Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can Associations Successfully Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation?

Weeding through my email this morning I happened to notice a familiar name in one of the dozens of listserv digests that I routinely delete each morning. The NTEN digest featured a post by Allyson Kapin on "Tips to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation." Allyson Kapin is super smart and "culture of collaboration and innovation" is something that is at the top of my mind recently as a result of ASAE's Innovation Talks day, which has stretched into Innovation Talks months in my world. I've been super busy over the past few months, preparing for my association's annual meeting and launching a new online community and, to be honest, am pretty burnt out on basically everything. I was glad to read her post and feel the old "yes!" feeling--she makes some really good points, and also sheds some light on why associations, in my opinion, are pretty much hard-wired to not succeed at collaboration and innovation.

Oh yeah--in my excitement I'm forgetting to actually share the link to her post: here. Go read it then come back to discuss.

Or if you don't feel like reading the full post now, here's a summary of her main points, and why I feel that associations on the whole fail when it comes to collaboration and innovation:
  • Trust Your Staff. Allyson points out that one of the best ways to create a more collaborative environment is to stop relying on consultants so much and start listening more to your own team. She's totally right. But unfortunately, most associations are built on a model of relying heavily on consultants, especially when it comes to implementing new ideas. While that's great for association consultants, it's not great if you're a smart association staff person. Want to foster a culture of employees who are enthusiastic about coming to work, willing to do their jobs plus the extra work involved in trying new, innovative things? Don't farm out the cool new stuff to consultants.
  • Don't Shut People Down. Allyson talks about brainstorming and letting everyone having a voice in those conversations. At most associations, the only people who have a seat at any brainstorming table are the senior staff. Think about it--when your association is doing strategic planning or pretty much any strategizing, who's at that table? If everyone on staff does not have a voice in that process, you're missing out, and your association will never be truly collaborative or innovative because some of the best, freshest voices will never get a chance to be heard.
  • Host Weekly Interdepartmental Meetings. Allyson points out that, in a culture of collaboration and innovation, teams must be integrated, meaning that people in fundraising, advocacy, marketing, PR, Programs, and Tech should be working together to develop campaigns that are integrated across multiple channels. Is that how your association works, or does each department work in its own silo and want to claim ownership/credit for its own ideas? There is no room for silos in collaboration or innovation. Are you regularly interacting with other teams and working together towards common goals? If you work and meet in a bunch of silos, you're not.
  • Seize Opportunities. Allyson points out that it's important to seize opportunities when they arise, particularly when it comes to leveraging current events that relate to the issues your organization works on. She warns not to get stuck in rigid processes and long approval chains. Sadly, associations are pretty much synonymous with rigid processes and long approval chains. Innovation is not possible in an environment dictated by processes, hierarchy, and approval chains.
  • Share Successes With The Community. Allyson highlights the importance of sharing successes and failures with the whole staff so everyone can learn from--and be part of--the process. How is information shared at your association? Is the whole staff in the loop on what's going on, or does the senior team meet weekly to keep a pulse on what's going on while the rest of the staff do their jobs in a black hole of not being privy to the big picture and key successes and/or failures? If it's the latter, innovation can never happen because the people doing the work are kept out in the dark with regard to the big picture and key events/dynamics that are the building blocks of innovation.
  • Commit to Culture Change and Failing Fast. I'm just going to quote Allyson directly because this one is key:
"While creating a culture of collaboration and innovation within a very traditional and rigid organizational structure can be challenging it can definitely be achieved. But, make no mistake it requires a major culture change within the entire organization that must be led from the top. Senior management must focus on breaking down the silos in the organization to have more of an open culture and leadership."
Is your association's senior team on board with breaking down the organization's very structure and starting from scratch? And embracing a culture of open-ness? How about involving the whole staff in the process? And failure--how is your organization set up to handle failure? Are there processes in place to recognize when past successes are no longer successes? And/or to measure new successes and failures?

So am I being overly pessamistic or, based on these key points, does it seem to you associations on the whole are pretty much doomed to NOT do any of these things and, therefore, not be able to create a culture of collaboration and innovation?

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