Nonprofit Innovation: NCARB Brings New Product to Market

How The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Used Lean Innovation to Create New Value for Their Customers

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The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), a national nonprofit organization, develops standards for licensure and credentialing of architects. The organization reached out to Moves the Needle to expose more of its staff and leadership to an efficient way to develop new ideas using Lean Innovation techniques, and also to identify whether the organization would support this new way of working.

Moves the Needle assessed the current strategy of the organization and facilitated a five-day Lean Innovation Sprint to help staff tackle current challenges in a new way, and a five-month Accelerator to help one team make dramatic progress on a promising product idea from the Sprint.

The result: development of a market-ready product (lineup™) in a fraction of the time, and the confidence to apply their strengthened skill set to other areas of uncertainty.

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BECOMING PROACTIVE ABOUT CUSTOMER NEEDS

NCARB’s programming teams, already skilled in using agile work prioritization techniques, took part in Moves the Needle’s Lean Innovation Sprint to learn how to determine what work should be on its list, based on proactive and deep understanding of their customer.

At the time, most of the staff’s interactions with customers happened during the design phase, such as usability testing and design sessions. The list of work was developed based on internal assumptions of what customers needed.  

NCARB teams learned how to proactively reach out to customers to deeply understand them and to design quick experiments for testing potential solutions before building them.

The Sprint created a larger group of NCARB staffers who became passionate about Lean Innovation and were more comfortable getting out to engage with customers early – as well as failing quickly when needed.

We used to be so focused on releasing good products that we didn’t validate if we were spending time on the right thing, which slowed us down. Today we’re not afraid to be wrong – and that helps us move quickly.
— Guillermo Ortiz de Zárate, Chief Innovation and Information Officer, NCARB

UNCOVERING A PROMISING NEW PRODUCT OPPORTUNITY

The Lean Innovation Sprint also focused on validating a business idea: to take NCARB’s system for assessing volunteer architects’ skills and assembling diverse teams, and market it to audiences beyond architecture.

NCARB team members spent the next couple months trying to attract customers for the product, but found they were casting too wide a net and did not have a clear picture of which organizations would be a good fit for the solution.

NCARB invested a good deal of time and money delivering the minimum viable product for the first customer who expressed interest without testing whether this customer's problem was shared by many other customers or whether the solution solved the customer's problem. As a result, the product garnered little attention from early potential buyers.

The team was ready to take the next step of getting the necessary guidance and accountability support to strengthen their Lean Innovation muscle and speed up the product development progress.  

IDENTIFYING  EARLY ADOPTERS AND TESTING ASSUMPTIONS

Through a multi-month Lean Innovation Accelerator, NCARB received weekly coaching and monthly onsite visits. The support helped them focus on moving faster to identify who they want to create value for, and therefore, what the product needed to look like.

With this support, NCARB quickly narrowed down potential customer segments to nine groups. The team then studied each group to determine which ones might be early adopters of the skills assessment product, and which minimum product features would be needed to service each segment.

The assessment industry topped the list: Companies typically spent time and resources forming teams of subject-matter-experts (SMEs) that produced only average results. The teams were managed via spreadsheets, making the process fairly painful.

With a clear customer focus, the team was able to run rapid experiments and quickly test assumptions about the product and its audience. Through this process, NCARB developed a solid list of features to add to the product, in addition to a pricing structure that would be acceptable to the target audience.

Once they had greater clarity around the product feature set, team members were ready to test their product and pricing with their target customers. They presented the product at trade shows and created website landing pages – all with an eye toward rapidly testing and refining the business model.

The narrowed customer focus and refined solution allowed this innovative nonprofit to attract a multinational corporation as one of its first buyers. The product was exactly what the company had been looking for to help them build one of the largest certification programs in the world for its customers.

Is your nonprofit looking to develop a new product? Download the PDF version of this case study to take with you for reference.

SAVING RESOURCES AND REDEFINING SUCCESS

Learning to test assumptions using rapid experiments is not only helping NCARB develop a product that the market wants: It is saving the organization time and money.

Software developers focus only on features that have been tested through experiments – gaining extra time for projects like creating landing pages for marketing campaigns. Project teams can streamline budgets when they ask the NCARB’s board for funding.

Our Lean Innovation process adapted for social impact organizations has also helped NCARB and its board re-calibrate metrics for the new product’s success. Instead of looking solely at costs versus revenue, the product team and the board are now measuring impact on customers, success in reaching the intended target market, and the perceived value of the product features.

“We’ve learned that the process of listening to our customers and adapting our product never stops,” says Ortiz de Zárate. “We’re still exploring on a day-to-day basis how we make our product useful to our customers.”

The new resulting product born out of this experience is called lineup™: a new, online workspace for curating, managing and evaluating diverse teams.

We did not make the time or have the framework to test ideas for new products and features. We struggled to generate evidence and so we built what we loved. Now we have a framework that allows us to validate our riskiest assumptions, manage our resources, and steer the direction of the product to make it successful – making us a more agile and effective organization.

— Guillermo Ortiz de Zárate, Chief Innovation and Information Officer, NCARB

For more information about how Lean Innovation can help your organization drive deeper impact, please reach out.

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