There are no coffee refills in France ... or at least not like what we are accustomed to in the States. For Americans visiting for the first-time this might seem like caffeine heresy: What? No carafe of stale coffee dropped off at my table? No. Instead ...

Here is the latest thinking from Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects

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Innovation Requires Diversity

There are no coffee refills in France ... or at least not like what we are accustomed to in the States.

For Americans visiting for the first-time this might seem like caffeine heresy:  What?  No carafe of stale coffee dropped off at my table?

No.  Instead of on-demand consumption, they offer on-demand creation, bringing you a fresh cup of coffee when you are ready for it.  The quality of the product is paramount to them.  What seems wrong to some seems only proper to the French.

And it begins to make you think differently about coffee, about customer service, about product quality, about timing, and more.  Or it does if you're someone like me.

Thinking differently.  It's one of the many core elements of innovation, one Franz Johansson nicely addresses in The Medici Effect.  He suggests innovation results from stepping into The Intersection, a place were ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, often igniting fresh possibilities and new discoveries.  In this TEDTalk drawn from his new book, Where Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson echoes Johansson, stressing that many innovations results from combining seemingly disparate ideas or taking an idea or concept from one industry and applying it to the product or service of another.

But you can't think differently if you're not exposed to difference.  So here are a few simple ways to jumpstart fresh thinking and fresh perspectives.

Consume different media.
This is perhaps the easiest personal practice.  Simply scan publications, television programs, blogs, and web sites that address topics and feature perspectives that differ from your own.  Your field trips can be intentional and focused (I'm going to spend an hour today immersing myself in media women consume) or random using web site generators like StumbleUpon, following the top 20 or so search results for a broad category like "quality," scanning Twitter hashtags of interesting shares, or randomly grabbing 10 magazines off the rack at your local library, newsstand, or bookstore.

Connect with different people.
It's great to develop a network of peers from your profession or industry.  Doing so may cause you to accidentally bump into some fresh thinking because each of your colleagues brings his/her individuality into your relationship.  But you also want to hang regularly with a group of folks who don't do the work you do, ones whose livelihood depends on a different set of skills or values.  Talking about your ideas or concerns with them automatically elicits a different response because they don't look at your situation with the same mental models or lenses that you do.

Expose yourself to contrary opinions.
Over time our belief systems can harden into rigid walls powerful enough to reject any alternative viewpoint that tries to get past them.  That's a problem.  Author Meg Wheatley writes about the importance of allowing our belief systems to be disturbed.
"We won't necessarily have to let go of everything we believe and know, but we do have to be willing to let them go. We have to be interested in making our beliefs and opinions visible so that we can consciously choose them or discard them."
If we cultivate our ability to listen and understand the very viewpoints we find irrational, ridiculous, or untenable, we'll make our mental models more permeable and open to the fact that what is true for us, often is not true for others.

Collect interesting questions.
The answers we get depend on the questions we ask.  In his book The Design of Business, author Roger Martin suggests that innovative thinking often occurs because someone approaches the same problem but with a different initial premise.  A more diverse group of individuals is likely to ask a more diverse set of questions, resulting in a more comprehensive exploration and understanding of a situation.  As you interact with others, pay attention to the questions they pose, particularly ones you would be unlikely to ask.  Collect those questions and file them away for future use.

We can't think differently if we're not exposed to difference.  Such an obvious statement, but still one filled with great potential for individuals and groups.  How are you cultivating your own exposure to differences and what strategies (beyond hiring) might organizations want to consider?

P.S. I regularly present on this topic both in abbreviated TEDTalk formats (20-30 minutes) and more traditional lengths (60-180 minutes) that include audience engagement components. Contact me here if I can do so for one of your upcoming conferences.

A Prescription for Better Visions

Most vision statements suck.  There I said it.  

They are too bland or too basic to inspire change and commitment.  Here's one that gets it right and how it reflects the characteristics of a vision that can actually influence an organization's results:
To create a building that contributes back to the health of the planet.
—David Hertz, Architect
It's challenging
Right now we see buildings as consumers, not contributors of resources from our planet.  Changing this relationship will require fresh thinking and significant innovation over a long period of time.

It's compelling
Interest in renewable resources, sustainability, and social responsibility continues to grow.  The compelling nature of this vision will engage people from diverse professions and industries in applying their best thinking toward a worthy result.

