The Down-Side of Great Ideas

So I am back from what might be my 11th or 12th Great Ideas conference (I’ve been to them all, back to the GWSAE days, but I’ve lost count), and as usual I had a great time. I enjoyed delivering both the deep dive on Humanize (with Maddie Grant) on the first day of the conference, and then being on a panel about Bringing Innovation to Life (with Kerry Stackpole, Michelle Mason, and Jessica Daniels) on the last day. I generally enjoyed the sessions I was in, and of course learned some new things in all the unofficial interactions that emerged via hallways, meals, or adult beverages.

That being said, I am afraid my “what I learned at Great Ideas” post is going to be a bit of a downer. It’s not a negative comment on the conference, per se (it was a fine event; well done staff!). It’s more of an underlying concern I have about organizations in general, and maybe the association community in particular:

I am concerned that we love great ideas, but we don’t know how to actually do them. We don’t know how to BE great.

We have our routine down. We go to conferences, listen to the lectures, take notes, and discuss the issues in the “interactive” sessions. We care about this stuff. It matters. I saw it in the faces and the comments of the people at the conference. We’re serious about learning. And I’m sure some will try to implement new things when they get back to the office.

But seriously, after years and years of Great Ideas conferences, you’d think that we would have moved the needle on some of the big issues, but I don’t think we have.

We’re still lamenting that we do things the way they’ve always been done. Seriously?! That’s been on the agenda for at least six years. But not much has changed. And innovation has certainly taken center stage at ASAE. Kudos to everyone for that. But in the end it seems like the greatest accomplishment we’ve made in that arena is that we are now very good at TALKING about innovation. But in the “bringing innovation to life” session there were serious concerns about how to engage people within organizations to actually DO innovation. We can’t convince the higher ups. We don’t understand why we’re stuck.

I think I know why we’re stuck. We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change. This comes from our deeply rooted mechanical approach to organizations. Machines are designed by experts. All the thinking happens before the machine performs even one task. Maybe there is prototyping so the designer can understand better how the machine will work in the real world, but for the most part, the thinking is done at one time and in one place, and then the action of the machine happens later, somewhere else. This works for machines. It doesn’t work in the organic real world.

In the real world, thinking and action are intertwined. They must be, because the context of the action is shifting so rapidly. The thought you had yesterday about how best to complete the project may not be relevant in today’s context. Thought, action, thought, action, shifting context…it’s an ongoing process.

But we don’t seem to recognize that. We go to Great Ideas conferences in order to get the great ideas (ideas that were generated by the speakers, who don’t live in your context), and then maybe some of us go back and implement and adapt the ideas, but it seems to be moving too slowly. We do our heavy thinking at the conference, and then back at the ranch we focus on the action. Thought and action are separate.

That’s the pattern that needs to change. Yes, it’s okay to take time off at a conference and do some big thinking. It’s good for our brains (and our souls, probably). But we can’t ONLY do that. We need to figure out ways to integrate the thinking and the action. How do we make Great Ideas conferences portable so they can be real-time and context-specific? Learning has to happen in the office, not just at the Great Ideas conference. I am afraid if we don’t, we’ll end up convincing ourselves we’re making progress by going to our conferences over and over, yet the attendees will be saying the same things over and over again (which seems to be happening).

I don’t have patience for that any more. We need to change our patterns so we can make change more rapidly.


  1. 30.03.2012 at 11:22 am

    We share the same frustration that, as I said during your last session at Great Ideas, members of our community are saying the same things over and over again and not expecting a different result, which is an entirely different (and more insidious) form of insanity. From my perspective, the momentum behind “we have always done it that way” as a mantra for meaningful change in our organization has dissipated, in part because our book is now six years old and in part because the economic fragility of the last few years has led many associations to return reflexively to a more conservative posture.

    As you point out, this is also a thinking-action challenge, and in a very specific way. You and I want association leaders to think their way into new actions. We want them to ask different questions and look for new answers based on the specifics of their unique contexts. We want them to adopt new principles to develop better ways of doing business. We want these things because we know the novel dynamics of the current and future environments demand them.

    In my experience (and yours I know), association leaders (especially boards) prefer to act their way into new thinking. If they’re going to ask different questions, they want the “right” answers as well. They prefer the “certainty” of best practices to the fuzziness of applying new principles. They want these things to reduce the perceived risk of both personal and organizational failure.

    For many people, the previous paragraph will read as a criticism of association leaders, and perhaps that interpretation is unavoidable. For me, it is actually an indictment of association orthodoxy, which emphasizes the practical over the imaginative, the tangible over the intangible and the relevant over the meaningful. Although many of the sessions at the Great Ideas Conference offer alternative approaches for solving complicated challenges, our community’s deep-seated belief system makes it difficult for association leaders to accept the veracity of fresh approaches and new concepts without proof.

    Perhaps instead of a Great Ideas Conference, we should have a Great Challenges Conference. Participants and speakers could collaborate before the event to identify the challenges on which they would like to work, and the event itself would be designed around long-form learning interventions that help participants apply new ways of thinking back in their organizations. Of course, this isn’t a total solution to the problem, but it might be a step in the right direction.

    • 02.04.2012 at 6:49 am

      Amen brother. I like the idea of a conference integrated with interventions. Hmmm.

    • 06.04.2012 at 3:20 am

      Jeff, I’ve started offering a session (not a whole conference mind you…yet) that implements the ideas expressed in your last paragraph. It’s called the Solution Room. The 1½-2 hour session provides every attendee with the opportunity to get support and advice from peers on a problem he or she chooses. It can be run with 20 – 300 people and is proving really popular. There are more details on my blog:

  2. 31.03.2012 at 8:19 am

    Sorry GIC triggered a Groundhog Day moment for you Jamie. I came away with David Nour’s reference to Charity:Water, the quintessential movement that connects thousands of people to change millions of lives for the better.

    How can we replace our peeps inertia with movement, stagnation with leadership?

    Why not question the root cause? What do these associations stand for? What end do they serve that’s larger than self-interest? Every single group could call their members to something larger. So why don’t we demand more?

    Do something that matters. Innovation is the means not the end. Let’s start our engines by demanding more from members and getting out of their way.

    Take heart, Jamie, and seek out those who are moving forward, wherever you can find them.

    Ann O

  3. 05.04.2012 at 9:17 am

    It’s been a while since I’ve gone but my impression of Great Ideas was that not a lot of chief staff officers attend and no elected leaders. If the leadership isn’t part of the idea process, it’s going to be hard to get traction for profound change.

    • 05.04.2012 at 9:40 am

      I noticed a lot of chief staff officers (and also a good number of management team folks). You’re right about volunteer leaders though (a bigger ASAE issue if you ask me). I think doing the meeting at the Broadmoor helped attract the senior folks!

  4. 05.04.2012 at 4:27 pm

    […] wrapped up last week, and though I didn’t attend (maybe next year!), I’ve read several blog items and tweets about the presentations. And that got me thinking about new ideas, innovation, and […]

  5. 10.04.2012 at 6:56 pm

    Excellent post. A starting point might be to take something off the list. I see plenty of additions, but not so many subtractions, from association to-do lists. What isn’t needed, is outdated, or otherwise needs to be trashed so we can move on?