Archive for the 'Innovation' Category


Time to cut the fat

cutting-fat-thumb18752006Like most businesses, associations have a lot of bulk. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to trim the fat.

That said, eliminating wasted efforts and minimizing defects can lead to new products and innovations, according to a new whitepaper by Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

From the whitepaper: “Is there a process that can help associations achieve our missions, stay in business, find problems worth solving and make a real and meaningful difference for our members, achieving the sustainable, dynamic impact we seek? Your authors would argue that there is: lean startup methodology, as most fully developed and articulated by Eric Ries in his 2011 book ‘The Lean Startup.’”

Elizabeth Engel

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

I asked Engel to break it down for us, and following is our Q & A. Thanks to Engel for her contribution!

Q: How would you simply explain lean startup methodology?
A: Lean startup is an innovation system developed by Eric Ries that came out of his experiences with lean process improvement, which is all about reducing waste and defects and working more efficiently and effectively. Ries had an insight: It doesn’t matter how quickly you’re moving if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Lean startup methodology is designed to help make sure you’re going the right way and going there quickly and efficiently.

Q: Why is it important?
A: To quote Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, my co-author, “There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing.”

Lean startup methodology has been being used not just in startups, but also in more conventional for-profit business, for several years. And that makes it easy for associations to dismiss: “We aren’t a startup – or even a for-profit. This isn’t for us.”

Guillermo and I would argue that associations share a key characteristic with startups: tight resources (and by that, we mean human as well as financial resources). Those perpetually tight resources are precisely why this methodology is so useful for our community.

Q: How do you think associations, specifically, could benefit from practicing this methodology?
A: In associations, decision-making is often driven by anecdotes, untested assumptions and the HIPO (highest income/influence person’s opinion). “One of our board members talked to a member who said she wants X so therefore everyone must want X and therefore we have to go build X immediately.”

But are you sure you’re solving a real problem that’s important to at least one of your key audiences, in a way that’s useful and makes sense to them – and that they’re willing to pay?


Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

That very situation was what sparked Guillermo’s interest in lean startup methodology. His association, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is one of the case studies in the whitepaper, and he relates two stories: one of a project that took place before NCARB starting using lean startup that was NOT the right problem, the right audience or the right solution; the second of a project after NCARB “saw the light” that was far more successful for them.

Q: Walk me through the build-measure-learn cycle…what’s involved?
A: The build-measure-learn cycle is the core of the methodology.

In lean startup, you build first. That means you’re trying to get the Minimum Viable Product (that is, the minimum version of the product you can build with the smallest investment of resources and effort that would still be real enough to let you start testing your assumptions) out to your audience as quickly as possible. No theorizing or speculating, no “stealth mode,” no working for two years on creating the absolute perfect thing (that you then discover no one wants). You build a prototype and get people using it and offering feedback as quickly as you can and with as small an investment of resources as possible.

Next, you measure. You’ve identified a problem you think might be worth solving, and you have a hypothesis about what the right solution might be. Now you have to test whether your hypothesis is correct. You have to identify and track a few key measures that will prove – or disprove – your theory.

That testing leads to learning. Did you identify something that’s a real and important problem? Are you targeting your solution at the right audience? Does your solution work and make sense for them, at a price they’re willing to pay?

The only way to reliably answer those questions is to let people use your product and find out what they think and how they act. That information feeds back to your team so you can get closer to where you should be going in your next MVP iteration.

Q: Change can be scary. So what do you think is the best first step?
A: First of all, the whitepaper is just a primer on lean startup methodology and is designed to introduce the concept to association executives and hopefully pique their interest in learning more. If that’s you, I’d strongly encourage you to read some of the more extensive treatments of lean startup we share in the bibliography, to get some formal training (and we share sources in the conclusion) or to join a local lean startup MeetUp group for peer-to-peer learning.

Beyond that, start small, with something that lies completely in your own area of responsibility and is relatively low profile. Once you have a few examples of how the methodology works, it’s time to start sharing your story.

Q: Let’s say associations are ready to start with lean. How do they achieve buy in from the board of directors? members? staff?
A: It’s all about being able to demonstrate that the methodology works, which is different from building the perfect product right out of the gate.

To quote two of the other key thinkers in lean startup, Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer: “It’s liberating to recognize that no human being can guess correctly when you face uncertainty, and that part of the process is making changes to adjust to these inevitable errors.”

That’s what’s so powerful about lean startup: You are not going to get it right all the time. This methodology is built on that fact and structured to help you move as quickly and efficiently as possible from “here’s an interesting idea” to “here’s a program, product or service that we know – because we’ve been testing it all along the way – our audiences want, need, will use and will pay for.”

