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3 key steps to innovation

This guest post is by Sarah Sain, a senior content strategy and development manager with Naylor Association Solutions who works exclusively with allied societies and meeting professional organizations. Email her at or follow her on Twitter.

Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere. New ideas should absolutely be encouraged at all levels of your association, from staff to the board to new members. However, one of the biggest traps with innovation is that most big ideas never become more than just that – ideas.

How does your association take an innovative idea and implement it in a way that leads to successful and sustainable change? There are three key steps:

1. Identify the innovation(s) you want to see happen.

Not all innovation is created equal, and not all ideas can or should be implemented. For innovation to be truly impactful, it has to address a real need within your association. Every association should ask themselves a few questions before taking the initial innovation steps:

  • Will this innovation solve a problem we are facing?
  • Does the solution to our problem already exist?
  • Who will this innovation benefit?
  • Does our association have the resources to support this innovation?
  • How will we know this innovation is a success?

According to a recent “Association Adviser” poll, 57 percent of associations are looking to innovate their membership efforts in 2018. The innovations they need may look different based on their needs, whether it is a total overhaul of their membership model, a revamped professional development program or a volunteer drive.

How will you know what type of innovation your association needs? Start with the five questions above, but then ask five more questions, and then five more ….

2. Get the right people involved.

Appoint one person, who is organized, driven and invested in bringing the idea to fruition, to lead implementing your new idea. While CEO support and involvement is essential, they don’t need to take the lead on each individual project for it to be successful. It may make the most sense for a department or committee head to take the lead. For example, if the idea is to add a new member education program to your association’s overall programming, your director of membership or member education could, and most likely should, be your decision-maker.

Speaking of committees, create a short-term committee or task force focused on implementing your innovation and the immediate aftermath. Having a small group that represents different aspects of your association will enlighten you to how this innovation will affect others and allow you to address questions and concerns earlier on in the process.

Before fully implementing your idea, you’ll need to get buy-in from staff, members and all other stakeholders. Understand that you could face some resistance; after all, change can be difficult for people. This is where your committee can step in to reinforce how this innovation will bring positive change to the association and your membership into the future. Create a plan for how you will share this new idea you’ve implemented. Build buzz and excitement, and be clear how your innovation will benefit everyone.

3. Test, evaluate and analyze every step of the way.

The final step is to monitor the progress of your innovation throughout its development and for a period of time after implementation. Set the bar for what success looks like early on using measurable standards that you can re-evaluate in the short and long term. Start testing on a small scale and increase the size of your test groups as you get closer to implementation. Use the data you collect to continually build on and improve your original idea as you go throughout the innovation process.

Survey members after they’ve had a chance to use the innovation in their daily lives. Get members’ feedback on the success they’re experiencing through multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Between the data coming in and real-world stories from your members, you’ll get a complete picture of how your innovation is truly impacting your membership value.

Lastly, if you’ve tested, evaluated and analyzed results and surveys during and after implementation and you’re not meeting the bare minimum of what you’ve determined is a successful outcome, you have to be willing to walk away. This can be difficult, especially for those leading the charge, but innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t move your association forward.

Don’t be afraid to fail when it comes to innovation. Instead, take the lessons learned and focus your time and energy on other improvements or innovations in your pipeline.

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