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How taking small risks can drive innovation within your association

Heather Nolan
September 3, 2020
How taking small risks can drive innovation within your association

In 1924, six cardiologists gathered to form the American Heart Association. Since then, the organization has grown into a force to be reckoned with, on an ambitious mission to eliminate cardiovascular diseases. 

Associations like the American Heart Associations have built-in strengths in the form of history and tradition. But left unchecked, these strengths can stifle innovation. When an association grows accustomed to doing things a certain way, it gets harder and harder to try new strategies.

If you’re wondering whether this applies to your association, pause and look for warning signs, such as:

  • Membership that has declined or plateaued
  • Stagnant revenue that isn’t diversified
  • High employee turnover 

If any of those found familiar, it’s time to re-evaluate your association’s culture of risk-taking. 

Associations that adapt to modern challenges have a culture that doesn’t shy away from experimentation. They know the secret to smart risk-taking isn’t to overhaul everything overnight. Instead, it’s to consistently embrace small risks that add up to big results. 

Here are three easy ways to incorporate risk-taking into your association’s culture:

Support employees’ well-being

If your workforce is consistently stretched thin and stressed out, it’s unlikely your organization will be in a position to innovate. Focusing on your employees’ well-being can help you address your association’s overall attitude toward risk-taking. 

FullContact, a Denver-based software company, took a big risk by radically changing its vacation policy. Employees could take three weeks of paid vacation, and they could earn $7,500 if they committed to fully unplugging from work.

It was a major culture shift that came with some risks — but also brought significant rewards. Employees who took advantage of the incentive were able to travel the world and return with new ideas and perspectives to share. 

Employees who are happy, healthy, and well-rested are more likely to bring experimental, creative ideas to the table. 

Encourage employees to think outside the box

Your association’s leadership will play an important role in fostering a culture that tolerates more risks. Most organizations have plenty of employees who are observant, creative thinkers. But these employees won’t speak up if their managers are overly critical or negative when presented with new ideas. 

Organizing a weekly brainstorm can take some pressure off employees and encourage them to share new ideas. For example, managers could take turns hosting a Friday afternoon brainstorming session around pre-determined themes. 

You could even take this a step further and organize an internal innovation lab. That’s how Aptify, a global software company, took steps to shake up its approach to disruption and radical innovation. With time, the program led directly to a grassroots App Store customers loved.

Be sure that any brainstorming group includes a diverse collection of employees who work on different teams. Once you create the right environment, fresh ideas will start rolling in. 

Accept that some experiments will fail

Not every risk will lead directly to the desired reward. Scientists don’t expect every experiment to prove their hypotheses; they make educated guesses and learn by observing the way things play out. That’s how your association should approach experimentation, too. 

Innovative, forward-thinking associations have a high tolerance for small, educated risks. Even when things don’t work out, your association will come away with new insights — and that’s a reward all on its own. 

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Heather Nolan

Heather Nolan is a marketing specialist at Sidecar. A former journalist and social media manager, Heather lives in New Orleans with her husband, son, and grumpy rescue dog.

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