Channel your Innovation through Startups

campaign Is it just me or is there actually no longer any breathing space between presidential elections and their hype? With countless political debates having already taken place, and a host of others scheduled, it seems like the presidential campaign machinery is becoming increasingly larger and more elaborate with each election. Maybe some folks consider it entertaining or meaningful. For others, like me, much in this massive pre-election undertaking seems like a waste of enormous amounts of money and resources for what amounts to sleek, advertising campaigns. According to an article in Wired magazine, another enormous waste in political campaigns is that of innovation. As campaigns become technologically sophisticated, they amass large pools of talent and enable technological innovations whose life spans, however, do not extend beyond the campaign itself. “Every four years, some of the brightest minds in public policy and technology put their lives on hold and work with a maniacal focus rarely seen outside Silicon Valley. Then, after the election, they all pack up and go home, leaving behind whatever innovations they had managed to build.” “This wastefulness,” the article continues, “is so much a part of the political process, you could almost call it an American tradition.”  Wastefulness of course is not limited to politics. Who doesn’t have tales of missed opportunities or wasted talent in their personal lives? What about the months spent in organizing successful, mega-conferences whose brilliant insights and informal conversations and collaborations do not extend beyond the event itself? Or staff innovation that is not tapped because there is no place for it in a rigid job description? Or the value of potential relationships with members’ employers, customers and suppliers that these members could open up for an organization, which is not recognized and, thus, missed? Eventually, even with companies that start out as highly focused and efficient innovators, the spark dies down, the driving goals are forgotten and rules, processes and turf take over, becoming ends unto themselves. Associations, like organizations in many other industries, are literally drowning in busy work and operational details losing their focus on customers, wasting talent and opportunity. Bleak as this “tradition” is, the same article also reminds us that there is another American tradition: startups. Dan Wagner, key player in Obama’s election and re-election campaigns did just that—created a startup that preserved and re-deployed the innovations developed in the campaigns. Backed by Google’s chair Eric Schmidt, a campaign adviser and donor, Wagner launched Civis Analytics and employed most of the technology staff from the campaign. The new company, like a few other political startups that emerged, applied the targeting, fundraising, outreach and prediction skills they had honed in these campaigns to the needs of other clients in various industries. In addition to converting political value into commercial value, the start-up learned in the process, refining and acquiring skills that would, in turn, be applied to the next campaign. It occurs to me that this, in a nutshell, is the nature of conducting business and competing successfully today: constant reconfiguration, reinvention and conversion of value from one source to another. Launching start-ups does not have to be reserved for actually building entirely new organizations. You can “start up” a section of your business, culture or a practice; you can cultivate a “startup mentality” and use the principles of startup methodology to solve problems or undertake growth objectives. Attrition or financial problems? Maybe you can convert the value of undervalued or passive competencies—research, relationships, access—into new lines of business—custom research, co-ventures, subscription services etc. Or you might apply competencies and relationships to new client groups or industries. Or you could create self-sustaining and ever-growing value loops, for example, by enabling collaborative discussions and problem solving in an online member practice community, capture the solutions and insights that emerge and convert them into an online, searchable library open to subscribers. The point is that the greatest opportunities for growth and market share do not seem to be linear anymore–depending on production of new events and products or recruitment of more customers like your existing customers, but by uncovering, leveraging and converting value; value that is often hidden in unexpected places and unfamiliar guises.