Recap of #ASAE09: Innovation, Failure, Platforms, and Love

As I expected, I didn't have the internal "bandwidth" to be able to blog during the 2009 ASAE & The Centre (spelled that way in honour of Canada) Annual Meeting. It was the usual story–nonstop sessions, talking with people I rarely get to see, networking, learning, tweeting, karaoke (I didn't sing, I promise) and an abundance of buffet food. I'm not the first to write about this meeting: check out Kevin Holland and  Frank Fortin. Here's my initial take on the learnings, having been home a few hours to decompress.

For the first time in my experience of ASAE (dating back to Minneapolis in 2004), I thought innovation was really taken seriously. Between Gary Hamel's opening keynote, Maddie and Jason's well-attended session on upending the status quo, and resident association innovation specialist Jeff De Cagna's well-attended session about Association Next, I felt that the conversation about innovation was widespread in a way I hadn't heard before. I'm sure Jeff would argue that we have a long way to go when it comes to innovation in this community, but I think we've made some progress–maybe even hitting a tipping point of some sort. It just felt easier to have conversations with people about change and doing things differently and trying new things. I even was pleased to note that all the copies of We Have Always Done It That Way that ASAE brought to the meeting sold out!

Related to the innovation theme was the recurring idea about failure being okay. This is not a new concept, and Kevin Holland puts it in the "Well, Duh" category, but duh or not, in practice I don't think most organizations embrace the idea. It hit me in Jason and Maddie's session when we were working at our tables trying to come up with creative responses to a sticky membership problem. I realized that most ideas wouldn't be attempted, simply because the people who think of them would be worried that they wouldn't work. My epiphany was this: in our organizations, we should make a point of recounting stories of projects that didn't work. Even beyond a post mortem, where we analyze what we could do differently (which is a great idea, of course), we should simply remind everyone of all the things we tried that failed. Make it NOT a big deal. Remind everyone that we do this all the time, and our organization works out just fine. If we made it more normal, we'd get more ideas out on the table, and we'd get more done.

I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky, who did a thought leader session (which was a total bummer for all the people leading sessions in his time block) as well as Q&A in the Online Engagement Lounge. One of his points was about member dues–with associating, communication, and community SO MUCH easier these days given the social web, people just might start to question (in a huge way) why they pay membership dues. His frame on it was powerful. He said (as I describe in this video that ASAE shot on site) that membership organizations need to be the "platform" where members go to get what they really value in order to justify paying dues. I usually think of that term in the software context, like an operating system or something on the back end (what "platform" are you running…) that enables other software programs to run and defines some of the parameters. In software, you need a platform in order to do other things. Membership dues should be the same way, but it's harder to convince people that your platform is really that valuable. It used to be the only place you could get "stuff" or meet the right people, but the internet is changing that. So associations need to figure out how to change in ways that maintain the existence of a valuable platform. Or (and this needs to be an option to consider) they could just forget the platform (no dues) and focus on delivering value in the "stuff" they sell.

Though it still seems like survival will be based on platform-like value, whether or not you charge dues. Shirky gave the example of the $17 martini. It's $3 of gin plus $14 of being in a place where you can drink $17 martinis with cool looking people. If you had told people at the door the martinis are $3.50 but we need to charge $50 up front for the "platform" (dues) they'd feel ripped off. But if you are delivering the platform already (it's obvious to them that this place is cool), they'll keep ordering the $17 martinis. It's having the platform that gives them what they truly want that drives success either way.

Association Social Media is Growing Up
I'm probably the wrong person to assess this trend because I've been a social media user and advocate for some time, but it felt like social media cleared some hurdles between San Diego and Toronto. It's more normal and accepted. The #asae09 twitter stream was very active (and helpful) and ASAE & The Centre were working hard to engage and support the conversation. I only went to half of one social media session, but they don't seem to be the "here's what a wiki looks like" sessions any more. They are more strategic, and the tactical ones are more complex. There is still a long way to go, I'd say, in terms of widespread acceptance and use, but I think we're at a bit of a new plateau.

