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  • DEC 08, 2019

    Business Innovation and Professional Associations


    Professional associations are facing an existential crisis. The uncertainty of their environment stems from the “relevance gap” that yawns between traditional association offerings and the new realities of modern professional life. As a result, member affinity is eroded and, with it, the traditional economic pillars of associations—meetings, member dues, journal subscriptions, and industry support—are imperiled.

    The “relevance gap” is a challenge that confronts all mature enterprises. As McDonald’s former CEO, Don Thompson, once observed, the company had failed to “evolve at the same rate as our customers’ expectations.” The same can be said for many professional associations.

    Three essential actions are required to re-energize a mature organization. The first is recognizing the need for change and creating a shared sense of urgency throughout the organization. The second is creating the conditions that nurture a resilient, risk tolerant culture. The third is creating organizational structures that buttress and sustain entrepreneurship. This essay addresses these challenges and offers some suggestions for creating an environment that will foster a high performing professional association.

    Recognizing the Problem

    Professional associations place great stock in their proud legacies. They see themselves as the custodians of traditions and organizational structures that provide continuity between generations of members. However, a problem arises when the deliberate and consensus-driven rhythms of an association are out of synch with the rapidly changing realities of its members. The modern workplace, especially in healthcare, is evolving rapidly and, at times, chaotically. Yesterday’s infrastructure is often incapable of responding effectively to today’s new challenges. Furthermore, market forces are indifferent to organizational traditions.

    To meaningfully respond to these new realities, associations need new mindsets coupled with new organizational approaches. They must strike the necessary and often difficult balance between the best of their traditions and the need for nimble innovation and renewal. Innovation must be nurtured within every functional unit of the organization. It must become a goal in the annual performance review, show up as a line item in the budget, receive explicit investment, and be a prominent component of ongoing training. In short, innovation must be explicitly “baked into” the traditional structures of the organization as well as each team member’s personal goals.

    Resilient Cultures

    For an innovation agenda to reach its full potential, it must permeate the entire organization. When the whole organization is aligned, new ideas begin to emerge. When a safe space for new ideas is created, the results are often astounding. I’m willing to bet that there isn’t one member of your team that doesn’t have a business innovation that they’d like to contribute. As the author Steven Johnson once said, “…innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

    In order to tap into this latent creativity, try issuing an organization-wide “Innovation Challenge.” Set aside a small innovation fund, ask team members to submit new business or programmatic ideas that meet the new needs of members, and offer bonuses (and recognition) for the top ideas. Some of these will be worthy of formal business plans and implementation and some will not. That’s OK: innovation is a muscle that strengthens the more it’s exercised.

    Consider creating a cross-divisional team of “Innovation Ambassadors.” Give this team dedicated time and a mandate to explore new opportunities. Consider partnering with local tech incubators. Invite local start-ups to speak to your teams and share their entrepreneurial mind-set. Celebrate these innovators and use their example to inspire others.

    Senior managers know that innovation is inherently unsettling. It presupposes change, it raises expectations, it asks staff to take risks, and requires moving beyond well-established workflow and revenue streams. Leaders must anticipate these reactions with empathy and understanding. Managers will need to help the staff navigate these changes. Mentorship, coaching, and access to professional development will be critical to the success of any change initiative.

    In today’s rapidly changing environment, successful professional associations are being challenged to recognize the need for responsive change and embrace a culture of innovation. There is no one formula or fixed roadmap for this journey. It’s a process of recognizing the need to create new traditions, empowering staff, embracing risk, and creating an environment where people and ideas can connect.