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Outsourcing innovation…

Last week, I attended a conference of trade association executives that focused on how “digital transformation” is fundamentally changing the way we provide services – advocacy, education, information – to our members. The crowd was composed of a mix of trade group leaders and included the head of corporate trade associations (like the Alliance) and professional societies (such as health care professionals, attorneys and actuaries). But the challenges we faced were eerily similar: flat or declining dues revenue; increasing advocacy and overhead expenses; and wildly diverse memberships that rely on their associations to help them deal with more complex business problems and regulatory issues than they’ve ever faced before.

It was fascinating – and frightening.

I came away from the conference with pages of notes on ideas that may be worth trying. I haven’t shared them with my staff yet, and I’m quite certain that some of these concepts will provoke eye rolls, while others will spark excitement. It’s almost impossible to distinguish genius from folly when an idea is conceived. So, we’re going to try out a few of these and not be afraid of the folly as we search for the genius.

One factoid that really hit home with me was this statistic from a recent survey of corporate CEOs:

  • 66% of CEOs think the next three years will be more important to the future of their business than the previous 50 years.
  • 65% of CEOs believe that they will use “disruptive technology” to transform the way they do business.
  • 65% say they will form alliances with non-traditional partners, including competitors, in the next three years.

Wow… I’m wondering what the results of a similar survey of fraternal CEOs would say? I’ve heard many Alliance member leaders acknowledge all of these issues. But I’ve also heard that the obstacles they face – over-conservative governance; absence of younger, innovative management; lack of capital – may make it impossible for them to tackle these challenges.

Shortly after the conference ended, I received a copy of an article by Mike Maddock, the CEO of Maddock-Douglas, a branding and marketing firm with whom the Alliance is working. The headline: “How to Outsource Your Crazy.”

I thought the piece was terrific, especially when I realized that those obstacles to innovation aren’t limited to the fraternal sector. Check out these three nuggets:

“We are afraid here. We are super conservative and have a ‘can’t-do’ culture. People are terrified of taking risks. It’s built into our DNA. Big ideas flip people out. That has squelched creativity. Even our ad agency said we are cowards.”

— Head of innovation, Fortune 100 financial services firm

“No one ever gets fired for playing it safe, but many have been fired for taking risks. We are incented to not take risks.”

— Innovation manager, construction products company

“We’re focused on short-term results and have been limited to looking in spaces that we’re currently in. We recruit MBAs, which is a narrow subset of the population that is innately risk averse. We’re not getting the scrappiness and creativity.”

— Director of innovation, consumer packaged goods company

Sound familiar?

How are you handling innovation in your society? Are you doing it with an in-house group of risk-averse folks who’ve been there for years? Or are you outsourcing your crazy?

Read Mike’s article and share your thoughts with the fraternal community by posting a comment here or sending me a private email at jannotti@fraternalalliance.org.


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