Friday, April 6, 2018

New Power: An Interview with Henry Timms


To write their equally fascinating and practical new book, New Power: How Power Works in the 21st Century—and How You Can Make it Work for You, Henry Timms, the President of the 92nd Street Y, a major cultural and community institution in New York, and Jeremy Heimans, the CEO of Purpose, a company that builds social movements all over the world, joined forces to come up with a guide to navigating the world of crowds and chaos and connections we all live in.

They spent three years talking to practitioners, academics and researchers on the cutting edge of what they call new power, which flows from what they think of as the essential skill of the 21st century: the ability to harness the energy of the connected crowd. Their research and conversations took place all around the world and included everyone from the heads of intelligence agencies in Washington to frontline health workers in the Netherlands. They write about the battle and balance between old power to new power, and show how they’re fueling the defining transformation of our times. But like all fast-moving trends, sometimes it’s hard to see it clearly when we’re right in the middle of it, which makes New Power just that much more important. It’s a guide to spreading ideas, launching movements, raising money and much more.  

It was my pleasure to talk with Henry about what he and Heimans have learned about how power structures are changing, how people can get started making the shift from old to new power, how the principles of new power are related to the principles of lean startup, and the responsibilities that come with all the amazing energy being channeled.

It’s also my pleasure to offer three copies of New Power to readers, thanks to Henry and Jeremy’s generosity. Tweet your thoughts on our conversation with the hashtag #newpower and I’ll choose three winners at random on April 12th.



Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between old power and new power, and how did you and Jeremy get interested in defining them?

Jeremy and I came at the world from very different places. He’s an activist and movement-builder and launched movements like Avaaz and Get Up! and I run a 143-year old institution. But we were both trying to get our heads around what was really changing in the world. And so often, the conversations about how the world was changing were reduced to quite a shallow discussion about technology--it was all something to do with Twitter, or changing tools. But it wasn't really a conversation about power.

We both in our work started to ask, "What's the right taxonomy to think about all of these changes in the world?" and we galvanized around old power and new power. The old power world is the one we know well, which is very command and control, top-driven, managerial and based on downloading information onto the world. What's emerging is the new power world, which is much more about things that are made by participation, about upload, and about distribution models.

New power--that ability to harness the energy of the connected crowd--has really become the essential skill of the 21st century. If you look at all the people who are coming up on top right now, for good and for bad, what they have in common is the capacity to capture that energy. So whether we look at Trump and Obama and the unexpected victories that they both had politically, or we look at platforms like Uber or Facebook, or we look at movements like #metoo or March For Our Lives, these very different examples all share one thing: the people who are leading them have worked out how to harness this power of the crowd.


Was there a moment in your own life and work when you first saw the effects of new power?

The 92nd Street Y is in New York, where one of the events we all pay attention to is UN Week. UN Week is typically the most old power week of the year. The only people who get anywhere near the action are people who have a UN Grounds Pass or who can afford to go to the Clinton Global Initiative. You had the most exciting people in the world here talking about the biggest issues of the day, and it essentially excluded most people. You couldn't get anywhere near it. Really, what UN Week brought New York was gridlock.

So about eight years ago, we at the 92nd Street Y – along with Mashable, UNDP and the UN Foundation – created the Social Good Summit which I think of as something that looks at the world through a new power lens. We said, "Instead of this being top-down-leader-driven week, how do you get people engaging in these issues in much more connected ways?" We opened up to thousands of bloggers and social entrepreneurs and others to come be part of it at the Y here. Then we encouraged people to meet up and create their own events around the world. We had meetings that first year in twenty-five countries where people collectively organized their own events similar to the Social Good Summit. Now we’ve counted 100 satellite events around the world. I’m speaking this summer at the Social Good Brazil event – which is larger than ours in New York City. 


Can you tell me a bit more about your own experiences transforming an old power institution into a new power role model?

The 92nd Street Y is all about strengthening community. In the old power world, the way we did that is people would come through our door and we'd offer them experiences. For years we've created programs and people would pick up the catalog and consume our programs. But all the new tools available now allow us to do that work in a very different way.

