Monday, September 7, 2009

Leave Room For Eleven

"These go to eleven."  Nigel Tufnel

The Short of It
  • In all sectors, public or private, innovation is the name of the game
  • We are all pushing the envelope and paying a heavy price to do it
  • We know all the way up to "10" is execution, innovation lives at "11"
  • The problem is, when we get to "11" we turn it into the new "10"
  • Nigel was right, sometimes we need to keep it at "10" and leave room for "11"
The Long of It

I love the scene from "This is Spinal Tap" where Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) is showing his guitar collection and equipment to the documentarian Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner).  When Nigel describes his amplifiers, he proudly makes the point that his amps go to 11, which is "one louder" than other blokes get to use.  11 gives him an extra edge.  When DiBergi stops and asks, "Why not just make 10 louder?" Nigel's brain seems to freeze, he stops for a moment and then repeats, "These go to 11."

Did you ever think that maybe Nigel was onto something?

I am, like everyone, riding the tides of innovation in the association community.  Quite frankly, associations aren't too bad at identifying innovative practices.  There are lots of creative solutions being proposed at different levels within our organizations at any given moment.  What associations continue to struggle with is the successful tactical implementation of innovative ideas.

The reason is we keep, in Marty DiBergi fashion, redefining "10."

I agree with Nigel that 10 is flat out, all the way up, rock and roll at it's finest.  Type A association executives, staff and consultants alike are living loud at 10.  The trouble is, 10 leaves no room for the germination and tactical implementation of innovative thinking.  We need to leave a little extra space to get over that hump, to get to 11.  We need to maintain a little room at the top to go the extra mile, implement something dynamic or simply have a great time and drown out the neighbors.

Unfortunately, over the past 20 years in association management what used to be "extra effort" is now assumed.  What used to be one job description is now two.  What used to be one failing program is now one-failing-program-which-we-work-twice-as-hard-at-to-try-and-make-successful-although-we-all-know-it-is-sucking-the-life-money-and-will-to-live-out-of-us-plus-one-new-program-that-is-under-resourced-and-to-which-we-throw-perpetually-half-assed-effort-at-because-of-our-refusal-to-cancel-the-failing-program-because-the-members-may-be a) upset, b) confused, c) unsupportive or d)______________(fill in the blank, you know how this chorus goes people!)

What is the implication there?  To continue programming the members won't support due to the fear that they will support something new even less?  (Insert forehead slap here.)  How does that thinking pattern lend itself to your survival in this, or any other, business environment?

Successful innovation is continually hampered by association leaders who stop at "great new idea" and do not take the extra step of determining what must be adapted or jettisoned in order to successfully implement it.  In a typical scenario the innovative idea is simply layered on top of what is already being done.  It takes little courage to implement a new idea "over" the old, it takes great courage to implement a new idea "in place of."

I am tired of watching associations congratulate themselves for their innovative practices when, in fact, they are simply layering more strategic objectives and tactics over an existing framework and creating an unsustainable workload for both their volunteer leadership and their staff members.

Your job as an executive is to (in best Jim Collins fashion) work with your board and keep your association pumping at 10, while eliminating enough things to give you room to shoot for 11.  If you don't, you will continue to see your most innovative programs stagnate while your overall capacity is diminished.

You want to helm an organization that can confidently look at its staff, volunteer leadership and strategic objectives and say with a self-satisfied smirk, "These go to 11."


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