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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.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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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