A Lean Startup Conversation

Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate and I recently had the chance to sit down with Rick Rutherford of to talk in a little more detail about some of the ideas raised in our new whitepaper, Innovate the Lean Way.

Our conversation touched on issues like:

  • What failure really is – and isn’t – and why it shouldn’t scare us so much.
  • What success really is – and isn’t.
  • The relationship between lean startup methodology and IKEA (yes, really).
  • The importance of iterative thinking and development.
  • The role of evidence-based decision-making.
  • The fact that no one is right all the time (and that’s built in to this methodology).
  • How you get agreement to get started.
  • Why proving yourself wrong is the key.

Guillermo also talked about NCARB’s experiences working with lean startup methodology in more detail.

Download your free copy of the whitepaper at

Posted in innovation, leadership, video, whitepaper | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Talking About the Lean Startup

In keeping with what’s becoming a regular practice when I release a new Spark whitepaper, I recently had the opportunity to present a webinar for the Thought Leader series on Innovate the Lean Way, which I co-authored with Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate.

The free recording is now available:

During the webinar, I relate A Tale of Two Projects, Parts 1 and 2, showing the difference using lean startup methodology can make in your innovation efforts (spoiler alert: building something pretty that works great that NOBODY wants versus building something beta that EVERYBODY wants) and share the key principles underlying the methodology.

At root, lean start-up methodology is a development approach that requires articulating and testing assumptions, favors rapid experimentation over elaborate planning, relies on customer feedback over intuition, and encourages iterative design, towards the goal of ensuring that you’re investing your scarce resources addressing the right problem for the right audience, and providing the right solution.

Download your free copy of the whitepaper at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Posted in innovation, leadership, video, webinars, whitepaper | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Lean Startup Changes Everthing

I’m excited to share the launch of the seventh whitepaper in the ongoing Spark whitepaper series, Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment.

The whitepaper addresses a simple (but not necessarily easy) concept. To quote my co-author, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Director of Information Services for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards:

“There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing.”

Given associations’ tight resources, that type of waste is the last thing we can afford. Lean startup methodology, which moves beyond lean six-sigma process innovation to address the challenge of innovation, has taken the business world by storm in the last several years, with businesses of all sizes and life stages using it to experience greater success. Our contention is that associations can benefit from applying this methodology as well.

Innovate the Lean Way shares the basics of lean startup principles:

  • Business model canvas
  • The build-measure-learn cycle
  • Minimum Viable Product
  • The pivot

And the stories of four associations that are using lean startup methodology effectively to improve their innovation efforts:

  • The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: Pivoting from Lean Process Improvement to Lean Startup
  • IEEE: The Power of the Pilot
  • NAFSA – Association of International Educators: Combining Design Thinking and Lean Startup
  • NCARB (Guillermo’s organization): Learning with Lean

Our goal is to help association leaders understand the benefits of applying this technique in your own organizations to eliminate waste, validate your learning, and innovate faster and more successfully.

I’ll be blogging more about the whitepaper in the coming days, but in the meantime, pick up your free copy at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Posted in Feature Story, innovation, leadership, whitepaper | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Innovate the Lean Way

“There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing.”

Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Director, Information Systems, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)

Given associations’ tight resources, we can’t afford to waste time pursuing the wrong thing. Lean startup methodology (as opposed to lean six-sigma) has taken the business world by storm in the last several years, with businesses of all sizes and life stages experiencing success following its principles of building the minimum viable product, measuring what happens, and learning whether to proceed, stop, or pivot.

I’m excited to share that the newest Spark whitepaper is launching NEXT week. It’s co-authored with Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate and it applies lean startup methodology in the association sphere. Our position is that the keys to lean startup methodology – the Business Model Canvas, the Build-Measure-Learn cycle, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and the Pivot – are just as valuable and useful to associations as to the tech startups where the concepts originated. We think this same process can be used successfully by associations, and we have the case studies to back it up!