#GivingTuesday is a perfect example of that. We took one of the key values of the Y, which is around community and philanthropy and said, "After Black Friday and Cyber Monday, how could you create a day that was really about philanthropy? How would you create something that could really scale around the world?" And that was #GivingTuesday. The design of Giving Tuesday was very new power in a couple of ways. First, we never branded it. We never called it the 92nd Street Y’s Giving Tuesday, and the goal was never that it would be all about us. It was built so that other people would grab it and make it their own. Second, we designed it so people would improve it.

As a result, Giving Tuesday has morphed into all sorts of different hashtags and different campaigns around the world. I remember very early on when Baltimore turned Giving Tuesday into BMore Gives More--Baltimore Gives More. They decided they were going to make it all about how generous Baltimore is. Then the organization Dress for Success, which takes donations of clothing for women getting back into the workforce, turned Giving Tuesday into Giving Shoes Day, which was about women giving professional-appropriate shoes to those going back to the office. University of Michigan turned Giving Tuesday into Giving Blueday, and they used it to raise $5.5 million last year.

In the old power model, we'd say, "Cease and desist.” You've changed our brand, you've altered the frame. But in the new power world these are all signs that your idea is spreading in the right way. At the 92nd Street Y when we’re thinking about the future, we aren’t just thinking about new technology, but new models for building stronger communities.


How did you decide to expand your original Harvard Business Review piece on new power into a book and what the research process was like?

When we did the HBR piece, we started hearing from people around the world who had taken it and worked out ways of using it for their own needs. One of the best examples is a group of health workers and nurses in the National Health Service in the UK who built on the ideas in the HBR piece and made a curriculum for their own work.

We kept hearing, time and again, from so many different sectors that the old power/new power frame was speaking to them and to the challenges and options that they faced. Even spies, who are perhaps the ultimate old power sector, started to engage with the idea, realizing now that they're going to have to work out how to deal with a much broader and engaged and connected landscape if they want to succeed. So even intelligence agencies are experimenting around open innovation and open sourcing and all these things and they recognize that they can mobilize the crowd around the outcomes they want in the world.

The reason we wrote the book was to really lay out this set of skills that help people become more powerful. The book offers a new playbook for a hyperconnected world. It asks and answers questions like: "How do you think about spreading ideas?" "How do you think about transforming an institution?" and "How do you think about raising money?" For that last one, of course, there’s a very new set of dynamics around things like crowdfunding, which everyone now needs to understand. The book is very much a practical guide for how people can think about their own power and how they can think about being more effective in the world.


There are also some cautionary tales. I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen some of the dark side of new power lately, too.

Yes, and that’s why the stakes are so high. If you agree that the essential skill of the 21st century is the ability to harness the connected crowd, you have to also agree that a lot of the people who are doing that well are not on the side of the angels. You look at the capacity of anti-vaccers to out-message health professionals. You look at the power of climate deniers to communicate better than climate scientists. You look at internet crazies who are doing better than academics who have all these truths and all these facts. There's this real surge of new power that is not ending up in the right hands. So while the first bit of the book is a practical guide how people can really get their head around this new set of tools, the second bit is a call to action--which is to say, we really need those on the side of the angels to get good at new power quickly. The voices of reason need to catch up.

I think we're also seeing the beginnings of a new kind of political consciousness emerging against platforms, who have gobbled up a lot of new power and extracted it for their own ends. There seems to be a very big market opportunity for someone who could create platforms that actually create meaningful and fairer connections with the people who create the value.


Who, in the course of your research, have you seen doing that most effectively?

So many of the people who are good at new power think about their work in an experimental, entrepreneurial way – with some real overlap with the Lean Startup method. Rapid experimentation isn’t something that’s just entrepreneurial, it's actually what the best mobilizers do. You talk to any long-time campaigner or activist; they'll tell you that's how they think about their own work-- just constantly experimenting until you see something that hits. I think that's probably the ultimate lesson of new power.  It isn't something you do once a year. It's a practice that people need to learn and get good at.

In fact, you can think about the Lean Startup movement itself as an amazingly effective exercise in new power. Leaders all around the world have grabbed the central frame, made it stronger and stepped up to organize, create and collaborate. They aren’t waiting for permission. They all now connect with one-another in dynamic and productive ways, but without a top-down old power mentality. Ultimately, Lean Startup is a community. 


