Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference.
Lean Startup techniques have been taking off in the social-mission sector, helping people solve problems more effectively, and earning the name Lean Impact. To explore what’s working on the ground, we’re hosting a webcast, Lean Impact: Implementing Lean Startup in Mission-driven Organizations, next Tuesday, November 5 at 10a PT. It will feature a conversation that gets into the details of how non-profit and mission-driven organizations are making use of Lean Startup methods to get closer to their goals, faster. This webcast is free with registration, and our speakers will answer questions live from attendees. One other note—we’re introducing a special scholarship program to bring non-profit organizations’ staff and volunteers to the conference in December. More details on that at the end of this post.
Few people are better positioned to talk about bringing Lean Startup techniques to mission-driven organizations than Akash Trivedi and Christie George, both speakers at The Lean Startup Conference in December. Akash is a business lead for Kiva’s pilot program Kiva Zip, which seeks to make microlending even more direct—for example, by facilitating payment via mobile. Christie is director of New Media Ventures, the first national network of angel investors supporting media and tech startups that disrupt politics and catalyze progressive change.
We asked Christie to give a sense of how she sees the relationship between Lean Impact and Lean Startup.
LSC: Do you see Lean Impact as a direct application of Lean Startup ideas in non-profit and mission-driven organizations, or is there another element to it that's not so obvious?
Christie: There are huge opportunities to build better mission-driven organizations using Lean Startup principles. And "Lean Impact" offers a reference point for people to start that conversation—there is real power in naming. I think of Lean Impact more generally as the conversation about the challenges in addition to the opportunities of applying Lean Startup ideas in mission-driven organizations and businesses.
There are some specific challenges that I’m looking forward to discussing, both with Akash and at the conference:
1) Measuring Impact: For organizations that are in the "business" of social change, questions of measurement are notoriously tricky. How do you measure a movement for social justice? How do you measure that it's actually your work that's moving the needle on an issue? The clear focus on users and revenue is hugely useful for measurement, but for organizations serving a population and not building a 'product', the language and culture of Lean Startup is still finding its focus.
2) Vanity Metrics: Especially for those working to increase awareness, social change groups often report member numbers, Facebook likes, and news hits as proxies for impact (which may in turn generate further revenue). Metrics around petition signatures or Facebook likes are relatively easy to track, but of course, they don't tell you whether you're winning. How can we come up with impact metrics that go further than vanity and get to the core outcomes we're working to achieve?
3) Customer Development: In the social change space, the customer who "pays" (e.g. a foundation) is often not the beneficiary of the service. In some cases, this is a standard three-sided market problem, but it often goes deeper than this. Mission-driven entrepreneurs are disrupting more than markets, and are therefore choosing to address issues of power and culture that may not fit neatly into the customer framework.
4) Failing Real People: Entrepreneurs in the social sector are solving big, gnarly, complicated problems. The costs of experimentation (and failure) can be high. I've been reminded by social entrepreneurs, "When we fail, we fail real people." That is humbling, even daunting. But it’s important to remember that it is a privilege to be able to run experiments in order to fail fast.
The most exciting thing for me is that a community of practice is starting to develop around Lean Impact, with best practices and actual case studies, to guide entrepreneurs navigating these issues. And we've got some great examples of people and organizations doing it well—from the data-driven culture of online advocacy groups to the relentless testing that Kiva Zip has done, something that Akash will speak to directly. [Editors’ note: The Ultimate Glossary of Lean for Social Good, from the folks at LeanImpact.org, has some great examples (PDF).]
LSC: One key element of Lean Startup is the idea of organizing a startup around multifunctional teams. In mission-driven organizations, how do you see teams reorganizing to apply Lean Impact ideas?
There is a pretty wide variety of organizations that fit into the social sector—from large, traditional non-profit organizations to nimble technology enterprises. Some of these organizations are just beginning to be exposed to Lean Startup thinking, while others have deep experience with experimentation.
The space that I work in—online advocacy—has a long history of running controlled experiments and using A/B testing to measure and optimize campaigns. I've also observed that these groups—everyone from MoveOn.org, Change.org, UltraViolet, Upworthy—have comparatively flat structures.
But even more than reorganizing teams, the work of Lean Impact seems to be one of making a change in the organizational culture. Social entrepreneurs are working to get institutions to understand the value of taking risks. I see digital teams gaining influence within larger organizations, as well as a generation of entrepreneurs building new types of social businesses and organizations that are embedding Lean Startup principals from the start.
For a deeper dive into the challenges and opportunities facing Lean Impact organizations, register for our webcast on November 5 at 10a PT. And join us at the Lean Startup Conference, December 9 – 11 in San Francisco. If you’re part of a non-profit organization and are interested in Lean Impact ideas, we strongly encourage you to apply for our scholarship program. We are offering a dedicated group of scholarships specifically for non-profit organizations, their staff and volunteers. We are particularly interested in smaller organizations that otherwise would find the conference financially out of reach. So, the smaller your org and the tighter your budget, the more we want to hear from you. Just fill out an application, and we’ll follow up with you asap.