Cost-cutting is a near-constant condition of working as association staff. Almost from the beginning of each fiscal year, our collective paranoia that we won't “hit the numbers” or “make budget” is all-consuming, leading to some very ill-considered strategic judgments. The concern becomes particularly acute in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, especially if the annual meeting or other major conference or trade show is scheduled during that 90-day period. It's a make-or-break time in which basically every nonessential expense is frozen in place until it's clear whether or not the association will be in the black.

I understand that associations often have rather limited resources, and it requires discipline to invest those dollars wisely. And this is where innovation enters the picture, because innovation is, in fact, an investment in your association's future, not a frivolous expense for which someone on staff needs to be held accountable. Innovation isn't linear, and it's often messy, but when pursued consistently, it is a remarkably effective way to create distinctive new value for those we serve. No matter how much so-called “fat” we may slice off our budgets, eventually all of our associations must have financial growth to survive and thrive. But if there's nothing to invest in growth activities because it's all been cut away, eventually all we will have left are the skeletal remains.

So what can meetings professionals do to turn cost-cutting into an innovation opportunity? As a first step, I suggest applying “generative constraints” to inspire creative solutions to vexing problems. For example, if your opening reception budget has been cut from $3,000 to $2,000, try conducting a brainstorming session to develop ideas that would allow you to hold a spectacular reception for only $1,000! By further reducing the available resources, you open the door to new ideas that meet the constraint but that might otherwise not be considered.

Another step is to first reduce all nonstrategic spending associated with your meetings, meaning anything you're paying for that doesn't directly advance the underlying purpose of the event. Now, I know we all want to believe that everything we do at our meetings has some kind of strategic purpose, no matter how peripheral it might be. My advice is to look holistically at all of the meetings you plan and establish a set of core investment principles that outline the strategic top priority areas to which your association should allocate its resources without exception. Once those principles are in place, use them as a platform for both reducing costs and encouraging innovation.

Google is well-known for innovation but, contrary to popular belief, it's not innovative because it is a multibillion-dollar company. Google is a multibillion-dollar company because it innovates. While no one expects associations to become huge enterprises like Google, the ethic of innovation that Google and other companies embody is something that associations must learn and adapt to their own purposes. If we cannot embrace this way of thinking, we will continue to pay the real costs of failure.

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, located in Reston, Va., and a contributing editor to Association Meetings. He can be reached at jeff@principledinnovation.com.