Lean Startup Strategy: Take Your Innovation in Smaller Bites

The problem of fermenting innovation in the association world is well-documented, but the solutions are a little harder to come by. Could the lean startup strategy for building out ideas be one way to shift the conversation in your association?

As you might have noticed about a week ago, I was troubled by the challenges that associations face when it comes to doing really innovative things.

But here’s the thing about that term: “Innovative” doesn’t necessarily mean “big,” though we tend to give it that context for a lot of good reasons—in particular, that we don’t think of innovation in terms of “life hacks,” but instead as things that blow minds and change the world.

But what if you winnowed down that huge innovation into the smallest thing you possibly could? Well, then you could very well find yourself in a spot where you might be able to regain that elusive nimbleness.

(And, as it turns out, this is how Silicon Valley already does it.)

During a session at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City, Spark Consulting CEO and Chief Strategist Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, the director of information systems for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), made the case for applying “lean startup” strategy to the product-creation process for associations.

“Lean startup,” an approach closely associated with author and consultant Eric Ries, is based on the idea of constant iteration of small ideas, testing the smallest possible version of the idea before building something much larger and more complex. (A term closely associated with “lean startup” that has a lot of currency is “minimum viable product,” or the bare-bones version of an idea that can be built upon.)

Basically, instead of making a big bet, you’re making a number of small ones, and those small bets, after much iteration and changes, are optimized into a stronger end result. This strategy, Engel says, highlights a point of common ground for associations.

One of the large commonalities between startups and associations is limited resources, and that is a large part of what lean startup talks about.

“One of the large commonalities between startups and associations is limited resources, and that is a large part of what lean startup talks about,” Engel explained.

The difference, of course, is how the ideas are sold in these differing environments. As the duo notes in their recent white paper on the topic, Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment [PDF], much of the initial work that goes into launching a project tends to focus on earning buy-in: setting aside a budget, convincing stakeholders the idea is worthwhile, developing the concept, and spending time getting feedback and support. Problem is, this approach puts all the onus on the idea itself, rather than the results it’s expected to bring in.

“If you’ve gotten the destination wrong, it doesn’t matter how quickly and efficiently you get there,” Engel said. “You’re still going to end up in the wrong place.”

The Traditional Way: Lots of Work, Little Benefit

Ortiz de Zarate, who first stumbled on the lean startup approach in 2013, said that the concept was particularly freeing for him in the wake of a frustrating update to NCARB’s time-tracking product.

After word came in that the bulk-reporting approach that the system relied on didn’t make sense to the target audience—interns in the architecture industry working toward a certification—his team shifted gears, attempting to make a secondary view that was more akin to a traditional timesheet.

The efforts to change the system to add the additional view proved very complicated, however, and ultimately led to months of additional work for Ortiz de Zarate’s team.

“We spent five months, our entire development team, just working on this view,” he said.

Despite all that work, less than 10 percent of all time reported to NCARB is done through the alternative view that his team created, the duo stated.

The New Strategy: Think Small, Iterate, Then Pivot

When you have a small staff and a small budget, that kind of failure hurts a lot more than it might in other contexts—even if you’re using a project-management approach like agile development, in which a single team works on a single element of a product roadmap during a specific timeframe.

Agile and lean actually have a lot of things in common, though the difference ultimately comes down to scale. Agile focuses on finishing a large project quickly, basing the work on constant feedback. Lean startup, on the other hand, is all about continually deploying projects, testing the results throughout, making a change (or pivot) based on the data received, and ultimately forging something that solves the problem in a way that matches user expectations.

During their session, Engel and Ortiz de Zarate tried to highlight the value of the lean startup approach by offering a scenario and asking session attendees to come up with an approach that solves the problem—in this case, the recommendation of “a Yelp for study tools.”

Ultimately, the minimum viable product that most groups came up with was similar to what NCARB ended up trying—a plain-Jane survey of recent test-takers, with results tied to their scores. (Not many people took the survey, but that’s OK since Ortiz de Zarate’s team plans on pivoting to another iteration down the line.)

Tech Not Always Necessary

You might be wondering, “Hey, where’s the technology?”

The secret is that tech may not always be involved in a minimum viable product. In fact, the white paper [PDF] recommends sometimes using a “Wizard of Oz” test, or an experiment done by hand that merely looks like it’s being managed by a piece of software.

The nice thing is, if you do find an innovative strategy that works, you can eventually build that missing back end—and, instead of experimenting blind, you’ll have the data to back up your process to the board or other stakeholders.

Why make a big gamble without knowing whether it’s going to work? When your innovative efforts simply have to succeed, it’s frankly better to know every card in the deck before you throw down your hand.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!