It's inspiring
This vision passes the "wouldn't it be great if .... ?" test.  Regardless of people's position on climate change or sustainability, a building that positively enhances the health of the planet would probably be seen as desirable and worth pursuing as a goal.  Knowing you're helping make this vision a reality is likely to be a source of pride.

It's sufficiently specific, yet appropriately broad
The vision is specific enough to help shape individual decisions—Which choices would most ensure this building contributes to a healthy planet?—while remaining appropriate broad in the strategies or tactics for realizing it.  In short, the means are open and flexible to achieve a sufficiently specific end.

It benefits other while still serving self
A healthier planet is a gain for everyone, but it clearly is of interest to architects, builders, and other related professions who have a vested interest in achieving it.  By contributing to a greater good, the people involved also will benefit.

Contrast this to the typical association vision "We want to be indispensable to our members."  Or, "We will be the global leader in ______"   Huh?  So the most inspiring future you can envision is one in which your members are tethered to you in a dependent relationship or you're king of the hill?

What would members be capable of doing if the association was delivering indispensable value?  How would the world be better off if the association was that indispensable?  What more desirable results would your association's indispensability enable that otherwise would not be possible?

Associations have to start dreaming bigger and beyond their internal value when it comes to the visions that drive their strategy. Otherwise, their indispensability will remain nothing but a big dream, or some might even say, a hallucination.

For some great resources related to visions and BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals) see Jim Collins.

There Really Is a Simpler Way

a simpler way, the wonderful book co-authored by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers,  continues to guide my thinking about organizations. It asks us to no longer look at the world as a machine, and most importantly, human beings as machines. 

Rereading the book recently reminded me how this biological perspective, as opposed to the previously entrenched mechanistic viewpoint,  focuses less on control, order, and structure, and more on exploration, growth, and life.  Discarding a mechanistic perspective means embracing some alternative beliefs about people and organizations. Here are a few of them:

Living systems learn constantly.
This being the case, what is true today might not be true tomorrow. Therefore, our planning efforts must become less rigid and more like tinkering … trying lots of things and seeing what works best. The answers and plans we develop don't have to be right; they just have to work.

Living systems are self-organizing.
People in organizations, just like other biological forms of life, will self-organize into temporary working structures as needed. We can spend less time on master designs for organizational structures or hierarchies. People can organize themselves as the work requires.

Life is attracted to order, but it uses messes to get there.
We needlessly seek simple and clean solutions to complex problems. We need to become comfortable with fuzzy, ambiguous attempts to approach an issue. Further, such approaches may often be happening simultaneously at different points or places in our organization. Life isn't neat; progress isn't neat and orderly either.

Because we are living systems, most people are intelligent, creative, adaptive, and self-organizing.
"We want to learn, to do high-quality work, to contribute, to find meaning. We do not need to impose these attribute on one another. We merely need to learn how to evoke them."

From these beliefs and others, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers suggest how we can create supportive conditions for self-organization (these are quoted verbatim):

"An organizational community that is clear about its intent knows what it wants to accomplish and knows what its purpose is." If intent and purpose are clear and individuals are self-motivated and self-organizing, they will direct their efforts to fulfilling that intent and achieving that purpose.

"Living systems are webbed with feedback, with information available from all directions." Information is what drives organizational life, and we must allow all individuals access to as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions that support the organization's purpose and intent.

"Living systems also are webbed with connections; individual members have access to the whole system." Members of organizations need to be able to reach out to others freely, to collaborate without limitations, to access talents and information whenever necessary.

Instead of spending our time as leaders focusing on designing structures, implementing mechanistic training programs, or initiating controls and checks and balances, we should choose a simpler way ... and focus our energies and talents on engaging members of our organizations in meaningful discussions about who we are, what we believe, what we do, and how we can do it better.  There is as much, if not more, power in our core purpose and principles as there is in any of our policies or plans.

By Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1996.


How Do You Drive on the Innovation Highway?

The way drivers merge from the highway on-ramp into a lane of traffic parallels how people introduce ideas into an organization's innovation pipeline:

The Coast is Clear driver waits until no cars can be seen in the first lane of traffic before even beginning to attempt a merge. The car merges safely, but often creates quite the backup at the on-ramp.

The Here I Come driver does the reverse, barreling into the lane at full speed regardless of the existing flow of traffic. Other cars often have to change lanes to avoid a collision.