How do those two aspects--the practical and the cultural--play out in the business world?

We think a lot about how many of the most powerful businesses we see now have new power models but revert to old power values. Uber's a great example; it has this amazing new power model with terrific execution. But they really resorted to old power values: secretive, very leader-driven, and very transactional in lots of ways and it, obviously, ended up costing Travis Kalanick his job.

Contrast that with a company like Lyft which is trying, with some success, to actually create a business that has both a new power model and new power values. New power values are much more about empowering the crowd, about more transparency and collaboration, and engaging with the wider world. For two companies who essentially offer the same service, there is a real return available around culture and values. When Uber and Lyft were in a recent price war, at the same time that Uber was seeing its drivers organize pickets against it around the country, Lyft, essentially, responded by organizing picnics. They're really trying to build enthusiasm and community amongst their drivers. It will be interesting to see where they go with this.

Facebook offers another example of a new power model with old power values. And the price of that is becoming clear. It's very much about centralizing value, it's very much about Facebook deciding what's good for the world and not the users. It's very opaque in terms of how it's governed and how the algorithms work. For businesses, we think the opportunity is for organizations to build a culture that is based on more than the efficiency of their algorithms, and fosters the human connection they have with people in their network.


What’s your opening advice for someone who’s in an old power organization and wants to start making change?
 

I think the biggest shift is not about technology, but actually about professional identity. It's about whether you are, in a committed and strategic way, really prepared to think about how you can engage more people more meaningfully in your work. For generations, the only real ask we had of our communities is "do what you're supposed to do" or "buy my product." That was kind of how the world worked. What's so interesting now is those businesses who are doing well are those who are offering more interesting routes to participation – far beyond “just consume”. Airbnb is a great example of that. They have worked out how to get their crowd to be their hosts, they've worked out how to get their crowd to fight their regulatory battles for them, they've worked out how to get their crowd to essentially be their advertising machine. Our argument is that for every business, every organization, every political activity, mobilization is now the key activity if you want to get ahead. The book offers the playbook for the new power world.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Lean Impact : Innovating for Social Good







Ann Mei Chang is the Executive Director of Lean Impact, the social good division of the Lean Startup Company. This fall, her book based her own experiences using lean approaches to innovate in the social sector, including during her time at USAID, as well as stories from nonprofits, social enterprises, companies, government agencies, foundations, and philanthropists all over the world, will be published. Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good is going to be an amazing resource for so many people from innovators to funders and everyone in between. Ann Mei recently talked with me about the book, some of the structural problems that impede social innovation, how lean approaches are leading to better solutions, and how she came to Lean Impact. It was incredibly energizing!




Let’s talk about what the idea of lean impact is and how you came to it. It’s such an inspiring story of taking skills from one sector to another for social good.


I spent most of my career in Silicon Valley in the tech industry, about 23 years. Then about seven years ago, I decided to make a pivot to spend the second half of my career in the public or social sector, particularly focused on global poverty. I ended up doing a fellowship at the State Department, then I worked at a non-profit called Mercy Corps. After that, I served at USAID as the Chief Innovation Officer and the Executive Director for the U.S. Global Development Lab. It was really a dream job. Our charter was to identify breakthrough innovations that could really bend the curve of progress and also transform the way we the practice of global development itself. We worked on issues around global health, around economic development, around democracy and governance, around agriculture and access to energy--across the board and around the world. I became really inspired at the possibilities of taking some of the best practices for innovation that I learned throughout my career in Silicon Valley and applying them to solving some of the worlds' toughest problems.



What are some of the biggest issues with the way projects happen in the social sector that prevents those problems from being attacked in an effective way?


The traditional approach to global development, and much of the social sector, is to run fairly large size programs that are usually designed in detail upfront, then executed accordingly - something I call an enforced waterfall model. It’s very risk-averse. A foundation or government agency puts out an RFP, and non-profits or contractors then submit a detailed proposal. Then once an award is given, the grantee is expected to spend the next three to five years dutifully implementing on the program as designed.