LeanstartupQ: And finally, what are two or three takeaways from your research that you’d like to share?
A: I’d strongly encourage people to download the whitepaper – it’s free – and read the stories of four associations we interviewed, all of which are using lean startup. It’s eye opening to see how this methodology works in real situations, where your peers are using it to help their organizations provide better service for their members and other audiences and invest their resources more efficiently and effectively.

Second, one of the concerns we’ve heard over and over from associations is: “What about our brand?” Again, quoting Guillermo: “In associations, we tend to worry that releasing a half-baked program will negatively impact the brand. I would argue that doing the same thing year after year without changing also negatively impacts your brand.”

Also, you have to realize that lean startup may not be suitable for every single initiative of your association or for every single audience – it’s hard to create a Minimum Viable Certification. Some of your members will not be O.K. with beta-testing a new product for you. But some will love that and leap at the opportunity to co-create a new service with the association. It’s up to you to find those people, who are your champions and allies in this.


Bonus content – Event Garde e-news – September edition

Cora Geujen

Cora Geujen, director of event planning, Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa

Q & A with Cora Geujen, director of event planning, Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa

Q: If you could live someone else’s life for a day, who would it be, and why?
A: Princess Catharine’s, of course. For the hair and wardrobe.

Q: What’s your spirit animal, and why?
A: The first animal that popped into my mind was a tigress; I’m fierce when needed, protective of my team and always in the background to keep informed of what’s going on with my team. But of course I had to take an Internet quiz and it turns out I identify with the butterfly, with a secondary connection to the tiger. Go figure.

Q: Chocolate, strawberry or vanilla ice cream, and why?
A: Chocolate with a side of mint chips. Because I’m fresh.

Q: Which adjectives best describe you?
A: Snarky…

Q: If you could eat only one food for a week, what would it be, and why?
A: My mother’s Thanksgiving stuffing. It tastes like family and transports me back to my childhood.


Bonus content – Event Garde e-news – July edition

Allison McClintick

Allison McClintick, CEO/leader development specialist, FlightLead Consulting

Q & A with Allison McClintick, CEO/leader development specialist, FlightLead Consulting

Q: Would you rather sky dive, bungee jump or climb to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, and why?
A: If the goal is to put myself into cardiac arrest, I would say all three! All those choices seem equally terrifying because I am totally not OK with being in the air like that! I would rather check out all the sacred Native American sites in America or camp in Yellowstone or tour all of America’s national parks! When it comes to adventure, I am a “feet on the ground” girl!

Q: It’s almost 4th of July! Which type of firework best represents your life?
A: I am split on this one. A very real part of me would be best represented by an M-80 – you know the ones that just go off and sound like a bomb? I can be very aggressive, loud and startling! The other part of me would love to be represented by a colorful sparkler – long-lasting, non-threatening and fun to hold and run around with!

Q: If you could live your life as an animal, what would you be, and why?
A: I would be very curious to live out my life as a dolphin. These animals are wicked smart and I feel there is a whole world of mystery and magic down there that we don’t know about. Their language is so complex – scientists say they may have even more evolved intuition and emotional intelligence than humans. That would be incredible! And because I feel like two totally different people in my life, I would not hate being on a wild horse in the 1800s Wild West. How amazing would that be?

Q: Again… it’s almost a holiday, so what’s your favorite picnic food?
A: The only reason why I don’t eat certain picnic foods is because they are usually awful for you. But everyone knows that calories don’t count on a holiday, so bring it!

Q: If I were writing a book about your life, what would the title be, and why?
A: Oh, this is easy. “Rebel With a Cause.” I am a serious pain in the neck. I have never done things the way people expect; I have always fought against conformity in its many manifestations; and I feel pretty comfortable with what I was put here to do. I don’t intentionally set out to be a rebel, but it has always worked out that way! Only took me 39 years to figure out how to make it work out for me!


Us vs. them

member_engagement_retentionWe hear it all the time: We live in a “me” society. Most of us, at some point, have asked, “What’s in this for me?

Associations aren’t any different. Think about it: How many associations want to boost revenue by hoping their members buy more? How many times have we wished we could just get more volunteers?

In other words, we ask, “How can we get our members to do what we want them to do?”

Newsflash: It’s not about us. It’s about them.

“Unfortunately, while we’ve been busily building and marketing the programs, products and services we think our audiences might like, the world has changed,” write Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CEO & chief strategist, Spark Consulting LLC, and Anna Caraveli, managing partner, The Demand Networks LLC, in their new whitepaper. “In 2015, customers are looking for more than a transaction; they’re looking for custom solutions that can be constructed only through authentic relationships of the type, duration and intensity they—not you—want.