I Love My Friends
The Annual Meeting always has both a professional side and a social side. This is not new, nor is it unique to the ASAE meeting. But I am home now and deeply missing the fact that I won't have access to the large and diverse group of people that I was talking, joking, debating, dancing, learning, and otherwise carousing with over the last five days. It's a mix of people, ranging from those I talk to all the time on a regular basis, to people with whom I usually only interact virtually, to people I hardly ever connect with, but during this meeting I was able to engage them much more deeply than I get to at other times. More conversations with larger groups of people, exploring more angles. I realized more than I ever have that more learning was generated from "lateral" interactions with peers than "vertical" delivery of wisdom from the speaker. More importantly, the love and friendship that permeated the extended group of people with whom I was doing this learning actually made it easier to get more learning done. Conversations got to the heart of the matter quicker, and ideas were expressed more easily, thoughts flowed more freely. They say love is the killer app, and I get it.


  1. 19.08.2009 at 8:07 pm

    Wow, makes me want to be there. The challenge for me is that my annual conference is five weeks away and besides not having a budget to attend, I couldn’t break away due to conference demands. I did try to follow virtually & agree that Jeff De Cagna’s presentation was a great example of blending virtual and face-to-face elements. From the virtual experience, it was a great interactive experience very different from your face-to-face event. Not better, not worse, just very different. And Jeff gave us virtual attendees some private face time, just like you got private face time talking with him over meals.
    Here’s another interesting point of view about innovation from a meeting & event planner’s perspective. Weren’t most of the events the traditional in style with one person talking and the rest of the people listening? Yes, there were a few experiences there that tried to be different, but how different. When will conference planners begin to innovate the meeting experience so that they are totally unique, different and memorable?
    What I heard from so many attendees is that the content seemed richer yet the actual nuts & bolts of the event were all too familiar. It’s time for the meeting planners to design some unforgettable, unique and unpredictable meeting experiences that still have the rich content. It’s time for meeting and conferece planners to structure more “horizontal” interactions and learning experiences with peers. When that occurs, unpredictable and horizontal interactions, that’s when conference innovation has occurred.

  2. 20.08.2009 at 5:54 pm

    Nice summary Jamie. I’ll buy you a $17 martini next time we’re in the same locale because of your good work here 🙂
    Question for you: is it useful for us to even describe things as failures” I don’t want to play semantics, but failure as a word/concepts has a degree of finality and suggests an end state that I don’t see as useful with innovation.
    Much of the innovation literature I read (and what I try to do in my own efforts) is try stuff and learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m not sure I would ever use the word failure in that regard.

  3. 20.08.2009 at 6:01 pm

    @Jeff Awesome comment. I agree completely that there is PLENTY of room to innovate the nuts and bolts of the conference, including some of the “we’ve always done it that way” elements of the large plenary sessions (just look at the tweets from the closing general session). Though I also was reminded not to change EVERYTHING. I sat at a table in a very cool session about upending the status quo because I had been assigned as the facilitator for that table. When I made it known, one person said “Oh, this is an interactive session?” and then he packed up his things and left. Some people really do just want someone to deliver content to them, and that’s not evil.

  4. 20.08.2009 at 6:04 pm

    @Jeffrey I’m a big fan of the power of language, so I basically agree with what you’re saying. I was thinking more in terms of what “didn’t work,” and even that is hard to get out of people in a lot of organizations. It’s too hard on people to admit that their idea did not work (though I would argue it shouldn’t be). But I like that language because it is ultimately about impact (didn’t work) rather than judgment (failure).

  5. 20.08.2009 at 6:10 pm

    Totally agree with you that there is a time and place for large general sessions. Yet, they can be done so they are unpredictiable and with horizontal elements too. I’ve seen it done with great success.
    I agree that one to many is not all evil. Yet it only accomodates about 30% of the audience that prefers auditory passive learning presentations. I also submit that the person who left was not there to learn, he wanted to zone out and appear as if he was learning. He can’t handle change. That’s my old adragogy and adult learning background coming out there. 🙂

  6. 20.08.2009 at 10:20 pm

    Great wrap up. I didn’t go this year, and while I was able to follow online, though twitter, facebook, ect. It was the social part that I missed. The interaction with my peers makes ASAE special. Some I see alot, but we are distracted by work, while at Annual it is more relaxed.

  7. 21.08.2009 at 9:49 pm

    As happens almost all the the time, I am in violent agreement with the master, Mr. @JeffHurt. One small addition to his comment: IMHO the goal from any conference should be “takeaways”
    Some people need to soak up knowledge from lectures, others prefer to interact with their colleagues. Whatever the session structure, the design should be such that people take away actionable ideas.
    Though I realize the collaborative format is not for everyone, I happen to be a big fan of increasing that type of session at conferences. But, I don’t want to just BS around a table…I want a structured discussion through which I can help others determine what they should do next (and vice versa).