Back in 2011, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries took the business world by storm with its vision of a more efficient and productive way of running start-ups. Now, many other industries have taken on the principles of the book to make similar advances in their field.
Far from encouraging us to be cheap, the end goal is to reduce waste of time and resources. Many organizations are trying to get to the wrong destination faster and more efficiently. Our goal is to try to get to the right destination. Eric Ries encourages us to ask: Does this solve a real problem that’s important to at least one of our audiences in a way that’s useful and makes sense to them?
I am currently working on a book called Lean Impact, that adapts these principles to the social sector. As a professional working in global development, my background is not in associations, but I see parallels between all our working structures and the ways we can streamline our processes through lean approaches.
In this article, I suggest six simple principles as an introduction to this mindset that could change the way you work for good.
1: Start with a clear goal
Everything you do should be in service of achieving a clear goal. Outlining this goal early in the process keeps everyone focused on the task at hand. I see it all the time in the social sector: we get so wed to our solutions that we lose sight of the problem we’re trying to solve. This makes it harder to change tack when our solutions don’t deliver the way we hoped they would.
The goal should be specific and measurable, so you have a vision of what success - and failure - looks like. Start by asking: what are we trying to accomplish? What would be different in the world if we succeed? Spend time on this, and keep a light hold on your solution, while maintaining a laser focus on your problem. If the solution goes awry, pivot and try something else.
2: Engage stakeholders
Who stands to benefit from this specific project? In the association industry, members will always be stakeholders. Others might be partners or service providers, employers or prospective members. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Get out of the building.” There is only so much you can achieve sitting around a table with your colleagues. Real inspiration will come from your customers, who know what they need and can offer up this knowledge to help you build the best service for them. Bring stakeholders together to help them design potential solutions to their problems instead of hiding behind closed doors.
3: Identify risks and assumptions
Assumptions are the statements you believe to be true about needs, solutions, and users. They can be set out as follows: Our members face problems with X. We can solve this problem by Y. A barrier we need to overcome is Z.
From here, you can work out what might go wrong and cause the project to fail. Go in with a healthy dose of skepticism and ask yourself the tough questions. What needs to go right for your solution to work?
4: Validate hypotheses
Test the assumptions you write down in the form of if-then statements, for example: If this product engages members, then we will see an increase in retention. Find the cheapest and fastest way to test these hypotheses.
This can be done through the creation of a minimum viable product (MVP) or prototype, that takes fewer resources to put together than the end goal. Present a group of stakeholders with a mock-up of the projected final product, and test their responses. The best results come not from asking people for their opinions, but from observing their behavior. People might say a product looks great, but will they buy it?
5: Measure success
When you outline what a successful project looks like, make sure your metrics for gauging this success are true indicators for the goal you are trying to achieve. Vanity metrics may deliver big numbers, such as the reach of a free publication delivered by email, but these often reflect publicity efforts more than anything else.
Innovation metrics give a picture of the true usefulness of a product or service, and relate back to your desired impact rather than usage of the solution itself. For example, retention or conversion rates indicate the value you are providing, whereas the number of people who try something once might be simply due to a marketing push.
6: Pivot or persevere
If you’re reaching the point of diminishing returns, running out of ideas to try, but nowhere near the metrics that you need to achieve your goal, make the tough call to pivot. This doesn’t always mean the project is a failure, but at least put it on the back burner for now and reconsider the solutions or even the goal.
Finally, remember that nothing in in these lean principles is rocket science. You can start to dabble in lean thinking in lean ways, by starting out on a small project, like getting out of the building for an afternoon to talk to stakeholders about their needs. Begin by developing skills and knowledge as a team: read the book together, check out online resources like Acumen, and this whitepaper about innovating the lean way in the association industry. Good luck!
Does this topic intrigue you? Ann Mei spoke on this subject at SURGE 2017, a free virtual summit we hosted over November 7-9th. Click here to access the replay of the session.