Jul. 3, 2010 - Association Management Lessons from the Public Sector
The Young Foundation released an interesting and useful report this week: the title is “Capital Ideas: how to generate innovation in the public sector.”
The title caught my eye: “public sector innovation' seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. Often the public sector is motivated by consensus building, not problem solving—and that's a problem that's common in membership associations as well. “Let's send out a survey” is a refrain often confused with doing real work. “What the members want” becomes the slogan for inaction, rather than accomplishment, and associations spend more resources on achieving group good feelings than on effecting significant progress in achieving their missions. (I'm reminded of a Realtor organization I once worked with that had a bylaws requirement that the budget required a quarterly progress report and an approval vote of the membership. That's right: QUARTERLY. Needless to say, the association had little time and resources for anything but this process.)
How can a membership organization make timely strategic decisions about its future? How can it anticipate member needs, perhaps even in advance of member awareness of these needs? How can associations encourage innovation and commit to change?
Some of the answers are described in the “Capital Ideas” report. The entire report is available by clicking on the link, but here's a summary of the key ideas:
1. Identify priority fields for innovation: This is important. Associations need to begin any program to build capacity by identifying the key issues facing the association. These are the Big Questions, the two or three huge elephants in the room. There may be only one over-riding issue, by the way, and that's fine—often it's more than enough. The point is, put the Big Question on the table, and don't get sidetracked by minor concerns.
Let's say your big question is “How do we remain sustainable when we are rapidly losing membership?” No doubt an organization might have many secondary questions, but let's say that's the main one. There's one looming guest in the room at every meeting, and that's the elephant--your central issue.
2. Open up the space for ideas: Having identified the Crucial Question, the next step is to create the space for solutions. Some thoughts: encourage contributions to the answer—from staff, from the Board of Directors, from the membership including affiliates. Look inward for your resources. Often its the front line people who have solutions. Make time in the Directors' agenda for strategic discussion, and Big Question issues at staff meetings. (Google expects its staff to spend 20% of its time in innovation and creative problem solving.) Yet another idea: establish a solution team of innovative thinkers within your organization.
3. Finance innovation: The 'Capital Ideas” report suggests that 1% of a budget be set aside to finance innovative ideas. This fund might be used to reward ideas from staff, offer incentives to members, or fund the further study and implementation research of new ideas. To continue our example of the association which is rapidly losing membership and dues income, let's assume that one of the solutions is to generate non-dues revenue. Your association embarks on a campaign to solicit ideas from members and staff. You fund your effort and offer incentives for ideas, and you also have the resources you need to implement the winning solutions.
4. Fix incentives: Too often associations reward people for dutifully doing the same old, same old things. We stick a gold-filled pin on the traditional member-of-the-year, and we thrust a plaque at the 25-year-member for just breathing and paying dues. But do we reward innovation and great new ideas? Usually not.
What associations need to be saying is, “We welcome innovation.” And it can't be just a one-time deal. The greatest incentive organizations can offer is ongoing respect for, and action on, new ideas. Saying, “Great idea! I'll take it to the committee, who will then send it to the Board of Directors, who will then include it in the budget, and we'll get it accomplished sometime next year” just isn't enough.
5. Change the culture: Innovation has to be supported from the top: the Board of Directors needs to commit to change by soliciting new ideas, understanding how to make strategic decisions which will lead the association toward its goal, and by funding and supporting creative solutions.
NAR's Game Changer program is an excellent example of how this idea can work. NAR recognized that changes were needed at the local and state association level. Who better, NAR reasoned, to understand this need than front line staff and leadership? As a result, the “Game Changer” competition was born: “Submit your best ideas,” NAR said, and we'll fund them for you. We'll then make the results available to other Realtor associations to use as they strengthen their capacity.”
That's a cultural shift for NAR. In my 30 years as an AE, I've been the recipient of a lot of Fed Ex parcels from our national association containing posters for nationwide programs like “American Home Week”, family togetherness, and shiny new membership pins. Good efforts, maybe,but all are programs conceived at the top of the leadership pyramid and bundled into packages which arrived unexpectedly in the middle of a morning where local association staff is busy collecting dues or holding a professional standards hearing.
With the Game Changers program, the flow was reversed. “You tell us” was the message. Of course there were lots of associations who were non-participants the first time. “It's just another goofy idea from NAR,” I heard someone say. “I've got too much busy work to do to be dreaming up new stuff.” Now, however, it seems that everywhere I go someone says something like, “Is NAR gonna do this again? We've got a great idea!”
The point here is than culture change takes time, and needs reinforcement and consistent effort.
6. Grow what works: That's the final step of this process. Of course, the corollary is:weed out what doesn't work. ( Sometimes that's more difficult: “You WHAT? You're eliminating million dollar sales awards? But I always get one! How could you eliminate it? I have all these plaques on my wall!!! How will I finish my collection?” )
Of course, not every innovation will work. Creative organizations must be prepared for less than perfect results. However, the ideas do work can be cultivated and enhanced, and shared or sold. One of the final steps of the Game Changer program was to package the completed programs for re-use by others—resulting in a treasure chest of new programs for other associations.
Effective associations need to become better at generating great ideas from within and from beyond their boundaries. The “Capital Ideas” report sets out a series of techniques to generate promising ideas using five themes:
Unleashing the creative talents of association staff and members
Setting up dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation
Diverting a small proportion of association budgets to harnessing innovation
Collaborating with outsiders to help solve problems
Looking at issues from different perspectives to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise
The full Young Foundation report is well worth reading. Association management professionals will find it filled with thoughtful strategies and useful advice.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Association Management Lessons from the Public Sector : Off Stage