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Future-Proof Your Association By Innovating Small

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Earlier this week, ASAE leaders convened in Atlanta for a leadership retreat focused on anticipating and managing change. On Tuesday, futurist and speaker Scott Steinberg delivered a keynote to get attendees thinking about the types of change associations face and how they can better recognize and harness the power inherent in its inevitable march forward. Steinberg, the author of Leading with Change: How to Future Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed in the New Normal elaborated on what keeping up with innovation looks like in an age where change is constant.

Scott Steinberg

Scott Steinberg

His main message? First, change can be simple and small. Business media emphasizes thinking big, but if you look to industry leaders, their success is often based in thinking small and approaching day-to-day operations with an eye for tiny, tactical adjustments. These adjustments have the power to make a massive impact on the bottom line, whether that bottom line involves financial, membership, quantitative or qualitative outcomes.

Some change involves going in the opposite direction of big. A few years ago, Target started opening stores in densely populated areas that measured only about half the size of their normal “big box” stores found in suburban areas. Dubbed “City Target” or “Target Express,” these smaller stores carry a representative fraction of Target’s inventory in most departments (and often don’t include some departments, like Garden & Outdoor) and offer services like roving checkout, meaning every salesperson in the store is armed with a scanner that can ring up a customer’s items on the spot without waiting in a checkout line.

Target originally planned these compact stores just for fast-paced cities to continue expanding their market share among busy urbanites, but the concept of a pared-down store that caters to local needs and goes the extra mile in customer service went over so well that the company planned more flexible-format stores in places that are big, small and every size between. They also dropped the “city” and “express” qualifier from that store format altogether.

By going smaller, Target realized big changes in customer satisfaction, market reach and revenue. How could your association create a small experience for members that resonates big?

Another way to make a small change with large impact is to consider a slight shift in the presentation of offerings. Steinberg pointed to Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino as a popular manifestation of this idea. This colorful drink was made from ingredients already in Starbucks’ repertoire – no change in their supply chain was needed. Baristas simply received a little additional training, the marketing team capitalized on one of pop culture’s current trends, and suddenly flocks of people – Starbucks regulars and those who pride themselves on not paying $4 for a cup of coffee – were lining up to try this oddity.

A slight shift in presentation can change the outlook for success.

Steinberg’s second message was that being successful at managing change entails a willingness to make simple but powerful shifts in strategy and thinking. That includes thinking about what strategy itself consists of. Leading consulting firms are studying innovation more because they realize that innovation plays as large a role as strategy in vaulting clients to the top of their verticals. If a process, event, model or tradition isn’t broken, it’s not always necessary to introduce a new strategy. In other words, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

However, leaders who refuse to innovate, even slightly, risk being left behind over time. They should choose new strategies that involve small risks, as well as larger leaps of faith to keep their organizations moving forward. Leading companies like Apple and FedEx are constantly innovating within their category, and they have dedicated teams (not just one or two people – 30-plus person teams) whose sole jobs are to constantly find new solutions that use resources more wisely, cost-effectively and make life in general easier.

Because sustainable innovation is not about having more resources, said Steinberg, it’s about being more resourceful and recognizing that innovative ideas can come from any person at any level of your organization. Sustainable innovation is the reason why huge, global companies like MasterCard incubate small startups within the company, run idea competitions among employees, host innovation labs and partner with outside companies. All of these practices give employees the margin to experiment and find new solutions that keep MasterCard relevant to customers’ daily financial lives. Create a framework for innovation that focuses less on legalities and more on removing obstacles and letting talent shine through. Doing so will help your association better tap into what Scott calls the “social chemistry” of your people.

There is a chance that your organization will try something new that fails, but failure is part of the innovation process and, done right, is a small price to pay when you look at it as a tool that helps you move closer to success down the road. Poker players know this strategy of selective aggression well, said Steinberg: Seasoned poker players make small bets upon starting a game to gauge which strategies are working at their table, what moves earn them a big reaction (or not), and how the table’s odds are working. When they find a betting strategy that works in their favor, they go all in.

Anyone who holds personal investments will also recognize this process of taking small risks to discover big windfalls. Smart investors diversify their holdings and try new investments, which are really just bets on businesses and business plans, until they find an investment that returns big dividends. Then they pounce on that opportunity and make it work for their assets.

Steinberg closed out his keynote by emphasizing that making change work for your organization doesn’t mean you and your colleagues must be geniuses. But you should think ingeniously, and listen to your volunteers, your members and your employees. Other tactics for innovating:

  • Listen to partners’ voices
  • Get ideas from partners/leaders at every level
  • Be hungry for change
  • Innovate beyond customer imagination
  • Be globally integrated
  • Be disruptive by nature
  • Be genuine, not just generous

What tactics would you add to this list? What processes does your association have in place to nurture innovation?

About The Author

Kelly Clark is the manager for online marketing at Naylor Association Solutions.

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