The Mechanics of Innovation

Mike Moss isn’t a mechanic, but he and his team spent the last year tinkering in a garage. They weren’t taking engines apart and rebuilding them. But the work they did paid off big time.

Moss is president of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). What he refers to as “tinkering in the garage” was actually spearheading an innovation hub in his organization.

Since I write, speak, and think a lot about innovation, I was excited to interview Moss for the Association 4.0 podcast.

SCUP serves colleges and universities as well as for-profit industries that support higher education institutions. The organization is dedicated to advancing the integrated planning discipline. Integrated planning is characterized by:

  • Creating a sustainable planning culture
  • Building relationships across institutions
  • Developing organizational alignment
  • Emphasizing preparedness for change

The tools SCUP offers help leaders make their strategic plans actionable and effective. If you follow my posts, you know that is a mission I can wholeheartedly endorse.

SCUP’s staff of 18 creates a range of learning opportunities from publications to conferences. They also share resources, best practices, and fresh ideas that move challenges to solutions. I asked Moss to talk with our audience about how that ingenuity comes into being.

If you lead an association that is still in business, you innovated during 2020. But most people didn’t intentionally pull out all the creative stops. When the country shut down, Moss and his team were several years into a robust five-year strategic plan. Major goals included:

  • Expansion into new communities
  • Learning tools customized to specific audiences
  • Increased visibility through strategic partnerships
  • Aggressive development of new human and financial resources.

When SCUP’s board met in March 2020, they realized that every aspect of education from facilities to human and financial resources would be impacted by COVID-19. The pandemic was creating the need to make the leap from ideas on the drawing board to real solutions more quickly. SCUP could play a pivotal role in helping members plan for and avert future disruption.

Accelerate To Meet Needs

The board made the bold decision to accelerate their strategic plan timeline and implement activities slated for years four and five as soon as possible. As they assessed their capacity, it became clear that to deliver that critical support, innovation was needed.

“We determined that without innovation and experimentation, our ambitious aspirations would not be possible,” Moss observes. That need was the driver for the innovation hub. The hub launched in the fall of 2020 and is guided by Moss as the association president.

Without innovation SCUP’s ambitious Plans would not be possible.

The hub makes a space for vigorous discussion and brainstorming that is separate from the daily administration of the association. Moss uses this analogy to describe the setup.

“I and a group of members are tinkering in the metaphorical garage across the parking lot from the association.” This arrangement allows member services to occur simultaneously as we build out new concepts and ideas.”  

The hub explored integrated planning from a macro point of view. “We were looking for gaps in practice as well as seeking to identify exciting experimentation that was occurring in our community,” Moss notes. “Our goals were to speed up the product development cycle and to identify new thinking that would help our discipline leap forward.”  

To keep operations moving smoothly, Moss created a “go team” to supervise activities such as courses, a coaching program, and the many virtual logistics related to the pandemic. Moving innovation into the garage allowed that headquarters group to continue seamlessly serving members.

Evaluating workloads and matching the hub’s focus to the lulls in activity was another strategy Moss used to make room for innovation. In tandem, the team also put a hold on initiatives that could be deferred to create space for new ventures.

“We worked in a series of 90-day sprints. The first effort was directed toward learning. It occurred during the fall while membership was doing their heavy lifting,” Moss advises. “We were able to identify opportunities for new educational programming.  As we moved into spring and learning activities ramped up, we turned our attention to member engagement. That push resulted in our first emerging leaders’ program as well as several products that were originally slated for future years. 

Learn as You Go

“We weren’t perfect coming out of the gate,” Moss recalls. “My enthusiasm is both my superpower and the biggest challenge for my colleagues. Even during the first sprint, there were more ideas than we could execute.”

Excited by the hub’s energy, Moss moved some plans out of the garage before the staff was prepared to implement. “We found a better cadence and improved our communication process as we progressed,” he notes. “We were using huddles, touchdowns, and all the tactics you need to keep teams informed under normal circumstances and especially during a pandemic. But we also learned to prioritize the messaging and to maximize the capabilities of tools such as Slack.”

The SCUP team found better ways to communicate as they moved forward.

Moss credits Slack, a communications and messaging platform, with helping his organization successfully keep multiple balls in the air. “In a time of acceleration, we had to be more intentional about when and why we used various tools,” Moss advises. “Slack has become a powerful application for us. It has dramatically changed how we work over the last few months.

“I haven’t done an audit but based on my observation our staff are having fewer “update” meetings with each other because we are communicating more effectively between meetings in Slack.” 

Pick the Right Partners

Along with growing fresh ideas, the hub made the SCUP team see their current activities in a new light. Partnership was one of the areas that benefitted from a more innovative approach. “There are over 45 organizations that support higher education administration,” Moss advises. “Partnerships are a strategic piece of everything we do.”

The freedom to rethink and experiment allowed the hub team to take a more targeted view of partnerships. “Out of the many possibilities, we asked ourselves which collaborations would make a significant impact on both organizations. When you strive for mission alignment, the list gets a lot shorter.

“We identified four or five opportunities that dovetailed with our mission and values. The result was a venture with two other associations to develop a product that will launch this fall. The most exciting aspect of the partnership is that we have created an initiative that will eventually become a new independent entity. We identified a gap in service that existed for all of us. The hub made it possible to think creatively, focus intensely, and respond to that need.”  

Be Optimistic

After a year of targeting opportunities for SCUP, I was curious to know where Moss sees advantages for associations in the future.  

“Here comes that enthusiasm,” Moss responded. “I think we have a chance to address the biggest challenges in our industry with co-creation and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I follow Guy Kawasaki. He’s an author, entrepreneur, and marketing guru. One of his powerful lessons is that it’s easy to listen to the one percent who think you’re wrong. But you must be bold and brave. Learn from mistakes without allowing them to be distractions. We are challenged to support our stakeholders in a time of global change. Listen to the lessons of the disgruntled, but don’t let them guide you. Stay strong and stay forward.”

That’s good advice. I hope Moss’s experience will inspire others to create that metaphorical garage and begin the tinkering that leads to growth, change, and increased value for associations and their members.

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