the Emerging Channels Division of Citizens Financial Group where he directs the bank’s ATM and debit card business, in-store banking, business banking, and on-line banking and Internet strategy.

“The most important step I’ve taken, to encourage innovation” he says “is to hire people who have experience outside of banking—creative people who can apply what they’ve learned in dynamic, customer-centric categories to our more traditional businesses...Most banks, for example, look at in-store banking as a service for existing customers. We take a very different view; we use our grocery store branches to acquire new customers. We hire people from retail stores like the Gap, Macy’s, and Starbucks and screen them for what we call BVAC characteristics: bright, verbal, assertive, creative…”

Hiring outsiders or learning and applying innovations from sectors outside associations is anathema for most associations professionals. Two years ago an innovative, accomplished executive in a panel I presented, expressed the same “outsider” philosophy of hiring. He received scathing criticism from participants who considered it an affront to the “association profession” and “an act of disloyalty to association professionals. How is professionalizing the management of associations and separating it from business management conducive to open innovation and the ability to perceive and make connections among seemingly disparate realms?

In many association forums, such as the retreat I recently attended, the mere presence of those whose careers did not follow a conventional track within associations is unwelcomed.   Perhaps this inward view would not threaten small scale innovation on the product level. But it would block the kind of large-scale innovation that allows leaps in growth.

Unless innovation and an outside-in perspective are part of the fabric of your culture and daily practice, you and your team are encouraged to challenge the status quo and think beyond present categories and go beyond your association colleagues for inspiration and collaboration, it will be difficult to engage into the type of on-going innovation and reconfiguration that undergird today’s market leading companies.

You may also be interested in:

 How to Eliminate the Obstacles in the Way of your Change Initiatives

Your Organization’s Realignment #1: From Inside-Out to Outside-In, Inventive Thinking


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