The Fraternity Movement's Innovation Gap

I recently learned a new framework by which to judge innovation, and it left me with this conclusion: the fraternity/sorority industry is not as innovative as we like to think we are.  And when we are, it’s mostly low-level, incremental innovations.

There is a strong argument to say that this is just fine! After all, we’ve been around for almost two centuries and so why radically change something that has been this sustainable?

On the other side, over those two centuries, we’ve been afflicted by longstanding and persevering problems that we can’t seem to solve with incremental changes.

Let me share the model with you, and then you can help me judge our industry on innovation.  I also encourage you to use this chart and this essay at your next strategic planning meeting to help you think about what’s needed to advance your organization.

To explain:
Efforts to improve existing offerings for existing users is referred to as incremental innovation - perhaps a fancier term for tweaks or another way to frame continuous improvement.  Existing offerings could include the traditional fraternity experience itself, or elements within the fraternity experience, such as pledging, formals, or national convention.  Existing users would of course include current members, but I would also include the “always/likely joiners” in our potential member base.  Overall, draw a circle around the typical fraternity experience and those who desire and benefit from the typical fraternity experience and there you have existing offerings and existing users.  

Examples of incremental innovation include re-configuring your convention agenda or theme.  This isn’t a major innovation because you still have the convention to begin with; all you are doing is changing some of its aspects.
Consider how much of your “innovations” really fit into this category. What percentage of your board meetings at the national level are stuck here and here alone?  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but recognize that you could be innovating more deeply.

If we take our existing offerings (the typical fraternity experience and all within it) and try to bring it to new users, then you're attempting evolutionary innovation.  In the fraternity context, I think “new users” in this case have to be those that have sworn off fraternity membership or those for whom engaging with the fraternity is highly unusual (such as elementary school students, for example).  The short version is that you are trying to bring traditional fraternity to places it normally doesn’t go.

Perhaps someday a fraternity tries to set up junior chapters at the high school level.  These are new users, but a slightly different version of the traditional fraternity experience, so it would be considered evolutionary innovation.  Expanding into new nations, such as China, could fall into this category as well.  Historically, fraternities for distinct populations (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) are an example of evolutionary innovation.

Evolutionary innovation is also called for if you are trying to develop a new offering for your existing users.  A new offering is a new way to experience or engage with your fraternity.  This is where examples can get a bit debatable.  For instance, I wouldn’t consider a new undergraduate leadership program to be automatically an evolutionary innovation - although it is technically something new for your current users.  Leadership programs in the fraternity world essentially follow the same formulas, even when they are located outside of the country, on a boat, at a camp, in the wilderness, on Capitol Hill, etc.  Yet, I’m sure some of you reading this consider our most innovative work to be in the leadership development space.  I just don’t agree.

An example of evolutionary leadership that brings a new offering to current users would be a robust curriculum for retirees.  Finding a way to bring the values and essence of the fraternity experience to members age 60 and over would be a wonderfully evolutionary innovation.

The final category is revolutionary innovation.  This is when you try to develop a new offering for a new set of users.  This is where membership organizations almost NEVER reside, because it feels so uncomfortable.  This would be taking the core of the fraternity experience, dispensing with the structure of it, and offering it to an audience that’s brand new.

Here is a somewhat crazy example (although revolutionary evolution is almost always crazy): what if the fraternity industry positioned itself as leaders in building values-based camaraderie (i.e., brotherhood or sisterhood) and consulted with businesses, nonprofits, government, etc. to bring those lessons into the modern American workplace.  That’s a revolutionary offering.
So now that I’ve framed these types of innovation, let’s assess where we stand as a movement.

My beliefs:
  • We have an overabundance of incremental innovation, to the point that we tinker and tweak just because we feel we have to.
  • We are lacking in the evolutionary innovation that brings new offerings to our existing users. For example, does a senior member experience fraternity much differently from a freshman member?  
  • We are almost non-existent in innovations that being existing offerings to new users. This explains why fraternity continues to have a very narrow imprint in terms of membership and influence.
  • There is no standing example of revolutionary innovation in our movement, which could explain why our generational challenges persist.
Everyone wants to be innovative - and everyone wants to claim to have the next big thing in fraternity and sorority life.  However, let’s start to pay more attention to (and reward more) of the innovations in our industry that are evolutionary or revolutionary.  

Our tendency these days is to applaud those who have incrementally innovated an accepted practice or process, but not those who create a whole new practice or process (maybe because there are just too few to find).

We’re not entirely free of needed innovations. We’ve seen some really significant ones over the last couple of decades. To that point, I’ve developed a list of five fairly-recent evolutionary innovations that are examples. I know there are mixed opinions on these, and I only highlight them to acknowledge the courage they took to move beyond the typical incremental innovations we see.  I’m sure there are others that I am less familiar with too.
  • Alcohol-free housing (new offering, existing users) - This initiative that many fraternities have tried (and to which Phi Delta Theta is given credit for starting) is a sincere attempt to change the culture of alcohol misuse and abuse that a great number of fraternities struggle with.  Advocates might say this is a revolutionary innovation in that it also aimed to make fraternity appealing to those who avoided it because of alcohol.  I’m not sure much evidence bears this out.
  • The Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute (new offering, existing users) - UIFI is probably the standard-bearer of fraternity/sorority leadership education.  It's been around from a few decades now so it's not a recent development.  While it’s model isn’t too innovative (much was borrowed from other institute-style programs), it’s entry into the marketplace changed the way we view education for fraternity members, including the process (trust the process) and the focus on paradigm-shifting and values alignment. It was also unique in its emphasis on interfraternalism and bringing together members from multiple organizations to discuss shared challenges.  (Note the writer’s bias - I managed the program for 3 years).
  • Member Education Programs (new offering, existing users) - Whether it’s the well-known “Balanced Man” of Sigma Phi Epsilon, or the newer “Road” of Delta Tau Delta, member development programs are an innovative attempt to stretch the value of the member experience further and broaden the idea of fraternity as an educational vehicle beyond the pledging process.
  • The 5-step recruitment model/ Moving away from Formal Rush (existing offering, new users) - The 5-step model that the NIC promoted over a decade ago is still reflected in many of the frameworks by which companies, consultants, and speakers teach modern-day recruitment.  The 5-step model (meet him, make him a friend, introduce him to your friends, introduce him to your fraternity, ask him to join) was developed in opposition to formal rush, and is a return to our roots.  But sometimes innovation can be that way.
  • Pledging-free fraternities (existing offering, new users) - Here is an attempt to de-emphasize the value of pledging, emphasize the value of thoughtful and intentional recruitment, and make fraternity attractive to those who think pledging will result in hazing. I call it an “existing offering” since pledging is not something that has always been a part of the fraternity experience.  In a way, it’s an old incremental innovation that some are starting to believe that we can do without.
I could not determine a standing example of revolutionary innovation in the fraternity/ sorority movement.  Can you?

Is the next era of fraternity more likely to be ushered in by tinkering, tweaks, and small increments?  Or by evolutions and revolutions?  Which fraternity, sorority, campus, council, or chapter is ready to evolve or revolutionize this movement?  You are more needed, and more rare, than you might believe.