Nonprofit groups are not, by definition, bent on making money. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be innovative. Andrew Marshall of Primed Associates, is a consultant and an expert on helping organizations, whether for profit or not, innovate systematically and cheaply — the cheapness being an eternal requirement for permanently hard-pressed charities.
“Those organizations that neglect innovation suffer in the long term. You have to think about what you can do to change or transform, otherwise you risk being outstripped by the demands of your clients or the changing needs of society overall. If you’re interested in maintaining your relevance, you’d better do the hard work up front and innovate,” he says.
Marshall will speak Monday, January 27, at 5 p.m. at the annual Community Works event held at Princeton University’s First Campus Center (see sidebar, above). Marshall’s workshop, entitled “Innovation on a Shoestring Budget,” is aimed at helping nonprofit leaders identify opportunities for innovation, and to do it cheaply.
Marshall teaches a system of innovation developed by the Experience Point company called “design thinking.” The method aims to take the principles of esthetic design and apply them to organizations. It can be broken down into a few steps.
Establish the initial challenge: First the organization decides what problem it is trying to solve with its innovation process. In the case of a nonprofit group, that could be the core mission of the group.
Get feedback: Take the current product or service, and test it out on some users. So far, this is very standard. But this approach differs than most in how it treats the feedback from the test. “You use qualitative analysis using some of the tools that come from ethnography,” Marshall says. “You focus on groups of customers that have been identified to have extreme reactions to the products or services in question. That’s where the sharpest distinctions can be drawn.” This approach allows insights to be derived from a relatively small (cheap) sample size.
Form insights: Look at the extreme feedback and see what patterns or themes are observed. Frame the opportunities, which are usually subsets of the original challenge.
Brainstorm: “For most people, brainstorming is the beginning and end of innovation. Here, it is just one step of the process,” Marshall says.
Experiment: This is where many people think you need to spend a lot of money, Marshall says. But in fact, it can be done cheaply and effectively. Some companies run experiments based on the scientific model, in which bigger is better. A big sample size helps researchers filter out extreme events and arrive at a conclusion. But here, the goal is not to arrive at a scientific truth, but to gain insight. A small experiment can work just as well for that purpose.
“You’re doing much smaller experiments that ask questions. You might do 20 experiments, any of which can be produced in less than an hour for close to $10.” An example of such a fast-and-cheap experiment would be to draw a storyboard showing a potential new customer experience, and show it to a potential customer. That wouldn’t be scientifically airtight, but it might help spark new ideas or ways to improve it.
An example of this process in action, Marshall says, is the Kaiser Permanente hospital chain in California. The healthcare provider was trying to improve its safety record, and noticed that there were a small number of medication errors taking place — patients were getting the right medicine about 99.5 percent of the time, but even a small mistake can be fatal in a hospital setting. Through their innovation process, they discovered that many errors took place when busy nurses went to collect prescriptions, and were disrupted mid-errand by a crisis or an interrupting colleague.
The company experimented with many different solutions to the problem, and finally implemented one that was simple, yet remarkably effective. “They created a way for the staff in the hospitals to recognize when someone was on a prescription mission,” Marshall says. “They needed a visual cue to let everyone know the person involved was not available or to be interfered with. They ended up creating a sash like you would see on a beauty pageant winner or Rose Bowl Parade float.” When the nurses used sashes when administering and double-checking drug doses, the error rate went down 20 percent.
Marshall, who has been an independent consultant for the last five years, is currently helping a specialty paper company and a high-end stationery company re-think their business models in the face of serious challenges for paper products as a whole. However, his main line of work is on the “human performance” side; that is getting organization leadership ready to run its own innovation activities.
Marshall grew up in Sydney, Australia, where his father was a corner store owner and his mother was a physiotherapist. He has lived in the United States for the past 22 years, the past seven in New Jersey. He has a degree in the arts from the University of Western Sydney, and a master’s in systems design from Antioch University in Seattle.
Before founding his own company in 2009, Marshall worked for Kepner-Tregoe, the Forrestal Village-based consulting and training firm, where he became a partner and chief innovation officer. He previously worked for Adobe Systems in various management positions in global support services, and before that, in retail. He also has hands-on experiences with nonprofits, as he is currently serving as president of the board at Princeton Nursery School.
“Nonprofits are always on their back foot in their financial state,” Marshall says. “Very few believe they are financially healthy enough to be forward looking. That’s why I’m offering this program.”