Thursday, September 6, 2018

Lessons Learned: Ann Mei Chang

We say we want to make the world a better place, so why does it seem like we’re working so hard just to stay in place? With Lean Impact, Ann Mei Chang takes us on her journey of trying to bring innovation and social good together.


I thought that my decades working at some of the most innovative Silicon Valley companies would prepare me to tackle the big problems that really matter. Now I realize all the ways the tech industry has it easy.

16 years ago, I met Eric Ries when we were both working at an up-and-coming startup that held the promise to change the way we communicate and socialize. We poured our hearts, souls, and virtually every waking hour into what we thought was the perfect vision that would captivate the world. Then we launched, and our presumptions were plunged into cold reality. Sure, we had some passionate users. But, not surprisingly for a revolutionary product, we got as much wrong as we got right. Soon, I was unemployed, lying on a beach licking my wounds and wondering what happened.

While Eric went on co-found another company and write The Lean Startup, I went on to Google. There, we didn’t assume we knew all the answers. Rather, we believed in data. Whether it was a new product, new feature, or even a simple tweak to an algorithm or color choice, we ran experiments to see how users reacted. We lived and breathed the user experience under real world conditions with real world customers. Google didn’t always have the best ideas, but what it had was the ability to learn, iterate, and improve faster than its competitors. Seven years ago, when I left to dedicate the rest of my career to social good, I thought I could take these lessons with me and use them to make a difference.

Alas, it wasn’t so simple.

As I immersed myself in my new mission, I found myself continually propelled back into the poor practices of my failed startup. In this case, it wasn’t hubris but rather a web of  perverse incentives that in combination induce organizations to draw up incredibly detailed plans in advance, then implement them faithfully without necessarily knowing what’s working. Only rarely are they able to gather feedback and data, let alone incorporate improvements. The biggest challenge was the nature of funding, which tends to emphasize predictability and discourage iteration. On top of that, it’s far harder to measure social impact than e-commerce transactions or experiment responsibly when people’s lives hang in the balance.

Mission-driven organizations face immense hurdles in keeping up with, let alone getting ahead of the ever-accelerating pace of change in the world. But, given the pressing problems facing people and the planet, I wasn’t about to give up. My search led me to the Global Development Lab at USAID. In the heart of one of the largest and most established organizations working to end global poverty, the Lab nurtures groundbreaking social entrepreneurs and designs new ways of funding that can better support learning, risk-taking, and experimentation. In my years there, I encountered more and more trailblazers both at nimble startups and in pockets at larger institutions who were breaking the mold. Still, these were by and large early adopters.

As my appointment at USAID came to an end, I began to pursue a number of opportunities to lead nonprofits in the global development sphere. When I got my first offer, I knew I had a tough choice – would I do more good by working within a broken system to make what difference I could or by trying to change the way the system worked altogether? I decided to plunge head first into the latter. Given the perverse incentives, deeply ingrained culture, and difficulty of adopting widely used innovation techniques in the world of social good, I simply couldn’t convince myself that I’d be able to make a meaningful dent on the problems I cared about without first addressing some of the barriers to social innovation. Thus, Lean Impact was born.

To learn from those who had pioneered new models for designing solutions, accelerating learning, and financing social good, I asked the smartest people I knew to tell me about the best organizations they had heard of across the US and around the world. In the course of my research, I was lucky to interview over 200 of them.

They include Summit Public Schools, a nonprofit that was unwilling to wait potentially years to see full academic results and found ways to dramatically speed up its feedback loop so it could more quickly iterate and improve its transformative approach to personalized learning. Another great story came from One Acre Fund, a social enterprise that learned from a failed big bet and introduced staged experiments to test and improve new ideas with its smallholder farmers before investing in a large rollout. Still others, like Civilla, have worked hand-in-hand with government to drive change – in its case taking a human-centered approach to make access to social services in Michigan far simpler.

Companies like M-Kopa Solar, Off Grid Electric, and d.light are not only innovating on their home solar systems for low-income families, but also the business models that allow them to become profitable and expand. And, cutting edge funders like the Global Innovation Fund are deploying the increasingly flexible and blended financing that is needed to allow and encourage rapid learning.

It turns out that social good is no longer the exclusive purview of nonprofits and foundations. Increasingly, I’ve found that the most promising solutions are coming from hybrid organizations and funders – whether they be social enterprises, B corps, venture philanthropy, impact investing, or some combination. As individuals choose where to work, buy, and invest based on their values, businesses are taking notice. And, to achieve sustainable impact at scale, government and policy often must play a crucial role. I wrote Lean Impact for anyone pursuing a social mission, so that we can all work together in concert to drive much needed change.

What it comes down to is, how do we create a system so that the pursuit of social impact and scale becomes as relentless as the pursuit of profits in the corporate world?


Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good (Wiley, Oct 30) is available for pre-order at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Books-A-Million | 800ceoread.

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

blog comments powered by Disqus