A Day of Blue Sky Thinking—Recapping .orgCommunity’s 2021 Innovation Summit

Greg Larkin, our keynote speaker at .orgCommunity’s July 14 Innovation Summit, was quick to admit that he was feeling a little rusty being in front of an audience for the first time in over a year. “I’m freaking out,” was what he actually said.  

Personally, I counted down the days until my reentry to the conference world of friendship, networking, and professional exploration.  And it did not disappoint. Enjoy the photos I’ve included in this article. Our 80s tribute band put the cherry on top of a fantastic program.

Enjoying being together again.

I would have been thrilled to host a crowd of colleagues for this day of blue sky thinking. But because safety precautions limited our attendance to 60 in-person participants, we made the decision early on to take a hybrid approach.

We also hoped that, as guinea pigs, we could help attendees have first-hand experience with the hybrid platform to see whether it is a format they are ready to try in their organizations.

Of course, Greg, who is Chief Punk at his company Punks and Pinstripes, performed better than a pro, and his presentation was brilliant. But there was definitely a range of post-pandemic (Can we call it that yet?) emotions, both in the room and online. When Greg asked others to share their takeaways from a year of confinement more than a few people commented that their priorities had shifted or that they had discovered something unexpected about themselves.

Go With Your Gut

Greg with me, and Kevin Ordonez, .orgSource, President and Managing Director, Business Strategy

Greg’s own aha moment and the story of how it changed his life, kicked off a day of amazing dialogue and ideas. He is someone who lives and breathes to explore challenges and solve problems. I would describe him as an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur.

In 2015, Greg was working for a large corporation. Ironically, innovation—the thing he does best was getting him into trouble. His Punk ideas were a threat to the Pinstripes in the corner office. They hired him to be a professional mold-breaker, but wanted to make sure he didn’t actually shatter anything.

Although Greg had a prestigious job and an enviable salary, he was sabotaged by his inability to be effective. He felt the “flame of entrepreneurship” being slowly extinguished by corporate politics and the threat he posed to the status quo. That frustration extended into his family life and was even preventing him from being the father he wanted to be. Because Greg is an eminently sane person, he resigned and went on to a happy life and career.

At the time, Greg thought he was alone in his angst. In fact, he was part of a growing storm. In 2015, 8 percent of the executives at Fortune 500 companies quit to join start-ups. By 2019, that number had increased to 32 percent.

With the pandemic, the storm has made landfall. Talented innovators understand, better than ever, that they can work anywhere. The situation is serious enough, Greg noted, that Morgan Stanley recently was forced to decline mergers and acquisitions due to a lack of talent to broker the deals.

Build for Innovation

When you recruit a budding inventor, itching to discover new and better ways to grow your association, what can you do to ensure their great ideas get the attention they deserve? And more importantly, how do you create an organization that welcomes curious people and encourages them to explore the breadth of their talent?

Ideas need to flow. When original thinking gets stuck, it has no value. “Innovation without transformation results in technical death,” Greg advises. “Digital transformation prevents mature organizations from going into decline by moving them back into growth.”

.orgSource has long championed a digital approach to business. But here’s where Greg underscored something that I emphasize to our clients. Growth happens in three stages. It begins with innovation, moves to integration, and ends in transformation. If integration isn’t part of the plan, ideas become roadblocked.

Align Interests

When the interests of the Pinstripes and the Punks are not in proper alignment, innovation can’t happen. Power can’t all be in the hands of the group that has the most to gain from clinging to the status quo. You must have a structure that allows controversial ideas to bubble up to the top along with the fortitude to send sacred cows that don’t produce any milk out to pasture.   

Me and Kevin having fun with the band, We Are the 80s.

“It’s not just about rigorous portfolio-wide optimization.” Greg notes. “There must be a process for dissent.” The CEO and board chair must have the courage to listen to what people are afraid to tell them—even ideas that threaten long-established patterns.”

By creating a safe space for teams to say brave things to their supervisors, you can move from innovation to integration and on to transformation. “You have to invest in that dialogue,” Greg emphasizes. “You may need someone from the outside to facilitate these conversations, but they have to happen.” The best innovators are more likely to call your association home if everyone in the organization accepts and takes responsibility for change.

Co-Create

Greg set the tone for the day. He sees the world through a problem-solver’s eyes and inspires everyone to think more boldly.  We went on to follow the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists through digital transformation (Dan Stevens, CEO, WorkerBee.TV, Inc. and Eric O’Connor, Chief Growth Officer AANA), considered the role that virtual events should play in our futures (Michelle Brien, Vice President, Marketing and Product Strategy, WBT Systems and Tiffany Crosby, Chief Learning Officer, Ohio Society of CPAs), and discussed new strategies for member engagement (Arianna Rehak, CEO and Founder, Matchbox Virtual Media).

Since this was the Innovation Summit, of course, we also tried something we’ve never done before. We turned the tables and invited the in-person and online audiences to co-create a session. Sharon Rice, .orgSource, Managing Director Business Strategy, and a facilitator with a gift for synthesizing complex ideas, led the group discussion.

Of three possible topics, the future of associations was the puzzle most people voted to explore. The discussion centered around these questions.

  • Should nonprofits consider becoming for-profits or creating for-profit spinoffs?
  • Does nonprofit status still confer public trust? Did it ever?
  • How does governance need to evolve to keep pace with the marketplace?
  • Should associations be reactive to members and their environments or lead constituents where they need to go?
  • Do stakeholders care where they get their education? Is there any loyalty left?
  • In the future, will people associate around their role or their profession?
  • Are free or reduced-cost virtual meetings an effective strategy?

Each of these issues could have been a lengthy discussion. Unfortunately, we only had an hour. I’m looking forward to taking a deeper dive into several of these challenges in my posts and at future events.

 .orgCommunity members can enjoy a recording of this session, and the entire summit, on our video platform in the next week or so.

Sharon wrapped up the conversation by asking the group to make a bold prediction about the future of associations. In a nutshell, this was the consensus:

Innovation will ensure our success. Not every association will survive the next decade, but those who are unafraid to welcome change, use data to make critical decisions, and seek out the problem-solvers and truth-tellers, and give them space to grow will have the resources they need to thrive.

Stay tuned for the Solutions Day event coming this fall, also presented by .orgCommunity, our networking and professional development partner company. Try a 30-day free membership and access a wealth of educational content.