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Yes, Anyone Can Innovate

How can you meet more demands with fewer resources? Or adapt old offerings to serve new needs? Or use an existing organization to address a changing industry?

Think outside the box. Be creative. Innovate.

Easier said than done, especially considering that most people feel creativity is a miraculous gift given to a lucky few. Then there’s the fact that AEs often feel their organizations are too rigid to embrace inventive or risky ideas. But innovation can work anywhere, according to professionals in the field. In fact, a half-century of solid academic research shows that all of us are capable of creative thought and—even better—we can all be taught how to think more creatively, both as individuals and as groups.

Innovation from the top down

The leader’s role is critical, says Bob Eckert, CEO of the innovation consulting firm New and Improved ( “Sixty-seven percent of the statistical variance for the climate of creativity has to do with the behavior of the leader of the organization,” Eckert explains. In other words, even if leadership isn’t the only influence, its role is important enough to make promoting innovation a critical aspect of any association leader’s job.

Eckert tells leaders to encourage not only their employees’ or volunteers’ curiosity, but also their humility (people can’t learn anything if they think they already know everything), courage (to put their ideas out in the world), and tenacity (to continue promoting their ideas after they’ve been rebuffed a few times).

Innovation requires a combination of divergent thinking, which is generating bright new ideas, and convergent thinking, which is winnowing down the ideas and making the best ones practical. Too often, leaders, such as AEs, elected leaders, and committee chairs, dismiss members’ bright ideas without fully exploring them. Instead, Eckert says, they should help translate “brainstorms” into reality. He recommends the following approach:

* Start with praise. Share with the member whatever you can find to like about the idea.
* Imagine the opportunities that could be created by implementing the idea.
* Ask provocative questions about how to overcome the idea’s weaknesses. (Instead of saying, “This is too expensive,” ask, “How could we fund this idea?”)

Finally, help the member tweak the idea to make it as useful and as workable as possible.

Innovation is more subtle than you think

Lisa Bodell, CEO of Futurethink (, says service organization leaders often believe innovation is about “coming up with the new iPod” and therefore doesn’t apply to them. “They’re thinking about innovation all wrong,” Bodell says. Innovation doesn’t have to be big, bold, and breakthrough; it can be incremental. Rather than being product-focused, it may involve new business models, new partnerships, new distribution channels, or new internal rules. In fact, one of the most important innovation challenges is to change or abolish the rules, traditions, or status quo that are getting in your way.

With organizations that don’t believe they can be innovative, Bodell likes to use a technique called “From Impossible to Possible.” She divides the organization into two groups and asks each group to take a current business challenge—low member participation, for example—and write down all the obstacles to solving it. The two groups then swap lists, and each group tries to find ways to overcome the other group’s “impossibles.” Interestingly, most groups have an easier time finding solutions to the other group’s “impossibles” than to their own.

Foster and reward a culture of innovation

Leaders should pay attention to the cultural climate in their organizations, says Derrick Palmer, principal of Innovation Point ( “If you inhibit innovation, nothing is going to happen,” he warns. Two important issues for executives to keep in mind are cross-pollination—making sure all the functional groups in the organization talk to each other on a regular basis—and reward structures. If employees are rewarded only for short-term results and are punished when their ideas don’t pan out, no one will want to go out on a limb with new ideas.

“If you want to get ideas from people, reward them for coming up with lots of ideas,” Palmer says. “If they’re asked to come up with 25 ideas to be rewarded, but all their ideas are lousy and they get fired, they’re not going to want to do that. But if the leadership gives super awards to those who succeed and smaller rewards to those who don’t, that’s how to bring something back to the organization. You can only hit home runs when you have lots of practice hitting at everything.”

Prove to members that they are creative

To jump-start innovation in your organization, a training session may be in order. These sessions usually consist of innovation exercises (see More Online) and can be incorporated into your strategic-planning retreat or even your new member orientation. Such training can demonstrate to skeptical members that they are in fact capable of thinking creatively and of developing ideas collaboratively. Your association probably won’t end up creating “the next iPod,” but who knows? You may just end up working toward a way to meet more demands with fewer resources, adapt old offerings to serve new needs, or use an existing organization to address a changing industry. At the very least, you’ll have a team of innovative thinkers at the ready, confident in their capabilities to think creatively in response to whatever comes your association’s way.

(online exclusive extra)

Exercises to Bulk up Your Creativity

Role Play
Role play is about two or more people taking on defined roles and playing out a typical drama. For example, you can role-play the act of one member trying to get another member to volunteer for a committee. Have the players let loose and push their characters. Have others watch the role play and invite them to shout suggestions to the players. Discuss the results afterwards. Role plays force participants to pretend to be people different than themselves, think differently than they usually do, and respond to imaginary issues. Indeed, it is important to have participants play roles dissimilar to their actual characters and positions in the company.

Extreme Scenarios
What technical developments might make your industry obsolete overnight (use your imagination, don't be afraid to think about developments such as time travel, teleportation, mind reading, etc.)? What new legislation might destroy your members' business? What is the worst thing your competition could do to you? Brainstorming extreme scenarios such as these and then brainstorming possible solutions to the scenarios is a great way to stretch your imagination.

Yet, as unlikely as extreme scenarios usually are, thinking about their consequences sometimes results in powerful ideas that can be implemented--to your benefit--without the extreme scenario actually occurring in real life.

Long Term Envisioning
Try to imagine what your company will be like in 50 years. 100 years. 200 years. Draw up a plan of what you will be doing, what the market will be like and how you got there. Better yet, divide a large group into several teams of about five participants each. Have each team draw up a vision plan for the year 2106. Then bring everyone together and present the plans. Share and compare.

Getting beyond the usual one-year, five-year or even ten-year business plan, puts you into the unknowable future. Without clear facts to guide you, you're left with only your imagination to help you create a vision of that far off future. Nevertheless, some of the ideas you dream up for the next century may suggest realistic goals for the near future. Yet again, this is an imagination exercise that sometimes provides potential practical benefits.

100 New Services
A classic creativity exercise is to find 100 uses for a brick, a bucket of water, a bathtub or any other commonplace object. Such exercises stretch your imagination. So, why not try the same exercise exploring services you could offer using your existing resources.

Of course, creativity exercises take up valuable time and seldomly bring in immediately usable results. But, just as an athlete must exercise regularly to stay in shape and perform to the best of her abilities, so too must your organization's imagination get regular exercise in order for members and employees to innovate to the best of their abilities.

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