We’ll be launching the whitepaper with a FREE webinar Wednesday, October 21 at noon ET as part of the Thought Leader Series. Join us to learn how you can apply this technique in your own organization to eliminate waste, validate your learning, and innovate faster and more successfully. You can find out more and register (it’s free! and it includes CAE credit!) at the website.

Oh – and check back here next week to download the actual whitepaper (also free).

Posted in Feature Story, innovation, leadership, webinars, whitepaper | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I’ve Looked at RFPs from Both Sides Now – Part 2

Reposting this (slightly edited) Thanks for Playing classic, because this topic has come up recently on ASAE’s Collaborate online community.

Clients aren’t the only ones who could use some advice to make the Request for Proposal (RFP) process go more smoothly. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of good, bad, and ugly in vendor responses, too. To that end…

RFP Dos & Don’ts – For the (Potential) Vendor:

DO proofread! The client is probably not going to discount your proposal because of one or two typos. Probably. But one or two typos per page or serious grammatical problems lead people to question your attention to detail, your competence, and frankly, your intelligence. Even small shops usually have at least one person who’s a good editor. Have her give all your proposals a once over before they go out the door. If you’re the one in a hundred shop that doesn’t have anyone on staff who can copy edit, hire somebody.
DO call the client. The RFP process is kind of like dating. Signing the contract is kind of like getting married. You should get to know each other better before making that commitment.
DO be accessible. When the client contacts you, take her call. Answer her email. Call her back. And do it quickly – not two weeks from now. Yeah, you’re busy – she’s busy too. But don’t make her call out the FBI to find you if she has a question. However…
DON’T hound clients. If she tells you she’ll be letting all the vendors know one way or the other on Friday, don’t call her Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and twice on Thursday “just to check in and see if you have any questions.” Just don’t.
DO respect the process. Assuming the client read part one of this two part series, she probably wrote a pretty good RFP that includes information about the timeline and decision criteria. Subverting the process by going around her to her boss or her staff is a BIG no-no. If she says the proposal deadline is Friday at 5 pm ET, have it to her by Friday at 5 pm ET. And if that’s going to be a problem, don’t wait until Friday at 4:53 pm ET to ask for an extension.
DON’T talk about what your competitors do or don’t do. Nine times out of ten, you’re wrong. Even that one time that you’re right, it’s petty and doesn’t reflect well on you or your firm. When a client is reading your proposal or talking to you, she cares about what you can and can’t do. She’ll worry about your competitors if and when he talks to them.
DON’T send the LONGEST possible proposal. DO send the SHORTEST possible proposal that answers the client’s questions and addresses her needs. She’s probably reading four to six (or more) of these things. If they’re each 50 pages, that’s 200-300 pages. She’s not even going to remember who’s who by the end! Edit, edit, edit!
DO skip the boilerplate marketing fluff. She’s seen it. Everybody says they’ve got the greatest widget since sliced widgets were invented. It just pads up your presentation and wastes trees and time.
DO have good references in the market. Sure, the client’s going to call your reference list (aka, Your Carefully Chosen Group of Only Your Most Blissfully Happy Clients EVER), but if she knows what she’s doing, she’s also going to ask around. Three glowing references don’t help you if the ten other clients she finds through her own network all hate you. Remember: as long as your price is in the ballpark and the client is confident you can do the work, she’s buying based on relationship, personality, and reputation. Make sure yours is sterling.
DO make sure the client can open your files. You know what doesn’t cause problems? PDF. And if you send over your proposal and don’t receive an acknowledgment that the client got it, drop her an email without attachments or give her a quick call to make sure it arrived. She asked for your proposal. She wants to get it. If it’s stuck in her spam filter, she wants to know. It’s OK to check. Really.

What’s the common theme? Relationship. We’re about to enter into a relationship. You don’t start a dating relationship by refusing to talk to the other party, withholding information, and putting them through a lot of silly, unnecessary tests (and if you do, odds are you’re single), and you don’t want to start a vendor relationship that way, either.

