From the Front Lines

The CEO’s Guide to Association Innovation

By Amanda Kaiser • January 20, 2017

5 “secret sauce” tips from executives on the front lines

When I say the word innovation to you, what feelings does this word evoke? In a recent research study association professionals reported that innovation is synonymous with risk, big expectations, large investments, long commitments and failure. At the same time, we are seeing that our professions and industries are being turned upside down by changing technology, regulations, public perception, member expectations, budgets and more. To guide our members through the turbulence, we need to change, adapt and innovate more nimbly. So we see a huge chasm between where we want to be and the massive undertaking needed to get there.

Regardless of the risk, 73 percent of associations have begun to focus on innovation within the last one to five years, according to the Association Innovation Benchmarking Report, sponsored by the National Business Aviation Association.

Innovation is new to most associations, which means we’re now establishing new goals, inventing processes, persuading the board, motivating staff, allocating resources, and moving into uncertain and possibly risky territory. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guide to association innovation? To know what to do and what not to do? How to avoid unnecessary risk and how to allow the best opportunities to flow? How to get the team moving in the right direction? Good news! There is!

In 2016, I sat down with CEOs and VPs from 15 highly innovative associations to find out what the secret sauce was for innovation in associations. The only thing these associations had in common was they were all highly innovative. Some were very small and some were very large. Many had recently started their focus on innovation, but for some innovation was built into the fabric of the organization since inception. These associations represented a large range of professions and industries and were located all over the United States. In other words, no matter how large your organization is, no matter what you do, no matter where you are located you can do innovation, too!

What is the secret sauce for innovation at associations? How can association CEOs get their organization headed in the right direction? Here are five premium ingredients, directly from the research, that will help your organization become more innovative.

Commit Yourself to a Personal Investment

The research reveals, unequivocally, the CEO drives organizational innovation. The report found that in 74 percent of associations innovation is prompted by the CEO. In the qualitative sister study, respondents also pointed to the CEO with comments like: “The CEO really empowered us to think out of the box,” and “Our CEO gave us permission to start to think about this and start to think about making changes. He was okay with short-term pain for long-term gain. That really got us going.”

But it’s not enough for a CEO to merely kick off the initiative by setting the goals, stating their vision, identifying a project leader and allocating the resources. CEOs of highly innovative associations continue to be enthusiastic drivers of innovation and remain deeply involved for a decade or more, if not the duration of their stay at the association. CEOs champion the cause by hiring the right staff, motivating the team, setting the tone, making it safe to fail, bolstering when spirits are low and celebrating wins.

Prepare yourself to be the visionary, cheerleader, nurturer and maybe sometimes even the hard-nosed boss, and prepare to take on these roles for an extended period of time. Staff teams experience a lot of worry and doubt in the first handful of years. Eventually this will pass and innovation will be built into the fabric of the association, but until then your staff will need you to be fully invested.

Explain Your Vision Using Their Why

Ad hoc innovative projects can be successful at associations that have not culturally embraced innovation, but they can be more painful and resource intense for staff. Even more problematic, association CEOs report that after an ad hoc innovation project the staff team immediately reverts to the status quo, and the project is stored away in the institutional memory as being highly stressful and ineffective. Study respondents said that creating a culture of innovation is extremely important in associations.

An innovative mindset can be truly enculturated even in the oldest associations. To shift to a culture of innovation, we need to explain why we are doing this in our staff members’ own words.

One study respondent said that at a former association he jubilantly shared his big plans for change. Staff was understandably leery of this new outsider who wanted to make all of these changes. They did push through the new projects, but after he was gone he learned that all the projects, processes and mindsets he championed stalled out. Another CEO took a different approach. As the new CEO, he scheduled a one-hour, one-on-one chat with every staff member to ask them questions about what was working and where the opportunities were. He asked these questions, and then he sat and listened intently.

Staff input clustered around a handful of key ideas. He used these ideas to inform his vision for the association. This staff was far more accepting of proposed changes because they could see that their input was the foundation of these changes. Additionally, this deep listening tactic set the stage for the collaborative, engaged, problem-solving oriented culture he hopes will continue to grow in this decades-old association.

Shrink the Risk

Innovative projects fall on a continuum. On one side, there are iterative smaller projects that are designed to improve existing member benefits, products and services. Respondents called these evolutionary projects. On the other side are projects that are completely new to the association, and they tend to be bigger and riskier. These projects are called revolutionary projects.

Chances are evolutionary projects are already happening at your association. Your association is already innovative! Highly innovative associations are also working on evolutionary projects. Evolutionary projects suck up exponentially more resources, so finding a healthy balance between what the staff can reasonably take on and see success with is key. As associations become more practiced in innovation, they slowly add more revolutionary-type innovation projects to the docket. They may start out launching 95 percent evolutionary projects and 5 percent revolutionary projects and over time shift the balance to 80 percent evolution projects and 20 percent revolutionary projects.

If your association is new to innovation, hold up success you’ve had with evolutionary-type projects and explain that the staff team is already innovative. Then further shrink the risk by prioritizing just one small to medium-sized revolutionary-type innovation project to start. Once that project is complete, consider trying a bigger innovation project or two smaller projects at the same time.

Respondents mentioned that sometimes leadership and staff get excited about innovation and take on too much too early. Fight this impulse by starting small, developing the process that works for your association, practicing, learning and feeling more confident before trying more complex projects.

Design a Transparent Idea Generator

Great ideas are the root of innovation, but how do you get staff to share their idea babies with you? How do you make sure you are capturing the ideas of member-facing staff? How do we ensure that not just higher level managers get their ideas heard but that we hear the best ideas from all staff regardless of level? We can get everyone to share their best ideas with transparent processes.

One association set up an idea application process. The idea application details the requirements for an idea to be considered (i.e., it has to help solve at least one of these three strategic goals). Anyone can submit an idea application. Staff knows that every qualifying idea will be vetted. Submitters continue to stay in the loop after the vetting process. They may be invited to lead or sit on the launch team. Whether they are on the launch team or not they will know the details and timing of the project. If their idea wasn’t selected, they will learn exactly why.

This association found that not only the quantity of ideas for consideration increased the quality of ideas improved as well.

Recognize Staff Who Are Solving Members’ Problems

It takes a lot to maintain an association. Not everyone can be knee-deep in innovation all the time. You may find that you have a couple people working on innovation projects most of the time. A handful of people working on innovation projects some of the time. Most of the staff, though, will barely work on innovation projects at all. Association leaders recognize that it wouldn’t be fair to constantly recognize just a few innovators.

Some associations have solved this dilemma by recognizing staff who are identifying member problems and offering solutions. Recognition is an important part of cultivating a more innovative culture and recognizing solutions to member problems can be a much more egalitarian way of helping all staff become more forward-thinking.

CEOs at highly innovative associations make innovation more accessible to their staff. These CEOs are setting realistic expectations to shrink the size of a seemingly impossible goal. Listening to staff input engages staff early in the effort and helps the CEO frame their vision in a way the staff can embrace. Using a transparent idea process encourages more staff to add their best ideas.

These are just some of the great ideas that respondents shared in the research. To learn about many more ways CEOs help their association adopt change and to become more innovative, grab your complimentary copy of the Association Industry Innovation Research Study generously sponsored by the National Business Aviation Association. Find it at

About The Author

Amanda Kaiser is a qualitative researcher for the association industry. Channeling member insights, Amanda writes a weekly blog for association professionals at or follow her on Twitter @SmoothThePath. This article originally ran in the January/February issue of CalSAE’s The Executive magazine.