There's very little room for experimentation, for risk taking, for iteration. You have to stick to the letter of the proposal. That's not a great way to innovate. At the Global Development Lab we were pioneering some different ways to tackle problems, to structure our funding so that we could give out smaller grants for people to experiment, give them a lot more flexibility to do so, and then give them increased grants based on their successes. This happened both through development innovation ventures--we called these DIV--which was an open innovation window where we took ideas from anywhere and across sectors, and also through our grand challenges, which we called directed innovation. Those would focus on specific problems where we felt like the solutions we had were insufficient and we were seeking to tap into the worlds' greatest minds to come up with better solutions that could move the needle.



You’ve now spent the last year writing a book about all of this, also called Lean Impact. Can you talk a little about why you wanted to do it in that format and about the process?


When I left USAID, I wanted to continue to take the things I’d done there forward, and a book seemed like the right way to do it. I think a book is a really helpful reference point that anyone can access, whereas only a limited number of people can make it to any individual conference or presentation. We’re also doing events and conferences, either in conjunction with the lean startup community or potentially some independent ones as well, along with workshops and consulting services, all with a nonprofit mindset of looking at how we can help the social sector as a whole become more innovative.

A book is a way to capture all the ideas in one place that can serve as a foundation. The intent of the book is to lay out how we can adapt the same approaches that we've seen lean startup bring to accelerating innovation in business to solving some of the world’s greatest problems.  Yet, innovation is far more challenging in the social sector, and doesn’t always easily translate. Lean Impact addresses these unique barriers head on, and shares compelling examples from different organizations who have overcome them. I talked to over 200 organizations in the course of my research for the book, and it’s been really inspiring to hear their stories of how they managed to innovate in the work that they do.



Were there any universal challenges among all the stories?


Absolutely. One of the biggest ones is funding. Startup companies are typically funded by venture capitalist or angel funding that is fairly flexible; you can experiment, you can take risks, and it’s expected, in a sense, when you're a startup company.


For organizations in the social sector, the funding that you get from government agencies, from philanthropists, and from foundations is often fairly restricted and fairly risk averse, as I was saying. It's a real challenge and this is the most common concern that I heard from the people I've spoken with. They wanted to innovate, they wanted to experiment, they wanted to take risks. But the way that they were funded, they felt like their hands were tied behind their back and they didn't have a lot of room to do it. That's one of the things that the book really focuses on: how to make the room, how to be able to do this type of work within the constraints that organizations often have.



Are there some solutions you’ve seen work even for organizations that are in the early stages of adopting lean methods?


I do think there are a lot of things organizations can do, even in the current landscape. It does involve taking some risk. One tactic is that some of the best organizations I spoke with have actually turned down grants that are too restrictive or poorly aligned. It's something that people are often hesitant to do, because they are trying to keep the doors open and they're trying to grow. It's very tempting to take money when it's offered to you. But some of the most successful organizations I know of were picky. They made the difficult choice to turn down money that was offered to them because it didn't allow them to move forward on the things that they thought would be most effective. They took a gamble that they could find other money that would be more flexible and many have. Sometimes it's just making that tough choice and really being patient to find the right kind of funding.


The other problem I would say is that because of how the social sector is structured, we often have a mindset that everything needs to be done fairly big. We create these proposals, we run these big programs. Innovation in general and particularly with lean approaches, should start small. Experimentation isn't something that takes a lot of money. That’s more of a mindset shift: even if we don't have a lot of flexibility, we should take what flexibility we have and for example, just get out of the building. Go talk to your customers. Spending a day doing that can glean enormous insights, even if you're not able to completely transform the way you work. Injecting what you can by running a few small experiments or talking to customers can make a big difference.



What would you say to people who might say that starting small is a little pointless when facing such huge problems?


There's this great graph that the World Bank put out in a report a few years back that really shows the progress that we've made on some traditional poverty alleviation intervention, such as clean water, access to electricity, access to education, and so forth. What we've seen is very slow but steady progress. But if you overlay that with the trajectory of adoption of mobile phones, for example, you see a completely different curve where there's an acceleration of adoption that rapidly eclipses all of those traditional problems. Mobile phones were this new innovation that people wanted, that solved real problems for them, and that had a business model that enabled rapid scaling.


