This question helps you uncover the assumptions embedded in an idea. Often assumptions for programs and services are hidden in three key areas: audience, problem and solution. For the idea to be a good one, you need to have found the right audience, correctly identified an important problem and designed a solution that is viable.
Let me give you an example. Using a design thinking approach to design new offerings for key segments of our organization’s audience, a team I led at my last association was able to design experiments that gave us feedback in each of these three key areas.
In one instance, we had designed a program for one audience segment. After we tested the idea with the target audience and received positive feedback, we proceeded to run a pilot. After successfully offering the program to one segment the association’s audience, we were able to replicate it for another audience.
Often this area is the most likely to trip you up. Have you identified a problem that is worth solving? Or a problem that is really critical for your target audience? Or is it just something that would be nice to solve? When hard choices are made about time, money and energy, this challenge gets put on the back burner.
To test our understanding of the problem, we wrote a problem statement or description of what we thought the problem was. For example: “association professionals often have a clear understanding of the views of their highly engaged volunteers, but are not sure that these reflect their average member.” Through our experiments, we were able to get feedback on how important each issue was. With feedback we were able to eliminate a number of ideas that addressed problems that were not seen as critical.
When is the last time you got caught up in your idea and created something more elaborate than was really needed? In one case of one program we were testing with members, during the brainstorming stage, the design team had envisioned an executive leadership development program with an extensive online wrap around component. After testing and customer feedback, we learned that members were interested in the in-person aspect of the program. They doubted, however, that they would use the online components. Thus with a short testing period, we were able to eliminate a costly aspect of the program that would have be time consuming and resource intensive to create. It would have also necessitated increasing the program price, yet our research showed it did not provide sufficient value.
By testing early, getting feedback from customers we were able to learn and iterate, saving money and staff time by eliminating options that sounded promising at the white board but proved to have faulty assumptions.
Want to talk about how this might apply to your organization? Request a free coaching session.
In my last post I described ‘Lean Start Up’ – a process that became popular in Silicon Valley and the business sector and now is gaining traction in the nonprofit sector. One of the key elements of lean start up is creating a ‘minimally viable product’ to use to test a new idea with customers. But how do you create a ‘minimally viable product’ for the types of programs and services that associations and nonprofits typically create? They are rarely concrete products that can easily be prototyped.
There are ways to test your program and service ideas with your target audiences. They range from storyboards to explainer videos to creating a concierge version of your service. Answer the question – what is the simplest and least expensive way to test your idea? Ideally it enables you to test your idea by observing behavior.
Storyboards are essentially a ‘graphic novel’ or comic strip version of your idea. On one project I was facilitating, we used this technique to test our ideas with customers. We first had team members sketch out their idea – stick figures were just fine. This step helped team members push themselves to build out what sometimes was somewhat of a vague generic concept to delineating the concrete aspects of the program or service. We then had a professional illustrator clean up our crude sketches for testing with members.
Another possibility is to create a short video that explains and illustrates your idea. Dropbox used this method to test the viability of its service. They looked at how many people watched the video and more importantly how often people forwarded the video to test enthusiasm for the idea.
Simple Web Pages
Create a marketing page describing your idea. Perhaps it says it is ‘coming soon.’ Include a way to sign up and get more information. See how many people opt in.
Another alternative is to create a concierge version of your service. This is especially helpful when its full version would include automation. You build the basic marketing pages and for anyone who signs up staff process the item manually behind the scenes. Your goal is to see how many people enroll and the interest before you spend money on developing a complicated back end.
Learn more about storyboarding with this free resource.
Want to talk about how you might apply this to your situation? Get in touch for a free coaching session.
An influential volunteer has an idea. They just came back from a conference and heard about an initiative another organization is doing. They think it would be perfect for your organization. When they describe the idea it sounds really intriguing. There is revenue potential and it promises to more fully engage your constituents. Your board and/or senior staff have a conversation about the idea and decide a staff person should put together a business plan. The staff person works on it and the projections look really promising. A staff team is pulled together and their other projects are put on the back burner. As the initiative gets closer to launch, a communications and marketing plan is put together. The initiative launches with lots of internal fan fare. And then….
What went wrong?
Crickets. Very few people enroll. Internal discussion concludes that it must be the messaging. Marketing messages are tweaked and a new set of email blasts are designed and scheduled. But interest and enrollment remain low. What went wrong?
Lean Start Up
The lean start up approach is designed to address this common problem. People falling in love with their own ideas, settling on a wonderful sounding solution without really understanding the problem they are solving for the members or constituents they are trying to serve. Eric Ries created the method with the intent to shift entrepreneurs energy from developing elaborate business plans to ‘getting out of the building” and testing their assumptions with customers. Because it focuses on managing risk and conserving resources it is a good fit for resource poor nonprofits.
Build, Measure, Learn
Lean start up helps you answer the question – how do we know what is actually worth working on? Based on three major steps – build, measure, learn, you create a minimally viable product instead of a business plan; identify assumptions by asking the question – what needs to be true for this to be a good idea and then design brief experiments to test these assumptions. Once the experiments are complete and you assess your results and learn from it. Does the evidence point to continuing with your idea as is? Or do you need to pivot? Or do you perhaps need to drop the idea and not expend any further resources on it?
In the example above, instead of proceeding with a business plan and then immediately into launching a project team to build out the idea, the team would instead identify the assumptions inherent in the idea and then design experiments to test these assumptions with customers.
Unearthing Your Assumptions
Where traditional program design approaches have emphasized careful and lengthy planning, lean start up emphasizes experiments. In the past, new ideas were often based on intuition and anecdotes. Unfortunately these hunches were rarely tested with the audience they were designed for. Instead lean start up moves from an idea to gathering feedback almost immediately. Like the example at the beginning, many organizations have emphasized the ‘big launch’ after a closed or even secret design process. Lean start up focuses on the iterative process – getting feedback quickly and learning from it.
Think this might be a good approach for your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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