By Mary Byers, CAE, CSP

According to Forbes contributor Mike Maddock, “In order to make a product or service everything it can be, it needs to be repeatedly soft launched with both internal stakeholders and external customers. This means literally sending the idea—be it a product or a service—into a limited part of the marketplace with the full understanding that it will be modified (perhaps extensively) based on how customers and consumers react.”

But this isn’t how most associations approach innovation. Most I’ve worked with see innovation as a beginning and an end rather than an iterative process. A beginning and an end is more comfortable because we start and finish. We’re able to cross something off the list—and then we move on. It’s less comfortable to be “in process” with a fluctuating launch date (especially when reporting to a board of directors) and uncertainty about what the final product or service will look like.

Maddock’s iterative approach can be summed up in one word: experimentation. And it’s a strategy I’m suggesting for associations, albeit an uncomfortable one.

Certainty is much easier to sell, both internally and externally. But innovation can be anything but certain. Often, it’s a messy, chaotic process. And who likes that?

Though we may not like it, achievers and innovators have found a way to live with the messiness of experimenting. Even more so, they’ve adopted a willingness to experiment as a strategy for moving their associations forward. There’s a lot to be experimenting with these days in the association arena:

  • Hybrid dues models
  • Product pricing and packaging
  • Online learning
  • Face-to-face meeting innovations
  • Video vs. printed communications
  • Governance

Experimenting in the above areas is difficult because there’s so much at stake. But there’s even more at stake for associations that don’t experiment. Declining revenue, decreasing meeting attendance, and falling membership numbers are just the beginning. There’s also loss of influence and long-term sustainability to consider.

There are three things that making experimenting easier for associations:

  1. Do it regularly. A culture of continuous experimentation not only helps determine where you can gain momentum, it becomes an expectation. And when it is an expectation, it’s easier to get your board and staff to support you.
  2. Utilize soft launches. There’s a lot at stake with a big, splashy roll-out. Start with small, quiet experiments. The bigger the project, the more important this is.
  3. Make recalibration a habit. Moddock writes, “We’re only right when the market tells us so….The market will help us see and hear what we can do to be more right (and also help us eliminate all the things our customers—and potential customers—don’t like or don’t want).”

The willingness to experiment is both a habit and a mindset. It’s also a valuable strategy for associations in today’s rapidly changing landscape.

Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, shares additional strategy starters for busy association professionals in her new online learning series titled, Momentum: Strategy Starters for Today’s Association Professional at leadwiselearning.com. She is also the author of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations.

Start the Conversation