We feel lots of tension knowing that something has to change but not knowing exactly what to do. We outline a few possible scenarios but each is nearly impossible or has potentially terrible outcomes. The changes needed seem too big and too risky so we wait. The tension continues.
When we are tired of the tension it may help to borrow the playbook from an innovative company. IDEO, the innovation experts, have a process that makes for a good example because it not only works but also because it has been extensively shared so we know the method behind the magic. Each and every project goes through the same series of steps no matter if they are developing a product, tackling a service or user experience or even solving a big social problem (like bringing clean water to very poor rural areas around the world) and it can work for associations too.
Find the problem
Many agencies assume they know what the solution is before they even win the work. Not IDEO. They spend a lot of time getting to know the end user. They interview them and observe them. They ask lots of clarifying questions. When they have this mishmash of qualitative data they sort through it and define the most pressing problems the end users have.
For now this outside-in approach only cares about the end user or in our case our members. What are our members’ most pressing problems? When they think of the future what are they most worried about? What bugs them today? What is slow, inefficient or inaccurate? Conversations, interviews and observation are the best ways to answer these critical questions then look through the data for patterns; that’s where members’ problems reveal themselves.
When the IDEO folks have defined the user problem(s) and they start to brainstorm. We’ve all heard the brainstorm rules but IDEO staff really embraces them. No idea is a bad idea because some of the silliest ideas spark a really great idea. They are unencumbered by their client’s needs (for now) so they brainstorm with abandon trying on, talking through and celebrating each other’s creativity.
The same goes for associations: now we understand our members’ biggest problems. Without regard for the feasibility, start to brainstorm solutions and at this stage try not to constrain thinking by layering on the association’s needs. Go for quantity and diversity. If a first round brainstorm doesn’t yield interesting enough results try switching up the participants and try again. Sometimes participants from outside the association come up with the most creative ideas.
Prototype & Test
Mountains of ideas are no good until we figure out what actually solves the member’s problem. At IDEO they are exceptionally good at rapidly prototyping. They know it is hard to know what will work or even accurately conceptionalize an idea until they physically see it. Prototypes are made as quickly and cheaply as possible sometimes with paper clips, roller balls from deodorant or paper towel tubes; anything to get the idea across.
Many association offerings are not physical products but prototyping can be done. Wire frames can be created for websites and apps. Outlines for reports and publications. Or small innovative events within bigger events. Quickly, cheaply get the best ideas in front of staff and a select small group of members and test them. Can this solve their problem?
Sometimes we get hung up on not knowing how to serve our members. Sometimes we get stopped because we have just a few options and each of them is bad. We can move the association around all of these barriers by following IDEO’s innovation process and adapting it for our association’s unique needs.