I’m currently serving on the ASAE Innovation Task Force. As a result, creativity, innovation, and invention are an even greater part of my reading efforts and conversations than usual. And what I am discovering from listening to others is that people deeply believe one of the reasons we are not more innovative in associations is that we fear failure, particularly our volunteer leaders.
At face value this makes some sense. Associations are process-oriented organizations, and striving for consensus can (but doesn’t have to) lead to a result that excites few, but offends no one. Volunteer leaders are temporary stewards of a project (committee chair) or the organization (board member) and don’t want to be the ones who really screwed things up on their watch, so they may tend to be more conservative in their decision-making.
But I don’t recall a meeting where we made a decision that we would try something, but only a 100% perfect outcome would be considered success. “The motion to endorse the new annual meeting format passes with the understanding that if even one member raises one concern, the event will be a failure and we will revert immediately to what we were doing before, apologize profusely to the membership, and never make such a decision again.”
Yet somehow it seems there is an undercurrent (who knows how pervasive) that falling short = failure. Not perfect = failure. Mistakes = failure. Not going as planned = failure.
And we have to immediately stop that because such a belief immediately stops us … from experimenting. And if we can’t “try a lot of stuff to see what works” as advised by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last, our future progress is indeed limited. Innovation is typically not a pass-fail course. A lot of possible grades come between A+ and an F.
And even when a product is released widely, it can still be done in varying tiers of completeness/functionality as evidenced by Google and its rollout of the Chrome browser. Here's how Business Week described it in January of this year:
"Chrome has three levels of participation once a product is deemed ready to be released beyond the company’s own engineering base: Dev; Beta and Stable. 'Dev' is open to the developer community at large, allowing feedback and commentary from a sophisticated user group. The Beta channel has what Chrome’s Director of Product Management, Brian Rakowski, describes as 'reasonable stability' while the Stable channel, the one that just got upgraded, is intended for 'the majority of people who just want it to work.' According to Rakowski, this maps out at roughly 1%: 10%: 89% ratio of users."Yoda had it wrong. When it comes to innovation there is only try. Try often. Listen. Revise. Try again. As Collins notes in Good to Great: "Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline."
We need to choose to be great and to then engage in the disciplined experimentation that moves us toward that destination, incrementally and exponentially. To believe we must do something and have it go exactly as planned is to ensure little in the way of innovation will be done. And that is an error for which we will be found guilty at trial.