The Get in the Gap driver merges at the first sign of available space, but often does so too slowly instead of quickly accelerating to the flow of traffic. As a result other cars have to slow down.

The I'm Coming Through driver flies straight from the ramp across multiple lanes of traffic instead of successfully merging into the first lane and then changing lanes one at a time.

The Fast and Focused driver accelerates on the ramp and enters the lane at relatively the same speed of other cars, merging successfully into an appropriate opening between cars.

Each of these driving approaches—whether you are trying to drive a car on the highway or an idea into your organization's menu of activity—has risks associated with it. 

Only the Fast and Focused approach, however, uses the time before entry to get up to speed so once in traffic you can drive without disrupting the flow of other cars or ideas.

Equally important is how people in your organization react when other drivers introduce their ideas on your innovation highway.  Do they yield and allow them to onramp easily or do they block these new offerings from merging into the flow of traffic?

Smart organizations create innovation rules of the road (minimal, simple, and easily understood) that enable everyone to share and manage ideas so your organization reaches its intended destination safely and efficiently.


12 Volunteer Management Practices to Adopt Now

Answer me this:  would any credible, successful HR professional manage paid staff the way volunteers are managed in your organization?

If the answer is yes, congratulations.  You can probably stop reading.  If the answer is no, you've just identified where you should focus.  It's time to get resolute and do the following:
  1. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan for the recruitment, development, and recognition of volunteers throughout the organization.
  2. Appropriately incorporate volunteer development responsibilities in the job descriptions of every staff member and volunteer, and train them appropriately.
  3. Create dashboard metrics that assess the success of your volunteer development efforts: # of volunteers recruited, # of hours contributed, # of individual efforts recognized, etc.
  4. Ensure that volunteer contributions are tracked in your membership management systems, be that a sophisticated AMS, a few fields in another type of database, or index cards with handwritten notations.
  5. Remember what we learned in ASAE & The Center's Decision to Volunteer: some of what members consider volunteering (writing for newsletters, speaking at conferences, etc.) often isn't on the radar screen of organizations that focus almost exclusively on "positional" volunteering.
  6. Implement multiple "touch points" throughout the year, times when volunteer efforts are given recognition and appreciation beyond the real-time feedback and thanks that should be ongoing. Consider a covert thank-a-thon involving a multi-faceted week-long volunteer appreciation effort that is unannounced and unexpected.
  7. Develop mechanisms for volunteers to notice what their peers are doing and share information about those contributions/accomplishments with the organization for recognition. Think of hotels who give guests a card to note when an employee has done something above and beyond.
  8. Ensure that the more significant the volunteer's contributions, the more personal the recognition.  A simple thank-you is just fine for stuffing binders for the annual leadership conference, but concluding a term of service as board chair merits something more than a generic plaque.
  9. Make it possible for people to begin volunteering at any time and create and/or highlight multiple volunteer pathways that reflect the varied motivations people might have for getting involved: developing their professional network, sharing their talents or expertise, bring a particular program or project to reality, generating leads or growing their business, deepening their connections to the community and the profession/industry, getting recognized in front of their peers, or advancing through the leadership ranks.
  10. Gather more information about the prospective volunteers.  At minimum learn what they would consider to be a meaningful volunteer experience, but also inquire more about their time availability and talents.  Here's a PDF of what an expanded volunteer interest form could look like, but this same info could easily be gathered in an online electronic submission.
  11. For volunteer training segments that are how-to or fact-based, create short video clips or synced slides and audio that individuals can watch on their own time.  Use in-person volunteer development efforts to engage people in strategic thinking and more interactive discussions.
  12. Help volunteers who have held significant leadership positions remain a part of the organization and the community in meaningful ways, but let newcomers move into formal leadership positions.  We want them to "let go" of their leadership positions, not let go of their connection.  
I've long held a belief that many association executives consider heresy: I want as many volunteers as possible making as many contributions as possible year-round.  Yes, it initially could be a logistical and management challenge until you develop appropriate systems, but here's the payoff for this approach: it gets people connected.

Our organizations are communities of people—not just catalogs of programs and services—something we too often forget.  When we make it easy for more people to care and to act on their caring in ways that they find meaningful (and that advance the community and the profession or industry), great things happen.

And guess what?  People want to join organizations where the community is strong and great things are happening.  Getting better at volunteer management might just mean getting better membership recruitment and retention results.

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