Monday, December 7, 2015

Innovating the Lean Startup Way

Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting has another white paper out. It's the third or fourth one I've read from her shop, and it's another good one. This one was co-authored with Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and it's titled "Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment."

I won't go into all the details. You should read the white paper if you're interested. But here's one of the underlying concepts that really connected with me.

Associations, generally, are "resource-poor environments." In my own phraseology, our goals are often bigger than our resources. We're non-profits, we're trying to change the world, and our resources are, frankly, often not up to the task. We don't have the dollars we wished we did. And, although we have, among our members, a source of human capital many for-profits would envy, we are frequently inefficient in aligning those resources with the objectives we've set for ourselves.

But here's the shocker. When it comes to applying lean startup methodology to our product and program development processes, all the liabilities I just described are not liabilities at all. They turn into advantages because, as the white paper says, the lean startup method "favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over tradition 'big design up front' development. As such, it's ideally suited for resource-poor environments."

Wondering how to start? The white paper has plenty of ideas. One of the things I like best about this series is that Elizabeth and the co-authors she recruits "get" the audience their speaking to. That audience is associations, and even with something like lean startups, something more naturally suited to our environment, there are things that won't easily translate to our world. In this paper, she and Guillermo first lay out the theory, then talk about how associations can apply it, and then provide several examples of associations doing exactly that. It's great.

Here's my own contribution. Something "lean startup-ish" that we've started doing at my own association. When developing a new product or program, we first conduct what I'm starting to refer to as a "call for interest." Before putting any time or money into development we simply lay out the idea in 300 words or less and send it out to the membership. Here's something we're thinking about and the value we think it will provide. Do you agree? Let us know if you'd like to see us develop this further and would like to be part of the team that works on it.

We've had surprising results with this approach--helping us to move forward with some ideas and, importantly, helping us to decide not to move forward with others. Although the white paper mentions associations that may be worried about the brand reputation and the "risk" associated with releasing intentionally half-baked ideas to the membership, I'm finding that mindset increasingly marginalized in my community.

The reverse, I believe, is increasingly true. Letting your members know that you are open to experimentation, that you value their perspective, and that you will only invest in ideas that they help you validate adds rather than detracts from your brand reputation.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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