I think it's absolutely possible to bend the curve of progress when it comes to global poverty. What it means is rather than brute forcing our way there--by taking the tried and true things we've been doing for decades and needing another dollar to reach another person--we need to step back and look at how can we find more effective interventions that get us greater bang for buck. We need solutions that people really want and embrace and we need to look at different ways we might go about solving some of these problems and finding one that has the capacity to reach much greater scale and impact in what we are doing today. That’s exactly what small experiments are for.



Who can make that happen? Is it up to funders? Or the people getting the grant money?


I'd love to see funders take a different stance in terms of how they give out grants and the kind of flexibility they offer, to really shift the way they fund to better support innovation in the industry. But I think grantees can help with that shift. One of the things that I've been a big advocate for is building in an innovation window when you apply for a grant. It may very well be the case that your funders out there are going to fund a certain way, so you need to write a proposal to access that funding. But you can include in that proposal, say, a 5% innovation window, where you say I'm going to use 5% of those funds to experiment in order to try to figure out how I can make the other 95% far more cost effective or impactful or scalable. It's a very good use of money. When you show that experimentation does really yield results, then hopefully the funder might consider even larger windows in the future. It's not necessarily what funders are thinking, but by taking some of that risk, I think the reward can be really outsized in terms of what they can deliver in the long run.



It’s pretty clear these issues really need to be addressed from a lot of different angles at once. Can you talk about how lean impact fits into that?


In the social sector, it takes a whole ecosystem to get projects done. In business, the individual business can do a lot on their own: You create a great product, you can go out and there's infrastructure to market that product, to take payments for the product, to be able to distribute the product and so forth. In the social sector, one non-profit, one social enterprise often can't solve the problem completely on their own. They need to work with donors, other partners, government policy, distributors, missing infrastructure. Just getting payments or getting distribution for products can be a big challenge. It ends up being a much more complicated problem that involves bringing together multiple players, multiple stakeholders that can really tackle the problem from different angles. So this concept of lean impact is for all of those stakeholders as well as the philanthropists, foundations, or government agencies distributing foreign aid. It can also be for individuals who are looking at how they can most effectively volunteer their time or make donations of their money to be able to create social change in the areas that they care about.



What stage would you say social sector innovation is in, overall? And what’s needed, besides just spreading the word and the methods, to help it grow?


Innovation has become probably the most overused buzzword in the English language. In the social sector, there has been a lot of interest because people are seeing the kinds of results that innovation is having in business, and they see an opportunity to make better, faster progress on intractable social issues. However, in many cases, I think there has been a misunderstanding of innovation--which has resulted in lots of new ideas being generated for social good, but very few of those ideas are reaching significant impact at significant scale.


One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison, who said that genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. That inspiration is the invention, the new idea, which we absolutely need to get started. Lean impact is about that 99%, which is the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the constant testing, iteration, experimentation and feedback loops that take a germ of a great idea, and turn it into a solution that really can reach massive impact at scale. Ultimately the reason to become more innovative is to become more effective, and make a bigger difference more quickly for more people.


To learn more about Lean Impact, go to leanimpact.org



Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What Top Performers at Startups and Large Organizations Have in Common…More Than You Would Think


While doing research for his extraordinary new book, Great at Work, Morten Hansen studied more than 5,000 managers and employees in corporate America to identify the key practices that explain why some perform better than others. What he and his research team discovered is that seven key practices explain a whopping 66% of the difference in performance among people in the sample. 

I was really curious to learn more about his research and findings, but also how these practices apply to working in startups. Both kinds of organizations are experiencing high degrees of uncertainty, and I’ve found they can be more similar than people expect (though there are clear differences when it comes to scale and building new things vs transforming existing structures or processes). We talked about what being “great at work” means in both contexts.

Q: Startups are inherently unstable. Can you explain how the principles that make people successful in more traditional, less volatile work environments can also work for startups? Are there common factors?

