The Innovation Continuum

The reason membership organizations must focus on innovation is grounded in the fact that every business is now in the knowledge business. What was once a differentiating value proposition—that member organizations bring together professionals in a particular discipline for networking and education, in other words knowledge activities—is being disrupted. All kinds of enterprises provide the types of products and services that once, only associations provided. Disruption in our ecosystem drives our need to innovate, in order to continue to bring unique value to our members.

The innovation continuum describes the spectrum from incremental to truly transformative innovations. At one end is incremental improvement—small innovations that simply take an existing process, product or service and increase its effectiveness, quality or value. Incremental improvement occurs when you take something that you’re already doing and do it a little better. At the other end of the continuum is total transformation—radical, overarching change that impacts the whole system. The two ends of the innovation continuum are very different in nature; it is important to understand the unique properties of each.

Incremental improvement is by its nature fairly pleasant and easy to accomplish. It usually requires relatively little risk for what can be substantial return. Incremental improvement is about tweaking something. It may involve adding or subtracting from existing models; in fact, one of the most effective ways that I’ve seen incremental improvement work is where people ask, “Where is the highest value and mission alignment in what we’re doing and what can we stop doing, in order to focus on that?”

Incremental improvement can be implemented with modest effort. Often one or two people can initiate and carry it out. Suppose that you are calling members with a short satisfaction survey. You quickly realize you are spending the first 20 minutes of each conversation on small talk and the last 10 minutes on the satisfaction questions. If you decided to invert that, spending 10 minutes on small talk and 20 minutes on satisfaction, you would have an incremental improvement in quality. And if you then discovered you could have a 15-minute conversation with 5 minutes of small talk and 10 minutes on satisfaction, you would add an incremental improvement in effectiveness.

Incremental improvement can also be spread over a large group, such as staff within an organization, or volunteer leaders, or a group of members at a conference. I belong to an association of men who have an annual retreat. After 20 years of going to the same retreat center, we just a found a new location. Now we are having an email conversation exploring all of the pros and cons of moving to this new location. That would be an example of incremental improvement initiated by a large group.

Incremental improvement is generally easy to measure, if you know what it is intended to improve. Are you improving customer satisfaction? Task efficiency? Revenue streams? Production costs? Once you are clear on the dimension you’re trying to improve, it’s generally very easy to get a sense of whether the incremental change is achieving results. Also, with incremental improvement, the measurement is often visible in the short term. Soon after you make a change you are able to see its impact.

At the other end of the continuum is total transformation. This involves radical change that alters the very essence of your operation. In contrast to incremental improvement, it is a very powerful kind of change and not to be undertaken lightly. The risk is high, so expertise is required. Transformational innovation requires due diligence.

Examples of transformation could be overhauling your association’s governance, to transform a slow process into something so nimble it can react in real-time to market changes. Or changing the rules of board service so that you can attract industry partners or young people to lead without going through extensive progression. Or maybe you transform your communication channels so that you rely on technology instead of representatives as your primary messengers.

Total transformation requires a significant effort. It often impacts the whole system. Take that change in governance I described—it will impact membership recruitment, the annual conference, the group’s advocacy agenda. That pervasive change effect is one of the reasons why transformation has to be done thoughtfully, and should involve experts. One or two people, or even a group of peers, are not likely to successfully plan for and execute transformative innovation.

By its nature total transformation is complex to design, which implies significant effort and cost. You might be able to sit down with colleagues and generate ideas worth exploring, but as you delve into it you will discover that multiple aspects of the organization are affected, each with its own stakeholders and perspectives. In my governance example, the board is not the only component affected; the change impacts the staff, any members who are planning to become volunteer leaders, outside experts who participate, and even policy makers. You will likely need to bring in outside expertise; people who understand the different areas that are impacted, and who can provide needed insights.

Unlike incremental improvement, transformation is challenging to measure because no baseline for performance exists. The indicators used in the old model no longer apply. It will take time to establish a new baseline. Like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, it is illogical to measure the new incarnation against the previous state. Not only is transformation difficult to measure; in a whole system approach, the results may not be deeply felt for a significant time.

The only aspect that unites incremental improvement and transformation on a continuum is that action anywhere along the continuum represents innovation—a change from yesterday’s status quo. If your organization is pursuing innovation, and especially if you seek a total transformation, there is once essence that must not change: your mission. Otherwise, your organization’s reason for existence will be called into question (as it should). As you weigh the cost-benefit analysis of innovation, whether incremental improvement or transformation as I’ve described, hold your proposed innovation to the test of your mission. Is this new way of doing things going to substantially assist your ability to deliver on your mission?