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Fear vs. Innovation: What’s Ultimately Driving Your Organization?

Last week I participated in ASAE’s inaugural XDP (experience design project) conference. At the conference, attendees were hopeful and inspired, but I couldn’t help but notice another emotion overshadowing much of the event: fear.

Last week I participated in ASAE’s inaugural XDP (experience design project) conference. Over 1200 people attended, and I had the honor of being a team leader, facilitating discussions among a small group throughout the day.

The event itself was created to encourage innovation; to get associations to rethink their conferences, breaking out of the ho-hum traditions to deliver experiences that captivate and engage audiences. The concept is critical, as events must be redesigned keep pace with a changing marketplace, and to deliver the insights and education needed to equip audiences to do the same.

The event itself was inspiring, fun, and unique. You can learn more about how the XDP event was designed here.

But what I want to focus on is the emotion that surrounded XDP. Attendees were hopeful and inspired, but I couldn’t help but notice another emotion overshadowing much of the event: fear. We’re all aware the fear of change exists, but I’m not sure people are aware of how prominent and debilitating this fear has become.

When the day started, XDP participants were confident in their outlooks and abilities to engage large audiences and generate revenues. As the day wore on and participants became more trusting, the curtain came down and the confessions started flowing. Many participants admitted their organizations were stuck or declining, concerned about the future, and struggling to engage younger generations.

Countless times I heard people say, ‘I could never do [fill-in-the-blank] at my association.’ When asked why, the board or senior leadership received the blame. This tells me decision-makers are squashing innovation, and whether they realize it or not, they are furthering the fear factor and holding organizations back from reaching their full potential.

Throughout my time at XDP, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own conference creation experience. In 2009, I launched the nation’s first conference focused on bridging talent gaps in the workforce. I wanted the RockStars@Work conference to be unlike any other business conference out there. From the red carpet arrival, to the band from School of Rock, themed break-out rooms, lounges, and live newscasts appearing on screens throughout the venue, I think I succeeded in delivering a unique experience.

I’m not sharing this to boast. Rather, I’m sharing it as a point of caution.

Because despite all the buzz about the event (including front page news coverage), and the notable list of attendees (ranging from DreamWorks Animation to Best Buy, Fortune magazine, Cargill, Quicken Loans, Target, and the Minnesota Vikings), the event itself struggled to overcome fear. On one hand, people were excited, referring to the event as being visionary and ahead of its time. On the other hand, people were fearful, expressing resistance to it. The conference was just too new and the concept was just too different. In the end, fear was more powerful than innovation, and the event lost money when some of our sponsors failed to come through.

We can’t let fear continue to win the fight against innovation—and right now, it is. 

Trust me. I know innovation is a hard sell. Especially right now. We’ve been producing events, generating revenue, and managing organizations year in and year out, in the exact same way for more than a century. Change is not going to be easy.

Yet, we must consider the facts. The last decade has been the most disruptive decade in history, including considerable advancements in technology and dramatic shifts in the economy and demographics. In late 2015, the workforce majority shifted for the first time in 34 years. For more than three decades, associations capitalized on the Baby Boomer audience, but it’s painfully evident that associations are struggling to engage the Millennial/Generation Y audience.

One XDP attendee told me the industry her association represents is old-fashioned and wouldn’t want to do anything new, fun, or creative. This shocked me. Have we not learned from Kodak, Ringling Bros Circus, and countless others? Our organizations are either evolving or they’re in the process of dying. It pains me to hear an association has already waved the white flag and just accepted its fate of going down with the ship.

Associations are powerful. We must not forget this. They are the only entities capable of influencing widespread change on behalf of an entire industry, benefitting thousands of companies and millions of employees. But some associations have taken this power for granted, foolishly thinking that innovation isn’t critical to their survival.

If you want your association to engage larger and younger audiences, you must embrace innovation. And here’s an important tip: Ask young people to help you. Bring young professionals and experienced professionals together to co-create the future. Don’t rely solely on your senior leaders to set the pace. Your association represents a diverse community of voices and interests—and if you’re not 100 percent convinced you’re doing your absolute best to engage them all, it’s time for a change.

We shouldn’t fear the future. We should embrace the opportunity to create it! It’s a truly awesome responsibility that doesn’t come along very often.

All glory comes from daring to begin. Be brave. Conquer fear. Innovate. Your association’s future relies on it.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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