Posted in management | Tagged | 2 Comments

I’ve Looked at RFPs from Both Sides Now

Reposting this (slightly edited) Thanks for Playing classic, because this topic has come up recently on ASAE’s Collaborate online community.

In 18+ years in association management, I’ve been on both sides of the Request For Proposal process more times than I can count. My very first Big Task at my very first association Real Job way back in 1997 was to complete an association management software system selection. Which, of course, included writing an RFP (after I met all the vendors, but that’s another post). As a consultant from February 2007 – May 2009 and running Spark since August 2012, I’ve seen it all: the good – the bad – the ugly. You name it, I’ve written it, seen it, or responded to it.

I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way. The MOST IMPORTANT THING I’ve learned is don’t do an RFP unless outside forces (i.e., your boss or board) are conspiring to force you. If you’re on board with that, you’re done. Skip the rest of this post and go get yourself a margarita, with my compliments.

Much like a heavily scripted demo, RFPs take a lot of time and energy to write, you invariably forget important elements, and you make it too easy for vendors to make it appear like they fit your organization and needs, whether they actually do or not.

However, if you disregard my warning or can’t opt out and go ahead with an RFP anyway, there are some steps you can take to make the process less painful for everyone involved.

RFP Dos & Don’ts – For the (Potential) Client:

  • DO allow vendors a reasonable amount of time to respond. If you send out an RFP and demand a response in 3 days, non-desperate-for-business vendors are probably going to pass. That’s not nearly long enough to read and absorb all your information, talk to the internal team who would be involved in your project to get their input, schedule a call with you to confirm that we understand your needs, and write and edit a coherent response. So the only responses you’re likely to get will be from vendors who aren’t busy. You know how they always say, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”? Same thing holds for choosing a vendor.
  • DON’T send out a 50 page RFP. Give your prospective vendors some background on your organization, the problem you’re looking to solve, key requirements of the solution, your time frame, your decision-making process, your ballpark budget (more on that below), and your contact information. Finito. If that takes 50 pages to convey, you have bigger problems. And DO make your proposal easy to read and process. You love bullet points? EVERYONE loves bullet points.
  • DON’T forbid vendors to contact you. You’re just shooting yourself in the foot. The best vendor/client situation is a partnership that develops into a long-term relationship. “You aren’t allowed to call me, and if you try to, I’m going to disqualify you,” is a fairly adversarial way to start. And you’re going to receive lower-quality largely boilerplate proposals as a result. Or a bunch of proposals that completely miss the point.
  • DO share the questions that one vendor asks with all the vendors who received the RFP. Just because one vendor didn’t think to ask it doesn’t mean knowing the answer won’t help them create a better response.
  • DO focus on your needs and problems, but allow the vendor to propose the solution. This will help you evaluate how well the vendor thinks through your problems rather than just parroting your solution back to you.
  • DO your homework. DON’T send your RFP to 37 vendors. There’s no way 37 different vendors are even potentially a good fit. Send it to four to six carefully chosen vendors who are REAL candidates. Yes, that means you need to pre-qualify your vendors. Yes, that also means you’re actually going to have to talk to people. But if a given vendor starts pestering you mercilessly, doesn’t that tell you something important about her? And wouldn’t you rather know that now than six months into a project that’s rapidly going south?
  • DO be realistic about your project time frame. Maybe that means you have to stand up to your board or take some heat from your boss, but vendors really have done enough of your type of engagement to have a good sense of how long it will take. If a vendor tells you it’s going to take six months to complete your project, she probably knows what she’s talking about. Trying to force it into three months only results in a sloppy process, shallow research and thinking, and rushed decision making.
  • DO acknowledge the responses you receive. How else will your prospective vendors know their carefully crafted documents didn’t get stuck in your spam filter?
  • DO be up front about your process and keep your prospective vendors informed. If you’re running behind in your specified schedule for vendor selection, let them know (that way they don’t start pestering you if the vendor notification deadline comes and goes and they haven’t heard anything from you). If you chose someone, let the losers know (that way you don’t stay on their weekly tickler list FOREVER, with the result that you end up afraid to answer your phone). Yes, these can be difficult conversations to have, but we’re all supposed to be grown ups here and this is business.
  • DO try to provide a ballpark budget. And if you don’t and a prospective vendor asks you about it, DON’T get huffy. She’s not trying to cheat you – she’s trying to make sure the level of effort she’s proposing matches your expectations. “Research” can mean two hours on Google, or six months flying all over the country to meet in person with all your members. Those don’t cost the same amount of money. Sometimes, she’s even trying to figure out whether she should propose at all. If her normal budget for a particular type of engagement is $20K, and your ballpark is $100K, you’re probably looking for a bigger firm. This isn’t an attempt to spend every last penny of the budget you’ve allocated. Really.
  • DON’T just automatically throw out the low bid and the high bid. Yes, that is a decent guideline, but before you discount those vendors, talk to them and see if there’s a good reason they’re high (you were thinking Y level of effort and they proposed Yx2) or low (they really want your particular organization as a client and are discounting their normal rates).
  • DO make sure your team is lined up in advance. Most vendors don’t have a huge bench of staff just sitting around waiting for your project to go/no go. They have to schedule their people, too. And if you’re telling a vendor you’re going to start a huge project on October 1 and you want to move fast and get it done, she’s going to reserve time with all the relevant staff and turn down other work for them. And if you then on September 30 tell her that, oops, you forgot to check schedules and three of your four core team members are going to be out of the country for the next three weeks and then after that, your key internal stakeholders will be fully booked because it’s four weeks from your annual meeting, she’s going to be annoyed. That is not a good way to launch a partnership.
  • DON’T hide information. Yes, you want to represent your organization in the best light and you don’t want to air dirty laundry before strangers, but if there are significant internal political considerations or there’s about to be a major re-org, your prospective vendor need to know. You’re not going to want to put that in the RFP, but it would be a great topic of conversation when she calls you to discuss your RFP and your needs. And DO include baseline information, particularly if the engagement is about more (members, website visitors, volunteers, donors) or less (processing time, costs, use of staff resources).
  • DON’T make vendors jump through dumb hoops. Don’t tell them what fonts, margins, etc. to use. If you really need five printed, bound copies of all the proposals FedExed to your Executive Committee, fine. But don’t make vendors do that just to see if they will.

