Innovation for Association Executives

I’m thinking about innovation in the context of managing associations and non-profit enterprises. Innovation is a corporate buzz word, but it’s also a fundamental element in any successful and growing organization.WideLens

This summer I discovered a book about innovation strategy for corporate product launches and I can’t stop thinking about applying these concepts to associations. The concept involved is using a “wide lens” when preparing a product or service innovation.

The book is The Wide Lens, by Ron Adner. Adner teaches strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His Harvard Business Review article, “Match Your Innovation Strategy to Your Innovation Ecosystem” is assigned reading in over fifty global MBA programs.

Innovation, Adner says, is a “problem for everyone because it is held up as the solution for everything.” But despite the excitement, Adner says that successful innovation remains the exception rather than the rule.

I saw this book on a friend’s home office desk this summer in Connecticut.  My friend works in corporate strategy for a major telecommunications company.  His team thinks about the future and helps their senior managers chart the company’s course.

The Wide Lens is about the difference between great innovations that succeed and great innovations that fail. Adner’s point is that it’s not just about whether or not the innovation is a good idea, because “no matter your situation, your success depends not just on your own efforts but also on the ability, willingness, and likelihood that the partners that make up your innovation ecosystem succeed as well.”

He focuses on innovative products that failed to launch. Examples include a Michelin tire that never went flat, Sony’s first electronic reader, and Pfizer’s inhalable insulin. Each of these failed in spite of massive investments and strong consumer desire for these innovative products.

The experts on innovation fall into two schools of thought in explaining the sources of failure and the path to success:

“The first school argues that most innovation failures are rooted in a shortfall in customer insight. Introducing a genuinely new product or service is not enough; if customers don’t see the innovation as uniquely valuable, or are unwilling to pay the required price, then the innovation will not succeed…The second school argues that failure is rooted in shortcomings of leadership and implementation. They claim that the key to success lies in building better capabilities for execution and implementation that will enable us to deliver on our promises and beat the competition.”

In the association world the most common barriers to innovation fall in the second category. Delivering a new idea in the association ecosystem is challenging because of the diversity and power of so many stakeholders. Corporations have shareholders, but these people normally rely on management to continuously innovate to remain profitable. Associations have stakeholders who care passionately about their industry or profession and they take greater responsibility for managing the association and deciding which innovations are worth pursuing.

Innovation in the association world is underappreciated. Given the competitive forces most associations face, every association executive should have a list of innovations in the pipeline.

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