The concept of innovation often brings to mind visionary leaders or companies whose creativity and experimentation may seem out of reach. But associations can fuel innovation in their field by bringing together creative thinkers among their staff and members.
Recently, I analyzed the most transformative innovations of the last three decades—the big projects that significantly changed society, such as the internet, email, MRI scans, and DNA sequencing. I found, contrary to common belief, that innovations like these were not developed by entrepreneurs but rather employees, and they weren’t started by individual companies, but rather an industry.
Take wind energy, for example. Amid the 1973 oil crisis, a Danish carpenter named Christian Riisager grew interested in developing a large windmill that could generate enough power to be commercially viable. He designed one that could produce 22 to 55 kilowatts of power. He built and sold a few of these, but he never launched a company to refine his design so it could be mass-produced.
Instead, a group of innovators from Tvind, a Danish school, collaborated to build the world's largest electricity-producing wind turbine based on Riisager’s original design. Their work was backed by other technology firms, including Vestas, Nordtank, Bonus, and, later, Siemens.
This kind of industry-wide community development is common in medical innovation (examples include magnetic resonance imaging, antiretroviral treatment for AIDS, and stents) and in many other technological innovations like email, media file compression, and open-source software. Innovation more often comes from the collaboration of corporate and institutional employees than from small teams of mavericks.
This presents an enticing opportunity for associations and their leaders to be the catalyst of innovation for their industries. Who else has the power to inspire and coordinate the kind of activity across a sector, in pursuit of a common goal, that can lead to humankind’s most important innovations?
Innovation more often comes from the collaboration of corporate and institutional employees than from small teams of mavericks.
Steps in the Journey
No matter where they happen, innovation journeys have characteristics in common, including seven steps from the conception of an idea to its realization. If you understand them and put in place the right kind of influence to move the process forward, you can unlock a new era of positive change.
Step 1: Intent. The journey begins by activating intent in leaders and employees who have demonstrated an innovative spirit in your industry or field. To do this, try using a carrot-and-stick approach: Lay out a compelling vision for the future (“land a man on the moon”) while simultaneously creating a case for change (“the Soviet Union may beat us to the moon”).
Step 2: Needs. Once you have activated intent, the next challenge is to identify the needs and critical stakeholders of the innovation project. Ask: What compelling need or needs will rally your industry into action? Creating a broad, industry-wide vision for change can help guide partners in a common direction.
Step 3: Options. Encourage people to explore numerous options for meeting the need you’ve identified. An initial innovation may spur others. Indeed, research shows that when an industry experiences a surge in influential patents (patents that are then built upon by other patents), they initiate a period of increased productivity. There are many routes to innovation. This is the time to explore different approaches to meeting your defined need.
Step 4: Value blockers. Every innovation will create secondary innovation challenges as the industry adopts the new approach. These “value blockers” can impede an innovation’s ability to realize its full value. Some people will use these as excuses—reasons to give up trying. But if you can reframe them instead as additional problems to solve, you can motivate people to persevere. Be alert for any value blockers to innovation in your industry and look for ways to reframe them as new challenges to solve.
Step 5: Actions. Most industry-wide innovations were not born out of careful or rigorous analysis but rather from bold thinking and action—specifically, small, inexpensive tests. The software industry was the first to take this practice of experimentation seriously, introducing an approach to product development that we now call “lean” or “agile.” This approach has expanded and taken hold across numerous sectors, from manufacturing to financial services, and it’s a key factor in teams that drive innovation. Consider what your association can do to encourage agility and experimentation in your industry.
Step 6: Team. Thirty years ago, innovations were developed primarily through large, formal research and development teams. But as the pace of change accelerates across nearly every sector, such large-group innovation is struggling to keep up. Instead, we see innovation work transitioning to small cross-functional teams that can more quickly test and develop an idea. In pharmaceuticals, for example, a team composed of drug manufacturers, payors, distributors, and pharmacies have rallied around creating a blockchain-based system that can better ensure drug safety.
Step 7: Environment. Keep in mind that all of these steps can take place only in an industry environment that encourages innovation. My study points to four levers your industry can pull to liberate innovators:
- Leadership: Do leaders in your industry prioritize innovation?
- Talent: Does your industry attract would-be innovators?
- Structure: Do your industry’s structures provide innovation resources and create a willingness to take risks?
- Culture: Do the cultural norms in your industry encourage innovativeness, risk-taking, proactivity, and customer-centricity?
Follow these seven steps and your association can engineer a new era of innovation in your industry that creates new jobs, energy, and value.