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4 Practices that Lead to Innovation with AMGA’s Director of Council Relations

Associations // Experimenting, taking chances, learning from successes and failures…these are the things that keep association offerings fresh and relevant. And that spells retention.

Beth Arritt
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Once you’ve been doing something for a while and it seems to be working, the temptation is to keep doing that same thing. Why risk upsetting the apple cart? But when technology, industries, and members’ wants and needs change, this mindset leaves your association in a bad spot. 

Failure to be agile and innovative opens the door for members to explore the new and exciting things others are offering, or simply leave. On the other hand, when there’s a desire and willingness to grow and change with members, and leadership fosters ongoing re-evaluation of the value proposition and the member experience, an association can become indispensable to its members. In a way, boldness has become table stakes.  

But it’s not always easy to just “start innovating” and create a culture of innovation at your association. It requires a mindset shift. That’s why we’re sharing four practices from Joe DeLisle, Director of Council Relations at the American Medical Group Association (AMGA), that he’s using to make sure his programs are engaging and satisfying members.  

Always Be Questioning 

Rather than resting in the status quo, Joe’s always trying to figure out what can and should be tweaked. What can be improved? How can the experience be made even better? But this is a methodical process, with targeted, practical changes.  

Joe says, “We’re not just changing things on a whim. There’s always logic based on member feedback and observed actions. We do tap into behavioral science for different tactics and approaches, but we’re constantly looking toward specific members to figure out what they want from the communities. What are they trying to achieve through interactions with their peers?” 

AMGA recognizes that what works today might not work tomorrow. That’s why they’re always reevaluating. Something that worked in the past might need to be changed so that it’s ready to work well in the future. 

The Best Innovations Will Come from Better Contact with Members 

Joe says AMGA has a culture that demands they be in constant contact with members. And for him, that doesn’t mean sending out a survey and having people rate things on a random number scale. Instead, he and the team talk to members directly. From that, they learn what the member’s experience has been and what their expectations are.  

During those conversations, Joe says you’ll come across certain questions and topics that “light them up.” You can just tell when you’ve hit a note that really registers with them.  

“What lights them up and what they aren’t talking about can go a long way in helping you figure out where you need to adapt, where things that have gone well in the past might need to be tweaked to remain relevant, and where some of the things you thought were a great idea aren’t as valued as you expected.” – Joe DeLisle 

Seek Buy-In from Leadership 

Your leadership might be risk-averse. That means you need to win their trust if you want to test and try new things. But how do you do that? Joe says if you can be trusted with the little things, you earn the right to play with some big things.  

Multiple small successes add up. If your team replies to emails quickly. If you’re delivering the best member service possible. If it’s clear to anyone looking that you’re there for your team and seeking to offer improvement, ideas. If you’re coachable, and if it’s obvious you care, that’s how you earn the trust you need.  

There’s nothing wrong with starting small. Earn trust with a small experiment or change, prove that it didn’t lead to disaster, and you can start suggesting more significant or fundamental changes that call for a bigger leap of faith from leaders.  

But it’s important to bring leadership along for the ride. Try these tactics: 

  • Keep them posted on everything that’s being done and the results.  
  • Tell them everything the association learned from the initiative that was taken. If it didn’t work, do the same thing.  
  • Tell them what was learned and how that learning is being applied moving forward.  
  • Show them there’s actionable value to be had even if an experiment isn’t a “success.”  
Be Guided by Data 

Whatever change Joe’s trying to implement, he goes back to the data – but he reminds the team that they’re not out to generate a flawless, peer-reviews paper. They’re looking for directionally accurate data that they can use.  

They think through why things will work. Then they think through why things won’t work. The ideas are run by members. Then the team finds the least intrusive way to try out that change. Armed with that kind of clarity, it’s much easier to go up the chain and spell out the plan, show them what members are saying, and step through what’s going to be attempted. Again, make sure everyone understands that the data is only so good, and you aren’t going to be able to conduct the world’s most perfect experiment. What you’re looking for is something that works better for members than what existed before.  

“Our position whenever we’re making a change is to look for directionally accurate data we can use. We think through why things will work. We think through why things won’t work. We run the ideas by members, then we find the least intrusive way to try out that change.” – Joe DeLisle 

The Risks of Inaction 

Even if your association’s leadership is risk-averse, there are even bigger risks to inaction. Someone will come along and offer a better version of what you’re doing. Yes, your offerings can grow stale and outdated, but Joe thinks the most overlooked risk is predictability. Predictable is seen as safe, but members’ expectations change with every new product; Amazon delivering one click checkouts, YouTube operating curated videos based on what you’ve watched, whatever the newest smart home application can do. People bring those expectations to your offering.  

Joe understands change and innovation can be uncomfortable. You want to do something new, but you have these other programs and methods the team expected to keep doing. Even things that are still working could work even better with innovation. Because of this dynamic, strategic planning championed by leadership is critical.  

Re-evaluating and challenging legacy programs and ways of working to make sure they’re still valuable is critical, even though that can be a very difficult conversation. Someone has to be willing to look at the un-cuttable programs and say this isn’t necessary anymore – here’s a better alternative.  


Beth Arritt

Association Strategist

Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.

In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.

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