Reflections on ASAE 11: The Sexiness of Unsexy Innovation

Exactly one week after ASAE’s annual meeting, the line that’s sticking with me came from the final keynote speaker, Peter Sheahan: “Nine times out of 10, it’s the unsexy stuff where innovation happens.”

That’s the game I’m playing right now.

A few months ago, I was given an additional title: Chief Digital Strategist. No one ever had the title before, so I have the privilege of defining what that means. Right now, I’m focusing on bringing order to chaos, helping everyone prioritize what they need, and securing the resources to get it done.

As the weeks progressed, I noticed something else that was really interesting. I got a sense that our real problem wasn’t time, money or myopia. I realized that we weren’t paying attention to the basics. These included:

  • Clean data about our members
  • Confusing workflows on our website
  • Email address acquisition and maintenance
  • Landing page optimization

I know – how geeky!

But these issues are putting a serious drag on our efforts to grow and improve. How? Well, if our member data isn’t clean, we can forget about meaningful personalization on our website, let alone effective market segmentation. And if the current workflows on our website confuse people, we’re losing money and customers. And if we don’t keep our lists up to date, those emails that we labor over are only half as effective as they could be (or worse).

Don’t get me wrong – we’re definitely working on our future. We’re currently choosing a new content management system for the website, with requirements that will provide an entirely new experience for our members. That’s exciting new stuff. But if we fail to address the basics, we’re digging ourselves into an deeper hole.

Is this work innovative? Probably not in the most common sense of the word. Many organizations figured out this stuff a long time ago. But we are now having conversations across business groups that we’ve never had before. We’re making promises and keeping them. We’re hoping to build confidence and trust in this new approach, one step at a time. If this works, we’ll all be very successful.

And that is very, very sexy.


12 thoughts on “Reflections on ASAE 11: The Sexiness of Unsexy Innovation

  1. Innovation wasn’t ‘sexy’ until it got fetishized by generations of management gurus. What you are doing is squarely within the definition. And those specific changes will pay off significantly and make any future strategic shifts easier to achieve.

    That’s one of my main complaints about innovation, is that it has been built up so much over the years that people get scared of it and figure they aren’t capable. So untrue, anyone can do it in any job.

  2. Frank, love this post because it is honest, true and so on target with where so many associations are right now. One thing I noticed about this year’s event is the push for thinking/programming/strategy so far beyond where we are everyday. Don’t get me wrong, thinking about the future is imperative and baby steps toward tomorrow are important, but let’s face it, the reality is that we have to crawl before we can walk. Thanks for sharing and being so real about the current state of your position and org.

    By the way, your air guitar is uber real too! 🙂 Great seeing you and keep the posts coming.

  3. Great post Frank. I screamed from the hilltops in my innovation session at ASAE that we have made innovation way too complicated. It is simply designing things that meet member needs and as you said… you do that by paying attention to the unsexy basics!

  4. Seems like you are making real progress on addressing one of the answers to the not frequently asked enough question: What’s holding us back from delivering even more value to our members?

    It’s seen as an unsexy question, but we often have real infrastructure or systems challenges that are impeding doing more of what I guess the cool kids now call sexy innovation.

    Kudos to you do digging in and diving deep.

  5. Great insight on where the rubber meets the road sometimes within a company or organization. Repairing some of the structure and buidling the future concepts are the nuts and bolts of what it is going to take. Great closing at ASAE11. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks everyone. I’m very gratified that my comments are resonating in this way. I guess many of us are wrestling with the same issues. More inspiration to stay the course!
    I’ll keep you all posted on what happens as the months progress.

    1. It really is overlooked, Mark. The best argument for focusing on the basics is that the time you invest in the basics is repaid many times over in efficiency, ease of operations and peace of mind later. And not TOO much later, either.

  7. A good, clean database is really priceless. Not only for associations, but for all businesses. Years of keeping dozens of copies of excel spreadsheets have taught us that it’s time to put some money into management and find a good piece of robust and dynamic CRM software that can grow and change with us. Unsexy? Maybe. But critically important. Thanks for keeping the basics fresh in our minds!

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