Focusing on member engagement, Engel and Caraveli provide some guidance for associations to transform their thinking: Instead of defining engagement as what they value, associations should be asking how they can help their members accomplish their goals.

Here are some “what-ifs” for associations to consider:

  • What if, instead of membership and product sales, our goal was to enable members to achieve the outcomes that matter most to them?
  • What if, instead of looking inward to try to build the perfect product, we looked outward to our audiences, interacting with them to understand their needs and experiences?
  • What if, instead of viewing members as passive consumers of our benefits and programs, we worked with them as co-developers of the value our associations provide?
  • What if, we gave up control and encouraged our audiences to define the terms of their own involvement with us

And yes, sometimes this means competition.

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

The key is to figure out how your association, better than other organizations, can truly engage members and potential members. Thanks to 24-7 access to information, simply being experts in a field won’t cut it anymore. Your members can find information anytime, anywhere, with a click of mouse.

So how do associations compete? They should use their networks to build engaging communities and to listen to their members’ collective voice to learn what really matters, the whitepaper suggests. Associations should ask: What do our members really want to succeed? What are the needs and issues we can help address?

“Adopting the outside-in approach to engagement means your sole goal is to create value for members,” Engel and Caraveli said. “Everything else (program categories, mix of benefits, organizational structure) can be questioned, transformed or even eliminated as long as doing so solves your audiences’ problems and creates value that engages them.”

Some tips:

  • Ask people to contribute. Don’t just create products, events and resources you think people want. Instead, engage your members’ skill sets. Ask them to help create value.
  • Work toward providing your members’ goals – not your own. Get rid of the things that aren’t working and instead focus on those that are. The most engaged members are those who feel you truly care about their personal and professional development.
  • Include everyone, from every department, in your engagement strategy. It shouldn’t just be the job of the membership department. This means breaking down internal silos. It’s important for everyone to work as a team, rather than people looking out for themselves. Sometimes this means getting rid of the fat.
  • Act – don’t just talk. If you ask for members’ feedback, truly mean it. Be willing to make suggested changes. Remember: It’s not about sales; it’s about your members’ success.

It’s not easy, and it may require an entire shift of focus. Simply put: Associations may have to dump the old and bring in the new.

Anna Caraveli

Anna Caraveli, managing partner, The Demand Networks, LLC

But it’s worth it.

“Properly understood, engagement is nothing more or less than the development of real relationships with our members and other audiences,” Engel and Careveli wrote. “Authentic relationships take time to develop, involve increasing commitment on both sides, require us continually to be learning more about each other and are focused on helping each other achieve important goals. Through the process of developing genuine relationships, associations become necessary partners in helping our audiences achieve their most important goals, and we achieve our goals—to be financially healthy, vital, growing, mission-driven organizations—as a result.”


Left brain vs. right brain: Which wins the event planning game?

Brain hemispheres sketchSo apparently I’m right brained. At least according to this test.

I guess that’s not surprising considering I’m a writer. But I’m also extremely detail-oriented and analyze everything, so I think I’m a good mix. Yeah. I’ll go with that.

While most people think with mostly their left side or mostly their right side, it’s crucial to have a bit of both.

And so, I encourage you to take the aforementioned into account after reading this sentence: New research by London and Partners, the official convention bureau of London, and indicates that event planners aren’t as creative as they thought.

Yep. Research suggests the event management industry is filled with left-brained thinkers.

Samantha Whitehorne recently wrote an enlightening Associations Now blog post on the research. And I encourage you fellow right-brain thinkers to get a chuckle from it.

For the study, more than 400 event planners had their brains analyzed to see if they’re more “rationale left brained” or “emotional right brained” thinkers. And while most felt they performed their jobs creatively, only 39 percent were indeed considered creative thinkers.

Maybe that’s because, according to the study, only 34 percent of respondents said they’re given time to think out of the box and only 32 percent said creativity is rewarded. Furthermore, more than half of the respondents said the budget just didn’t support risk taking.

2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg“Ours is an industry within which logic and in-depth planning are absolutely critical to successful outcomes,” said Tracy Halliwell, director of business tourism and major events at London and Partners. “Creativity and innovation are growing ever more important as clients demand event activations that set them apart from their competitors and deliver enduring memories for consumers. The experience itself is now what drives the event, but it’s only by combining pioneering ideas with concrete solutions that we can truly surprise and delight.”

So what does the right brain vs. left brain debate mean for event planning?

