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Innovating in Plain Sight: ASAE's New Product Development Framework

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, August 2012 Community now

By: Mariah Burton Nelson, CAE

Summary: Innovating in Plain Sight: ASAE's New Product Development Framework

Are you responsible for creating programs, products, or services—or overseeing that process? If so, you might be interested in what we're doing here at ASAE: designing a new product development (NPD) framework we will use to decide which products to create and which to continue.

This systematic approach is new for us, and we're committed to transparency: what I think of as innovating in plain sight. Therefore, in a series of articles, I plan to share our process, tools, techniques, questions, and challenges in the hopes that you can learn from our example—and our inevitable mistakes.

But first, why NPD? Since ASAE is financially healthy and known for quality programs, products, and services, why mess with success? The primary reason: The needs of our members—your needs—continually evolve, and this process will help us serve you better.

What counts as a product? Our database counts everything—not only actual products, programs, and services, but also political fundraising, annual giving, membership classes, sales tax, discounts, free stuff, and a lot of things we don't sell anymore.

We have begun to recategorize items so that we can generate meaningful reports to assess what we sell, how those products fare, and how they align (or don't) with ASAE's core values and our marketplace—but the definition of "product" remains unresolved.

It's not that we don't keep track of financial transactions. It's not that we don't make careful decisions about what conferences, seminars, certifications, books, and other products to offer. It's just that we've never before instituted a comprehensive framework to manage all of our products. Without such a system, it's hard for us to evaluate our huge array of offerings—and what else our members or other stakeholders might need.

This is my job: to create a fair, efficient, value-driven, financially prudent framework. Eventually, ASAE will review all new and existing products and accept or reject them based on this framework. We'll also conduct a macro-level portfolio analysis and an idea-generation process. The goal is to help ASAE make good decisions about priorities, product mix, market focus, and gaps in the needs of our current and prospective members and customers.

Here are some key factors in our process so far:

Interviews: Our 17-person NPD team is composed of staff leaders who will make "go/no go" decisions and/or recommendations to the ASAE Board. These people don't report to me; it's a matrix model of interdepartmental teamwork. Individual interviews soon after I arrived on staff last spring gave me a chance to get to know the players and gain valuable information about the challenges we face in creating a new NPD framework.

Best practices: We are drawing on the work of NPD expert Robert G. Cooper, founder of the Stage-Gate process. He shares research about how successful companies make decisions about products. Though his is a corporate approach, it's not difficult to customize his recommendations to align them with our values.

Team meetings: We meet bimonthly as a group and more frequently in smaller task forces.

Deadlines: It would be easy to discuss and debate decisions endlessly, but ASAE has made a commitment to progress, so when I say, "Let's move on to the next agenda item," no one objects (yet!).

A broad framework: We now have a master plan, including an NPD Scorecard, a calendar of events, and a staff communication plan. We have clear goals. We have selected our technology tool (SharePoint). We have randomly selected pilot products that will help us test the NPD Scorecard. We plan to sort new products into three strategic buckets: Tweaks; New Products; and Game-Changers. We have selected terminology: Green (proceed); Yellow (proceed with recommendations); and Red (create a timeline for discontinuation).

Criteria: Our draft NPD Scorecard includes these criteria:

  • strategic fit
  • innovation
  • member needs
  • financial resources
  • financial return
  • market attractiveness
  • duration
  • human resources
  • no show-stoppers (a broad question to catch potential pitfalls)

Supportive culture: We have momentum, enthusiasm, and support from all levels of leadership, including the board and ASAE President and CEO John Graham IV, FASAE, CAE.

So far, so good! Next time I'll share more tools, techniques, and lessons learned. Feel free to contact me if you're engaged in a similar process—or plan to be.

Mariah Burton Nelson, MPH, CAE, is vice president for innovation and new product development at ASAE. Email: mnelson@asaecenter.org

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