Got anything good I missed? Leave it in the comments.

Posted in management | Tagged | 5 Comments

Moving from Inside-Out to Outside-In

Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks) and I recently had the chance to sit down with Justin Burniske (fusionSpan) to talk about some of the issues raised in our recent whitepaper, Leading Engagement from the Outside In, for the Small Staff – Big Impact blog.

In part two of our video interview, we talk about:

  • The difference between the inside-out and outside-in approaches to member engagement
  • The role of technology in creating outside-in member engagement
  • How to get started creating outside-in member engagement

Did you miss part one? Check it out here. And don’t forget to download your free copy of the whitepaper at!


Posted in Feature Story, innovation, leadership, membership, video, whitepaper | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Collaborate LARP at #ASAE15

ants helping each otherMany association executives are familiar with ASAE’s online member community, Collaborate.

In just under two weeks, at the 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting in Detroit, I’ll be facilitating a session called “Request and Re-gift.” It’s based on 2014 annual meeting opening keynoter Adam Grant’s concept of giving and receiving via reciprocity circles.

In other words, it’s kind of a live-action, IRL Collaborate, designed to allow you to expand your network and tap into that network in some hopefully unexpected ways. The session will allow every single participant to both ask for and offer help.

What kind of help?

That’s really up to you. You can certainly ask for typical Collaborate-type help: I need a good consultant or vendor recommendation, I have an association business-related question, there’s a particular person I’d like to be introduced to, etc.

But it’s also OK to ask for something personal, or even just to share a challenge you’re personally experiencing to see if anyone can offer help.

