Innovation & Intrapreneurship in Associations

Guillermo Ortiz de Zárate, the Chief Innovation & Information Officer at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), discusses the role of intrapreneurship in associations.

By C. David Gammel, FASAE, CAE

innovation and intrapreneurship graphic

Intrapreneurship focuses on fostering an entrepreneurial mindset within an organization and creating solutions to market needs.

I recently sat down with Guillermo Ortiz de Zárate, the Chief Innovation & Information Officer at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), to discuss the role of intrapreneurship in associations.

NCARB previously had a manual process for matching volunteers with member interest. Guillermo’s own entrepreneurial mindset and passion for inclusion led him and his team to develop Lineup, a software solution that connects expertise with association needs. After seeing success with architecture licensing boards, Lineup expanded into other industries with similar needs for assembling diverse talent and assessing performance.

Guillermo and his team are well-known for their innovative approach, utilization of talent, and expertise in the association marketplace. He discusses what other association leadership should consider regarding intrapreneurship and how to balance the risk associated with it.

Why is an entrepreneurial mindset important for associations?

Sometimes associations can’t escape the mindset of being a not-for-profit, so naturally, they work on building offerings that fall under their membership structure.  New offerings should answer three main questions: Are they desirable? Are they feasible? Are they viable (who is going to pay for it?) When creating offerings under membership, viability comes from the math of how much that new offering can increase conversion and retention rates. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Entrepreneurship is finding a need or a pain point in your membership audience or the environment around your membership that is real and worth solving. We found an opportunity to solve a problem we were experiencing, but it was outside of our immediate community. We then investigated if there was a way to monetize it, and that’s a completely different mindset that many organizations are afraid to embrace.

How have you balanced the risk-taking that comes with innovation with the need for stable ongoing operations and consistency in delivering on your mission?

This is a cultural revolution where the idea is to continuously innovate, take small risks more often, and champion learning from failure. If you need to go to a two-week summit with your leadership team to try to solve a big problem, that’s not innovation; you’re a little late and you’re actually in danger. It’s important to create a culture where people feel safe to try new things in controlled environments. This makes the risk more tolerable. Change is not linear, so if you get into the habit of taking small risks and making small changes that are outside of your risk tolerance, you might be staying closer to making big changes than you realize.

What would your first steps be if you were coming into a new organization and you wanted your staff to be able to make those small experiments and take small risks to learn and ultimately advance the organization?

I would solicit thoughts and ideas from the staff, especially the front line, people who are seeing the reactions of the membership firsthand. They know what pain points the association could solve for the members. I would then pick a few of those ideas and run a couple of small experiments to see if there is evidence of their worth. The smaller the idea, the better. If there is worth, and the idea is implemented, the key is to give proper credit to the people who thought and worked on it and inspire others to do the same.

At NCARB, we accept ideas and then run them through a structured framework that hopes to obtain evidence to answer the three questions we mentioned:

  1. Is this feasible?
  2. Is it desirable?
  3. Who’s going to pay for it?

What do you have going on in the innovation and entrepreneurial space at NCARB that we can share?

We try to understand where there is an opportunity to make an impact in a way that is directly related to our mission. Recently, we conducted research in the test preparation provider space and noticed the average spending of a candidate for licensure was about ten grand. That amount is unattainable for some people, so we started running some experiments to see how we could help. We began with a very small practice exam that we provided for free and we saw an extremely positive response and impact. Now, we are focusing on what else we can do to continue the positive change in that area.

When you find the factor that has the most influence on high pain points and can affect that leading indicator, you might have something worth trying.

Tell us a bit about Lineup and what’s new with that offering.

Lineup is a different type of volunteer management system that serves more as a talent and expertise management software. We wanted more representation of diverse perspectives in our volunteer committees, and we wanted to be more intentional about the competencies needed in these groups. As a result, we built a tool that allows us to do competency-based curation of communities. We later realized that the application had applicability beyond volunteers; it can help with any type of team or group an organization might need to find, assign, engage, develop, and evaluate subject matter experts.

We were able to pitch our board to commercialize Lineup, and it is now in a great position to help many organizations achieve diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and competency-based outcomes.

What’s the biggest misconception about innovation and intrapreneurship at associations that you would like to dispel?

It is the idea that innovation is lightning that only strikes once. I think that you need to enable teams to try multiple things in smaller bites. It is counterintuitive because people want their projects and offerings to be perfect, but there is more risk in spending two years perfecting an offering that nobody wants than conducting an experiment that proves you wrong in just a few days.

About the Author

C. David is a Chief Practice Officer at McKinley Advisors, an association consulting group. David is a long-time executive and consultant in the association industry and served as executive director of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) before joining McKinley. He has served as a board member for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), as an officer for the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives, and as a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM.

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