Why We Are Creating an Innovation Center

Written by Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate on December 21, 2017

Humans are not very good at imagining the future. Indeed, TIME magazine mused in 1951 that “By the 21st Century our people doubtless will be squint-eyed, hunchbacked and fond of the dark” – a vision which has happily not (yet) been substantiated.

When it comes to creating initiatives, making plans, and envisioning projects, we cannot assume that we know how they will turn out, or how they will be received. In fact, it’s not only that we cannot assume: we also should not assume that our expectations are accurate.

I have spoken before about the benefits of applying Lean start-up principles and methodology in the association space. I want to take this suggestion one step further, committing to my own claims, and drinking my own champagne: we need to be Lean in the very way that we adopt Lean.

Lean is about exploration and iteration. Experiments depend upon the questions you ask, not the answers you want – and iteration is about diving into a process, without presuming a certain outcome. If you want to apply Lean to your organization, you need to do it exploratively and iteratively, just as Lean would demand.

At NCARB, we are going to be testing Lean in just this way. My department is designing trials to launch an MVP of a Lean Innovation Center early next year, with the mission of enabling a culture of entrepreneurship within the association. The Innovation Centre will be run at a very Lean level, offering help for people from different departments in applying a Lean framework to an idea they have. Rather than pitching their idea immediately without evidence, they can run an experiment, with support from one of us at the Innovation Center, to test their assumptions. The Center is itself a very humble concept, and we are not launching it as a grand and perfect model. It is the product of a hypothesis, that the path towards Lean in my organization will be peppered with roadblocks that can be overcome with some personal support.

Our Innovation Center plan is, itself, iterative. We have formally trained an entire department, along with other Senior Staff, on the framework; committed to using it in two major initiatives within our organization; and are living and breathing Lean principles within our department. These are the Lean building blocks from which we hope to encourage an association-wide adoption of the structure.

We have, so far, had positive reactions from people who are experimenting with the framework. If my hypothesis is correct, after the launch we will be able to begin empowering people to use the Lean method by themselves, until they no longer need anybody to hold their hands. Experimentation would be implemented across departments, and Lean would become an organization-wide principle. I cannot, however, enforce this way of thinking across different departments without testing it out: despite being, in my mind, a no-brainer, releasing an idea before it is fully formed can be, for many people, counterintuitive.

I could still, of course, be wrong about my assumption: people might continue to feel intimidated at the thought of sharing their ideas in this manner, or anxious about exposing a half-formed plan. It might fail. But the point is, that without testing my hypothesis, and without reducing the feedback loop to be as small as possible, I wouldn’t be able to say either way.