There’s unrelenting pressure on associations to keep pace with trailblazing for-profit businesses and innovate, innovate, INNOVATE! But, what exactly is innovation? If you’re like many, the words mysterious, magical, indescribable might come to mind.

However, according to William Mallon from the Association of American Medical Colleges, who presented yesterday at ASAE Great Ideas conference, it’s a process; a disciplined approach to creating and distributing new offerings to your membership to further their careers, your association, and your industry.

At AAMC, the leadership team introduced a Stage/Gate Model of innovation in an effort to be more strategic, focused, and accountable. And, so far, the process is working.

First, of course, you must have an idea. Mallon says ideas come from any number of sources, including internal ideation, member and constituent networks, or external sources – even a casual conversation with your neighbor.


At AAMC, they first move ideas through Discovery. During Discovery, they simply answer the question, “Do we have an idea?” And, can we describe it, whom will it serve, and what support does it need?

Stage 1

Scoping – If an idea gets past Discovery, it moves to Stage 1, Scoping, which is a quick and inexpensive assessment of the idea’s merit. It’s essentially “desk research” to determine if there’s a market for it, if it has value, and if the timing is right.

Stage 2

Build Business Case – In this stage, you’re building a case by asking questions like, “Can this project be defined?” And, “Can necessary resources be justified?”

Many ideas get stopped at the gates between Discovery, Stage 1, and Stage 2, by your gatekeepers who make the yes/no determinations along the way. Your gatekeepers, whom you appoint in your organization, decide at each gate if a project will:

GO – approved for the next stage

HOLD – no further work until agreed

REVISE AND RESUBMIT – Need further info

STOP – project cancelled

If a project makes it past Stage 2, it goes onto Stage 3, Prototype Development; then possibly Stage 4, Testing and Validation; and finally Stage 5, Full Launch.

However, at AAMC, only the projects that are technically complex and/or risky, go through all five stages. Projects of lesser scope go through either an Expedited or Light process, where steps are consolidated and accelerated.

Mallon ended his presentation with his recommended dos and don’ts.

DO –

  • Choose an innovation process – It works, particularly when you have too many ideas and too few resources to do them all. And a process will ensure the ideas you’re implementing are strategically aligned with your organization.
  • Make the case – You’ll need to do some serious change management in your organization.
  • Empower gatekeepers – Your gatekeepers (at AAMC, the gatekeepers are three C-level team members) must be empowered to make decisions and have them “stick.” This will help you avoid what Mallon calls Zombie Projects. (You know, the projects at your organization that get killed, but somehow keep coming back.)
  • Design templates and tools – These will help you evaluate your progress and track what ideas are developed and what aren’t.
  • Establish decision-making criteria – This will help keep you focused on strategic alignment.


  • Try to fix every organizational problem with one process
  • Fear changing and tweaking the process – when it’s fluid, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed and bureaucratic, and it builds trust in the organization
  • Overdesign the process