What’s the Big Idea?

By Hank Berkowitz • February 18, 2014

Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. High performing companies and associations are realizing that the ultimate goal is not coming up with great ideas or being the first to market. It’s about executing ideas and continuing to evolve, tinker and systematically improve your success rate. And that’s a good thing because most of the thought leaders we checked in with for this article agreed that the pace of change is accelerating, even in the once chary association world.


  • Nothing kills a new idea faster than common sense. Do you have a “failure resume”?
  • “Shadow-boxing” is a technique that allows your team to look at your organization the way a competitor would. Where are your weaknesses? Where are member benefits falling short?
  • If you want to get better at innovating, don’t spend all your time with people just like you.
  • To ensure better innovation during the day, make sure you and your team unplug and recharge at night—that’s a healthy form of R&D (rest and dream).

“I’ve probably seen more change in the past five years than I did in the previous twenty,” remarked Reggie Henry, Chief Information Officer of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). John Angelo of the California CPA Society (Cal CPA) agreed. “There has always been change,” Angelo said. “Now we’re just more aware that it is rapid change and we have to keep up with it.”

Last summer, I sat in on a panel discussion about innovation for association professionals. One of the presenters, the well-known head of a state SAE, said his organization’s mantra has always been “R&D—as in ‘rip-off and duplicate.'” He wasn’t joking. Nervous laughter permeated the room as he recounted his small staff’s ability to do more with less. Many in the room nodded in agreement.

So, should we all go out and join NABBS—the National Association of Beggars Borrowers and Stealers?

Not exactly. What the expert panelist went on to explain is that he and his team try to stay on top of all the new tools, trends, data and best practices that could be relevant to their members. And, they keep careful tabs on what other high performing organizations (both associations and companies) are doing to stay ahead of the curve.

Organizational shadow-boxing

As Martyn Hopper, CEO of the Pest Control Operators of California (PCOC), explains in this Corner Office profile you have to look at your business every day the way a competitor or potential partner would look at it. Where are your weaknesses? Are your member benefits offering real value? You constantly have to refresh your vision,” he said. Luke Williams, executive director, Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at New York University, agreed. Think of it as organizational “shadow boxing,” he suggested. “Ask your team take a really critical look at your business. Ask them to think like hungry entrepreneurs who are anxious to disrupt with a better way of doing what you do for half the price.”

Associations are more willing to experiment than they used to be, observed ASAE’s Henry. It’s not just using technology to do the same thing better, but giving members and your team the ability to do something they couldn’t do before. He cited the iPad-based point-of-sale system that the ASAE bookstore now uses at its various live events. ASAE developed their own app, similar to the iPad Square, that feeds right into ASAE’s member database and accounting system. It’s convenient for customers and it gives ASAE’s staff valuable data about attendees’ preferences and interests, Henry explained.

Strategies and tactics

If you’re not sure how well you’re connecting with your members, Kelly Donovan shares tips for tracking and measuring member engagement in this article. Hint: keep in mind that an engaged member is not necessarily a satisfied member. As our annual Association Communication Benchmarking report typically shows, members are not spending as much time with association magazines as they used to. Naylor’s Chief Innovation Officer, Marcus Underwood explains in today’s issue, augmented reality is one new way you can bring your print content to life and keep readers engaged via video, audio and animation. It’s more powerful than a QR code and works easily with smartphones and tablets, he said.

NYU’s Williams said that analysis of data is important, but it only gets you 50 percent there. The other 50 percent is human intuition—you have to try small things all the time to see what works. “If you want to increase innovation,” he said, “you have to increase the exchange of ideas. Ideas in and of themselves are not valuable—they’re just ‘recipes for innovation’ and they become more valuable as you share them—not guard them.” Angelo agreed. “Many great ideas won’t even occur to you until you start having those discussions with outside organizations,” he said.

Getting your head in an innovation mindset

Williams said you have to avoid the “self-similarity principle” in which human tend to spend most of their time around people just like themselves. Sounds like the antithesis of an “association” doesn’t it? But, our experts said you have to go out and talk to people from outside your own industry and profession; talk to people from different cultures and maybe different parts of the country, if not the world. Otherwise you won’t get what Williams calls “diversity of thought.”

John Angelo, a 27-year veteran of the Cal CPA recently got a new job title for just that purpose—Director of Strategic Relations. He’s responsible for building alliances and partnerships with organizations outside of the accounting profession that could be valuable to Cal CPA members, staff and volunteers. According to Angelo, Cal CPA works with over a dozen professional associations,” Angelo said. “We sponsor their events. We join them in collective lobbying efforts and pool our resources. In the old days, “we may have viewed them as competitors, but we know our members belong to many different organizations,” he said, and added: “It strengthens the bonds with our members” when they see us being active outside our own walls.