A: Startups are clearly different from established companies, yet there are also similarities. Many established companies today are experiencing unprecedented levels of instability in their business models, brought on by technological disruption and, yes, those startups chasing their markets. We found that the best performing people in established companies are constantly innovating in their work. They look for ways to redesign their jobs to add more value, and they keep on learning new things. That means that they experiment and pivot from time to time, just like startups. For example, there’s a high school principal in my book who was leading a severely under-performing school in Detroit where 80% of students were on food stamps. He started experimenting with new ways of teaching which led his school to be the first in the entire United States to flip the classroom for the entire school—homework at school, lectures at home via video clips. Essentially, he applied the “startup way” inside a school. He had a very tight budget, not unlike a startup, and started out by using A/B testing his hypothesis around flipping with a minimal viable approach (using some basic videos and teaching plans) to see how it would work in two social studies courses. The rest is chronicled in the book, but we find these kinds of innovators and learners throughout the corporate world. We just need to give them tools, frameworks, and right encouragement.

Q: In your research, you found that top performers at big companies had two critical skills: they knew how to set a short list of priorities and also how to protect them by being really good at saying no to anything that didn’t align with those priorities—including their bosses. What happens when people at both large organizations, and startups, don’t follow your principle: “Do less, then obsess”?

A: In my experience, startup teams do obsess—they go all in on their startup and fully commit to their work. Their problem maybe the opposite which is too much hyper focus. I recently spoke with a founder of an online education marketplace. He had a laser-like focus on his key for-profit segment, but then some high-profile people approached him to extend this to a non-profit area. Flattered by their attention, he re-allocated resources to that new effort, only to encounter problems in the core area. After a while, he realized that he had prematurely branched out and had to re-focus the effort. It’s a real concern given startups have very, very limited resources. Doing less—and sticking to that narrow scope—is key, yet the temptations to prematurely expand to new customer groups, new features, new products and services, and new geographies is very strong. It requires real discipline to master this principle in a startup environment when little is known and resources are scarce.

In larger, established companies my data show the situation is the opposite and often worse. A lot of people working in innovation encounter the problems of both lack of focus and lack of obsession. Many people in our data reported work environments where people “do more, then stress”. They take on many priorities—for example, working on 3 product development projects simultaneously—and then work hard to accomplish all of them, which means they cannot go all in and obsess over a few things.

“Do more” types fall into two traps: they spread themselves too thin, which leads to them to miss deadlines and deliver lower-quality work. They also fall into the complexity traps: they spend time coordinating and juggling multiple activities. Things get dropped, and error rates go up. Many cope by working long hours and stressing to just keep all these activities afloat. It can work to some extent, but it doesn’t produce excellent work. It certainly isn’t being great at work.

Q: We tend to think of people who succeed at their jobs or in launching a startup as people who are passionate about what they do. Is passion a prerequisite to being a top performer?

A: I initially thought that people who do very well did so because they “followed their passion.” That idea has become cliched, it’s repeated so often. The problem is this: What it really implies is that passion should dictate what you choose to do, regardless of other considerations (the assumption being that it will all work out in the end). Ignoring your passion, doesn’t sound like such good advice, either, as it may just lead to a life of drudgery.

We discovered a solution to this conundrum. Top performers found a third way: they matched their passion with purpose. Passion is do what you love; purpose is do what contributes. Passion asks, what can the world give me (a hedonistic view). Purpose asks, what can you give to the world (an other-orientation). I call this “P-squared”: People who infused their work with both passion and purpose performed much better in our data set than people who had just passion, or just purpose, or neither. They placed in the 80th percentile in the performance ranking on average, while people with only passion (but no purpose) placed in the 20th percentile, and people with purpose (but not passion) placed in the 64th percentile (note that purpose more than passion correlated with high performance).



Having passion and purpose in one’s job is important because when you inspire yourself first, it’s easier to inspire others. In today’s workplaces, whether in large companies or startups, you need to get others excited about your initiatives and projects—you can’t just rely on the old style “command and control.” We found that the top performers were really good at inspiring others, surprisingly not through charisma but through other easily adopted techniques to evoke emotions in others (both positive and negative). For example, by “showing and not telling.” One purchasing supervisor we spoke to was charged with the thankless tasks of converting paper to electronic forms in the company, and no one was excited to support him. Then he learned that the CEO would be visiting his office building for a meeting, and he arranged to use the adjacent conference room. He grabbed the CEO in a break and guided him into his room, where he had displayed a mountain of paper on a giant conference table. “Holy cow, what is this?”, the CEO asked excitedly (and not in a good way!) to which he responded, “this is all the paper forms we use in this company.” His project got the support it needed.