Here’s a good summary from Cathy Key in a recent Event Manager blog post:

Left-brained people tend to be detail oriented and thrive on data. So event ROI is important. Also, they don’t like to take risks, so most likely, they’ll create a road map for events.

In contrast, right-brain thinkers bring to the table a flare for ingenuity and creativity. They look at the big picture and thrive on feedback and emotion to measure success. Event ROI is less important to right-brain people, who are willing to trust their gut instinct.

“While we need the analysis and fact-finding powers of the left brain, when it comes to motivating our team, ourselves and our attendees, we need right-brain thinking,” Key wrote. “We need to have an emotional connection to our events if we are going to really enjoy our work. When we are connected to WHY we are involved with an event, working late nights and pulling out all the stops is natural. Without the WHY all you have is hard work.”

Another way to look at it: The left side of the brain sets the goals and the right side finds the purpose.

creativity2But a good event planner needs to think with both sides of the brain. While creativity reaps huge rewards, we need left-brain thinkers to keep us in check. And so, event management teams should comprise both types of thinkers.

“While time constraints and restricted budgets can sometimes hinder creativity, a balance is always needed between the creative and the logical,” said Chetan Shah, founder and CEO of “Great teams bring together a mix of personalities, approaches to work and creative or logical attributes. Whether someone is left or right-brained, their attributes and strengths should be encouraged and nurtured to ensure their events are spectacular, both rationally and emotionally.”

Take the test and let us know. Are you left- or right-brained?


Bonus Content – Event Garde e-news – April edition

Jeff Hurt

Jeff Hurt, executive vice president, education and engagement, for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hurt.

Q & A with Jeff Hurt, Executive Vice President, Education and Engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

Q: It’s a Saturday night. What would we most likely find you doing?
A: Catching up on a favorite series like “House of Cards,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Scandal” or “How To Get Away With Murder” before I go out with a few friends for a quick dinner.

Q: If you had to title a book that best sums up your life, what would it be?
A: “From The Mixed Up Files of Windomere Ave.”

Q: What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without, and why?
A: Family and friends. We are wired to connect and I need their support, love and hugs often. I travel so much and give so much of my life away that I return home tired and emotionally drained. I need people surrounding me who will love and support me, even with all my cracks and imperfections.

Q: It’s a beautiful summer day and you’re relaxing in the park. Who do you hope sits next to you on the park bench, and why?
A: A total stranger who is willing to share something amazing and beautiful from his or her life.

Q: Tell us a little known fact about you – what makes you, you.
A: My waters run deep and I’m an introvert who has learned to be extroverted when needed. That being said, I spent four months as a rock and roll roadie running audio visual and sound for an unknown regional band.


Bonus content: Event Garde e-news – March edition

Q & A with Peggy Hoffman, President, Mariner Management and Marketing

 A tribute to the Academy Awards!

Peggy Hoffman

Peggy Hoffman, president of Mariner Management and Marketing, LLC

Q: If you had to walk the Red Carpet, what would your dress look like?
A: I’m a classic type and my best features are my legs and arms. So my selection would be either a classically sexy black dress, either short or long, with two side slits. Add an interesting off-the-shoulder sweetheart neckline to show off an incredible onyx, ruby and diamond necklace.

Q: The award for the “Best ____ ” goes to Peggy Hoffman.
A: Wow, this one is tough because I’m not generally going for one best thing but a best package. I’d like to shine as a friend, listener, supporter. The best compliment I ever got was my son saying to another,  “My mom is strong.”

Q: In your thank you speech, whom would you thank, and why?
A: The list is long – really – because I’ve gained so much from so many different people, largely because people see me in so many different lights. The list would start with two people: my husband, Peter, and my Mom, Louise. It would definitely include my three sons and two dance mentors, two athletic mentors, two awesome friends and two sisters. (Wow! Sounds like I’m filling an ark!)

Q: Now, let’s pretend you were at the awards show in Hollywood. Which actor or actress would you most like to meet that night?
A: There isn’t one who comes immediately to mind and that’s largely because I have this nagging doubt that none would live up to my opinion of them as an artist. But, I’d like to think that Carol Burnett might come close – so let’s say Carol.

Q: Favorite movie (regardless of whether it won on Oscar), and why?
A: So I’m approaching this question based on whether I can watch it over and over again … you know, when you’re on the treadmill and it’s the movie playing on AMC or the free movie channel. The answer then is a tie between “Italian Job” (a 2003 heist film directed by Gary Gray and starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham and Edward Norton) and “True Lies” (1994 action film directed by James Cameron starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis). For the record, neither are Oscar-worthy, but hey, they make being on the treadmill a delight!

meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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