Not everyone thinks and learns the same way

Professor Gerard Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, developed an approach commercialized as FourSight which identifies four types of critical thinking to which most people tend to gravitate:

  1. Clarifying—asking the right questions, which helps you avoid misstating or mis-perceiving a problem;
  2. Ideating is brainstorming and calls for getting rid of your inner naysayer and letting your imagination fly;
  3. Developing, which is building out a solution or re-tooling after a previous effort failed, and
  4. Implementing, which is about convincing others that your idea has value.

Steve Rappaport, director of knowledge solutions for the Advertising Research Foundation, told me over breakfast recently that there are three types of learning mindsets at most organizations:

  1. Kumbaya, i.e. those who learn best in groups
  2. Make it fun, for those who need learning to be entertaining and
  3. Just teach me please; for those who just want to gain the knowledge they need to get the credential/approval they need to get to the next level.

As with Puccio’s Foursight, there is no one-size-fits all solution for learning and critical thinking. For example, Cal CPA’s Angelo cited the tremendous adoption of webcasts over live classroom sessions for continued professional education. More and more members want the convenience and flexibility of “just teach me,” rather than the traditional group learning.

Bottom line: You need to identify the unique way that each of your members, staff and volunteers learn best, and build programs that cater to each. If that sounds like a lot of work, it can be. But, if you’re not willing to do the work, then members will find someone else who can.

Real innovation vs. incremental change

If you’re developing products and services that are only incrementally different than their predecessors then that’s a very dangerous path, said NYU’s Williams.You don’t want to be another Blockbuster Video in which you don’t get around to adapting to a changing marketplace until it’s too late. Sometimes you’ve got to figure out how to stick your hand into a running engine in order to change the fan belt.

You’ve got to get better at provocation—asking the questions that haven’t been asked—not better at prediction. Five years ago, Blackberry and Palm dominated the mobile market. Now it’s Samsung and Apple with completely different technology. “Who even uses Blackberry and Palm anymore?” asked Williams. “Businesses, even entire industries are rising and falling faster than ever, but you wouldn’t know it at many of the companies I visit. That’s because the incumbents often trivialize the upstarts—until it’s too late.”

Do you have a failure resume?

PCOC’s Hopper said you need to empower your team to make decisions and give them the freedom to create without fear of retribution when things don’t go as planned. Foursight’s Puccio said everyone pumps up their successes in their resumes and online profiles. What’s more telling is their failures. One of Puccio’s favorite assignments, as he recounted in the New York Times earlier this month, is to ask people to construct a resume of failure—including the meaning and influence of failure on your future choices.

Lori Spear, Executive Vice President of the Southern Association of Independent Schools(SAIS), told us that her organization is very aggressive about experimenting with new tools, technologies and alternative ways of doing things. “We just see things coming down the pike and we’re willing to put staff and financial resources into them to see how they work.” But, Ernst & Young’s Margaret Weichert cautioned that “we ignore risk at our peril.” The startup mantra of “failing fast” is not cool in certain industries such as financial services and healthcare, she explained at last month’s International Association of Innovation Professionals conference in New York.

For innovation to occur, the rewards must significantly outweigh the risks, continued Weichert. “When it comes to people’s money or their lives, risk-taking is not always cool,” she said. “The smallest amount of risk will sink any innovation in those industries. Just because it’s cool, doesn’t mean you develop it. True innovation is more than just technology—it makes meaningful change happen; it solves a big challenge and has a positive financial contribution to the organization.”

Spear had a different take on risk, explaining that SAIS doesn’t jump headlong into a new initiative without accountability. We’re early adopters for sure, “but we’re not afraid to say if something’s not working then we have to back up, re-engineer it or abandon it if that’s what needs to be done. For instance, we know that social media’s important and we know our members are on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn a lot. But you can’t be all things to all people and we’re still refining the plan as we go.”

Conclusion: Rest and Dream (R&D)

As regular readers know, we’re fond of asking thought leaders what’s keeping them up at night. More often than not, it’s their smartphones and tablets. According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, smartphones in the bedroom have led to a rise in sleep-related complaints and a contributing cause of insomnia, especially for those in their 20s and 30s. So, if you want better innovation during the day, make sure that you and your team unplug and recharge at night. That’s the best time for healthy R&D (rest and dream).

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.