Other good options include:

  • Ask for something on behalf of someone else
  • Ask for something that would increase your positive impact on the world
  • Ask for something meaningful
  • Ask for something you care about
  • Ask for something you really can’t get on your own (it’s not just something you could Google)

If you’ll be in Detroit for ASAE, I hope to see you in room 320 of the Cobo Center, Monday, August 10 at 9 am. Bring your most pressing personal or professional problem,  to share with your fellow execs to give – and receive – help solving it.


Posted in collaboration, community, conferences, presentations | Tagged | Leave a comment

You Engage By Being Engaging

Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks) and I recently had the chance to sit down with Justin Burniske (fusionSpan) to talk about some of the issues raised in our recent whitepaper, Leading Engagement from the Outside In, for the Small Staff – Big Impact blog.

In the video interview, we talk about the three main engagement mistakes associations make:

  • Equating engagement with sales
  • Limiting paths to engagement
  • Lack of curiosity about the members (we want them to engage with us, but we don’t engage with them)

We also address the role of the board of directors in engagement, talk about co-creation and co-development, and share some of what we learned from the associations and other organizations that generously contributed their stories and experiences for our case studies.

Don’t forget to download your free copy of the whitepaper at, and make sure to watch Small Staff – Big Impact (or this space) for part 2 of the interview.

Posted in innovation, leadership, membership, video, whitepaper | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Recapping the Outside-In Engagement #Assnchat

Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks) and I had the opportunity to guest moderate #assnchat on Tuesday, July 14, with discussion focused around the issues we raise in our new whitepaper, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In (download your free copy at

In case you missed it, here’s a recap of the high points of the conversation.

Q1 How do you currently learn about your audiences? How do you share that knowledge internally?

People up brought up a lot of the usual suspects: demographic data collection, emails, calls, surveys, focus groups, online profiles/subscriptions, and event evaluations.

Partners in Association Management had a great response:

Q2 How are you capturing and sharing learning from less formal interactions?

Brandon Robinson asked:

We all agreed that it did, and Lowell Apelbaum added:

Partners in Association Management also keeps something they call “back pocket lists”: good ideas that couldn’t be implemented at the time someone came up with them that they reserve for a more suitable time.

Q3 What do you know about the outcomes your audiences seek? How are you helping them achieve those outcomes?

This question launched some observations about different generations in the workforce and the association having different goals, with Karen Hansen also pointing out:

We also talked about the whole “what keeps you up at night?” question (which is one of Anna’s favorites), and Lowell Apelbaum observed:

Q4 How do you discover what your audiences really value? How do you use that information?

People had lots of good suggestions here, ranging from pilot programs to trial and error, asking them, tracking behavior, observing what they spread/share/talk about/promote, and Ewald Consulting went kind of Zen Master on us:

That’s deep, man.


Q5 How do you facilitate building authentic relationships w your audiences? Between members?


Lots of great chatter here, too, but Karen Hansen had a simple, powerful response:

Treat members like human beings?!?! Radical concept!

Q6 How do you develop new products/programs/services? How do you collaborate with members on this?

Lowell (who was really on a roll today) had another great response for this one:

When we got to question 7, we kind of heard crickets:


Q7 How do you encourage collaboration between audiences and association? Among members?


Opinion was pretty much universal that this is a big struggle for associations. Kait Solomon pointed out:

Q8 How do you currently define engagement? Is your definition adequate/satisfactory?

Where Kait also observed that “engagement” has become a buzzword, and I quoted Ed Bennett, who recently pointed out that if there’s no ring involved, we probably need to stop talking about engagement and focus on what we really mean: conversation, talking, listening, relationship.

Q9 What do you do with members once you engage them? What’s the next step/goal?

I’m going back to Lowell again:

Our final question, which is the challenge I’m going to leave you with, too was:

Q10 What is one action you could take today to start your association on the path to outside-in engagement?

Not sure how to answer that? Check out the whitepaper at to get some ideas!

Posted in innovation, leadership, membership, whitepaper | Tagged , , | 1 Comment