Monday, November 18, 2013

Lean Startup Where You’d Least Expect It

Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference.

We were excited by the response at last year’s Lean Startup Conference to Diane Tavenner’s eye-opening talk on her experience implementing Lean Startup methods at Summit Public Schools, the California charter for which she is CEO and co-founder. Diane’s work suggests that even educational organizations—notoriously bureaucratic and slow—can effectively implement Lean Startup methods. As part of our expanded program this year, we’re looking more deeply at the role Lean Startup methods can play in transforming education and other mission-driven organizations (more on the latter below). To introduce the themes of Lean Startup in education, we’ve invited Diane and Steven Hodas of the New York City Department of Education’s iZone, to a webcast conversation, Testing Lean Startup in Education; both will also be speakers at this year’s conference. Join them on November 21 at 9a PT, along with conference co-host Sarah Milstein. As always, the webcast is free with registration, and we’ll be holding live Q&A, so come with your questions.

For background, we invite you to watch Diane’s talk from last year’s Lean Startup Conference, where she discussed devising an ongoing, iterative development cycle for Summit’s math curriculum, which she reorganized around the principle of student self-designed learning. She and her staff have set a goal of 100% graduation rates from 4-year colleges for Summit students (only 24% of California students even finish high school with the necessary qualifications to attend college at all, let alone complete a degree). At this year’s conference, she’ll provide an update on that initiative.

Steven will be speaking at the conference for the first time this year. He heads the Markets initiative for the New York City Department of Education’s iZone, where he fosters demand for innovative solutions to challenges in education. We asked Steven to talk about his biggest success in implementing Lean Startup methods in the largest school district in the nation, operating with a $25 billion budget. Here’s what he had to say about the importance of community buy-in:

One of the things we’ve had consistent success with is a structured process for collecting and distilling the experience of those who live with the problem on which we’re working. They’re the target lead users of whatever product or process we develop.

We work with firms like IDEO, the Parsons DESIS Lab, and the Public Policy Lab to conduct what is basically ethnographic or field research. It’s not rocket science, but it is a particular skill-set and methodology for drawing out stories and then analyzing them for common threads and deeper or unstated implications.

We then formulate what we’ve learned into a problem definition, which we issue to our communities as a provocation, rather than specification. Depending on the specifics of the process we’re employing, we make the underlying research available to them as well, and bring the stakeholders in for user testing of the work as it’s being developed. This was key in both our GapApp Challenge and School Choice Design Charette. In the first, the target users were middle school math teachers and curriculum coaches. In the second, the audience was 8th-grade students and parents.

Clearly, this process helps put the ‘V’ in our MVP. But perhaps more important, it forces us (and by extension the solution providers) into an empathetic posture. It’s anecdotal in the best sense—small data that’s very rich—and because we took the time to ask and listen, increases the likelihood that they’ll invest more depth and persistence in trying what we offer, and provide more valuable feedback for the next iteration.

And about those failures…?

We haven't had any failures yet, but we've fallen most short (so far) in finding ways to get people—particularly in the central bureaucracy—to accept, let alone embrace, velocity. When you take the “quick” out of quick-and-dirty you just have “dirty.”

Steven and Diane will discuss their most successful, not to mention dirtiest, strategies on November 21 at 9a PT. Register to join us.

Our recent webcast, Lean Impact: Bringing Lean to Mission-Driven Orgs, touched on similar themes. Featuring 2013 Lean Startup Conference speakers Akash Trivedi of KivaZip and Christie George of New Media Ventures, it's a very good starting point for anyone in an organization dealing with potentially competing interests, limited resources, long development cycles, and a desire to create measurable change. Here are a few highlights of that conversation:

Christie, on identifying and knowing your customer: One of the biggest challenges in the social sector in general is around who the customer is. Customer development is such an important part of Lean methodology, and in the social sector there is a real difference between, say, the beneficiary of a service and the traditional customer, who may be paying, who's the donor. I feel passionately about us, as a sector, figuring out how to navigate this distinction. I don't have any easy answers. At root, most social entrepreneurs I know are in the social sector to create change in the world, and so who they care about and who they are really oriented toward is the beneficiary of the service or the product. There is a kind of complicated dynamic when the person that's paying for the service may actually care about a different thing. So the real starting point for me is the introduction of [Lean Startup] principles into the social sector, but into the philanthropic sector as well, so that folks who are considering contributions in this space actually understand that this methodology can yield better, more impactful solutions.

Akash, on the importance of not doing what doesn’t work: [Not] proving your hypothesis is not a failure. Not getting data is a failure. There have been plenty of examples that I've seen where I was really excited about an idea but where the data just proved otherwise. And actually if you put me on the spot, the things I'm most excited about on Zip are the things we decided not to do versus the things that we did to, because to me, as Christie said, when you're tackling some of these abstract fundamental problems that so many people are depending on, you don't have the luxury of getting it wrong. You need to come up with the most optimal, relevant solution, and I think the best way to do that is to cut out what doesn't work.

Christie, on getting buy-in in a hierarchical organizational structure: I've seen organizations do this really with examples. Everyone is susceptible to what other people are doing, and I've often found that if you're in a hierarchical institution the best way to do that is to kind of say, “Hey, look at this experiment that these guys ran over here.” In the social sector we're increasingly seeing more people be vocal about the things that worked and that didn't, and that's like any buy-in process, giving people examples of its working in other places is one way of actually getting buy in when you're otherwise just being stonewalled on the issue.

Akash, on metrics that help organizational learning:
This might be kind of controversial, but one of the metrics we're using is a proxy for impact, believe it or not, is Net Promoter Score. Net Promoter Score is a tool that for-profit companies like Apple, Google, will use to measure their brand strength. And while it's certainly not directly related to impact in some senses, when we think about impact as a nonprofit traditionally and as it pertains to Kiva, you think about the delta in income created, employment opportunities created, are you sending kids to school, all those sorts of things. But I think in a world where, as Christie mentioned, feedback loops are quite long, and in the world that we're navigating, which is quite abstract, and there are no comparables, knowing that our customers, both our trustees and our borrowers, are happy is actually a pretty good proxy for letting us know whether we're moving in the right direction.

Register to join Steven and Diane for our free webcast on November 21. Join all four speakers at The Lean Startup Conference, December 9 – 11 in San Francisco. We sell tickets in blocks, and when one block sells out, the price goes up. Register today for the best price possible.

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