Monday, September 26, 2011

Innovation and Lone Dogs

I've been wanting to write a post about innovation since I started hearing about ASAE's Innovation Talks. But I have to say--I'm a bit burnt out on innovation. As one of the few association staffer's dedicated solely to social media and community management, I feel like I've been eating, drinking, sleeping and playing "innovation" for three and a half years now. It's definitely cool to be in a position of being able to try new stuff and watching things succeed--or not. Of being able to be in a state of constant learning, and serving as a resource to others looking to go down the same path.

But I have to say my main thought during all this innovation talk is "when does innovative become mainstream?" That is to say, as the person working on the bleeding edge, when does what the people on the edge do become just part of the regular mix? The mix that includes budget and other staff people and stuff non-innovative functions get to take for granted.

Take the job webmaster. Once upon a time, organizations didn't have websites. They didn't have web pages. Each one had discussions and meetings and votes about whether they should set up one of these new-fangled web pages. And one by one they all did. And once they set up the pages they needed someone to oversee them, keep them running, make changes to them, troubleshoot them when things weren't working right....and the position formerly known (or actually still sometimes known) as webmaster was born. As in one webmaster, the sole participant in all things "web." Then as the internet evolved and web pages became more than mere brochures and the workload around their upkeep grew, more web positions evolved. Budgets increased, headcounts increased...suddenly there were web departments. The lonely webmasters had others like them who they could bounce ideas off of, learn from, collaborate with.

What if that evolution had never taken place? Well, actually, in some organizations it hasn't...and there are plenty of horrible looking and non-functional websites out there to attest to that fact. But look at the organizations whose web presences started with one page then grew and became part of the overall fabric of the larger organization. There's a lot more there than one lonely webmaster with permission to set up a web page and that ad infinitum. 

I have to say I sometimes feel like the dog who yearns for another dog to keep me company. And I know from others in my same position--or in positions that are nothing like mine but are in other ways new and different--that they feel the same way. It's one thing for leaders to allow some experimentation and innovation--but there also needs to be a process by which those innovative efforts are routinely evaluated and, if they are proving to be successful, are reclassified from innovative to just regular. Like payroll and member services and meeting planning and publications. Established departments with budgets and more than one staff person (assuming a large enough organization). Because being innovative is about more than just letting innovative projects or initiatives to kick off--it's about making sure to either cut them loose if they prove to be failures or reeling them into the regular mix if they prove to be successful. Because innovation left out on the bleeding edge to fend for itself will, in time, wither and die.

So, bottom line: association leaders, it's great to allow for experimentation and innovation, but please...don't just think it's enough to check off the innovation box; keep your finger on the pulse of your organization's innovative efforts and don't let them stay experiments forever.

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