If you’re a founder or working in a startup or thinking about forming or joining one, think about this. Don’t just follow your passion in deciding which startup and which role. Try to formulate how you can take your unique strengths and find ways to contribute to the world. What’s your personal purpose statement? We found that a very strong purpose orientation has three components: what value do you create for others—customers, co-workers, company? Is that value meaningful to you personally? And does that value provide societal benefits beyond sales and profits? Then apply this to the startup itself: What value does the company create—and for whom—and is this formidable value creation? How many of the employees find that value proposition personally meaningful? What societal benefits does the company bring, beyond generating its sales and profits and selling stuff to customers (selling advertising or selling an app to a corporate customer does not necessarily provide societal benefits).

Q: So how can people working in both startups and corporate jobs determine if they’re creating that kind of value and those benefits for the people who they work with?

A: They need to pursue different, better metrics. We discovered in our research that people in established companies oftentimes pursue the wrong metrics. They emphasize volumes of activities or internal goals, over value-creating metrics. For example, one logistics manager in a high-tech industrial company tracked the extent to which their industrial products left the warehouse on time, achieving an impressive 99% on-time shipment rate. The problem was, the customers complained that only 65% of the shipments arrived when they needed them. The 99% metric was an internal goal, whereas the 65% metric measured customer value. You need to measure value-metrics and not internal “volume” metrics.

I suspect that many startups also don’t do this. A few months ago, I spoke to the CIO of a large company that is one of the largest paying customers of Slack software. She reported that they tracked very high usage of the software. When I asked whether they had seen higher productivity as a result of Slack or tracked that, she said they had no idea and that it wasn’t clear. Then I asked them to ask Slack whether they tracked such measures of their clients, and so they did and got a negative response. That’s no surprise. When I read about Slack in the news, I come across two typical metrics: the number of users and user engagement (hours of use per day). But those are volume metrics: the fact that a group of engineers in a client company uses Slack extensively during the day doesn’t mean that they are doing better work (that’s like saying that meetings using video-conference tools are good meetings). This is not to single out Slack, which is a terrific company, but to make a general point. Startups also need value-creating metrics: what value do we create for our customers, really? And how can we modify our work and offerings to increase value?

For that logistic person shipping goods, that meant re-organizing the schedule to get better delivery time for customers (value metric: % of shipments arriving when customers needed them). For Slack and many others like that, the real measure of value is the improved results by the customers like the one I interacted with (higher engineering productivity, speed of product development etc). Yes, those are harder to measure, but they are the real measure of value.

Q: Your concept of the “learning loop” draws on the build-measure-learn cycle that is one of the pillars of The Lean Startup and The Startup Way. What does it look like for people who set themselves apart from their colleagues?

A: One of the great virtues with The Lean Startup and The Startup Way methods is the focus on learning empirically, for example by doing A/B testing on MVPs, learning from those, and pivoting if necessary. We found in our research that the best performers apply a similar “learning loop.” They try out a new way of working (say leading a meeting), then get some measurements and feedback (say, feedback on meeting effectiveness), then modify their behaviors, and then repeat. It was also striking to discover how few people do this while working. Many people become competent at a professional skill, then they stop improving—good enough is good enough, it seems. This paucity means that startups and other companies pursuing the lean method in innovation have a huge advantage over others who are not learning at the same rate. Moreover, we discovered that the learning loop method really works not just for idea development but also for most “soft” professional skills, like running a meeting, prioritizing, doing a sales pitch, and so on. Everyone can apply this to managerial and professional skill development. For example, if you’re a sales person in a startup: do you apply such a learning loop to your sales pitch? Do you A/B test it and modify it constantly to become better? Those who did in our dataset improved faster and outperformed the rest. Continuous learning and growth are important in any work environment.

Morten Hansen’s new book GREAT AT WORK is on sale today and available at bookstores everywhere.