Lean Impact - 1
From a talk by Ann Mei Chang
Ann Mei Chang is a leading advocate for social innovation. Coming out of silicon valley after 20 years with Google, Apple, and Intuit, as well as at a range of startups, she became the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps and latterly, the Chief Innovation Officer at USAID. She recently released a book - Lean Impact which seeks to bring the best practices for innovation from the heart of Silicon Valley to the purpose of achieving radically greater social good.
I attended a recent talk given by Ann Mei and have split an abridged version into 2 blogs due to length. Here is part one:
Many of you are probably familiar with the sustainable development goals that were adopted just over three years ago. And despite that, just over three years later, we already know that we're not on the trajectory to meet many of these. And I think it's emblematic of where we stand as a society.
And so I think what we need is more social innovation and one book that has done a great job of capturing the best practises for innovation and underpinned a lot of Silicon's Valley success and fast pace of progress is a book called The Lean Startup written Eric Ries about seven years ago. And what Eric talks about in Lean Startup is a methodology for building products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.
And so we know that in Silicon Valley nine out of ten start-ups fail, but I would argue that in the social sector the kind of social challenges that we're trying to tackle, that this is equally, if not more true. Now whether we're trying to tackle poverty or protect the environment or combat social injustice, these are challenges that we don't have great solutions for.
A lot of times I think what's happening is we're just bringing the wrong tools to the table. In the social sector we tend to be very good at predictable execution. We know how many people we're going to reach, how we're going to reach them, and we execute to do so. And that makes sense where we have solutions that we know will work and we know can impact. But I would argue that's a minority of the kind of work that we do. Instead, we have a lot of challenges where the answers are not clear, where we have more questions than we have answers and that calls for a different approach, one that emphasises the speed of learning. And of course that's what innovation is about.
And so I hear a lot of talk about innovation these days in the world of social impact. Everyone's talking about innovation initiatives or an innovation lab and people are reading innovation books and trying to adopt innovation practises. And yet, the reality is that innovation in the social sector is much harder. Take it from me. I came from the tech sector, got into this world, and it's like I didn't realise how easy I had it in the tech sector.
We have so many leaders in the social sector who see the value we can bring to their work, want to adopt it, and yet, feel stuck. They struggle because of the restrictive nature of their funding or how difficult it is to measure impact versus e-commerce transactions or how long it can take for impact to be fully realised and where the whole notion of experimentation may just seem irresponsible when you're working with vulnerable populations.
And so that's really why I wrote Lean Impact - to try to help us figure out how to adapt these best practises of innovation that we know work and that are common sense, but to this realm of social good. And I do so by bringing forward the stories of organisations that have figured out how to navigate these and other challenges.
I was lucky enough to go out and interview over 200 different organisations, both big and small, domestic and international, for profit and non-profit and some aren't from the best of them. What were the secrets of their success? And there are three principles that really stood out to me that I want to share with you tonight.
The first is to think big.
What I've noticed is that when it comes to social impact, even people who are thinking big in their day job in their business world we tend to think too small. We tend to plan based on constraints. That's either we have this many dollars, we have this many people, we have this much time for a particular grant. And we say okay, within this box of constraints what's the best we can do. And we do some good, but it's usually not enough to move the needle on the bigger challenges. So what I think we need to do instead is, instead of planning based on constraints, is to plan based on the size of the need. What is really going to move the needle to change, to really fix the problem on a permanent basis, to reach all the people who could really benefit? And that means setting audacious goals.
And just to put this into perspective in the social sector, I'm going to talk about a social non-profit in the U.S. called Earn. So Earn is in the business of helping poor people, low-income people in the U.S. develop a habit of savings. After ten years, they were at the top of their sector. They had opened 7,000 micro savings accounts and were getting awarded and recognised by their industry as one of the most successful. And then, the founder Ben Mangen, one day woke up and he thought you know we may be being told we're the most successful, but we're barely scratching the surface. There's 50 to 70 million people who could benefit and we're only a drop in the bucket. So that night at an awards dinner he stood up and he put out an audacious goal for the organisation. He said we're going to provide savings accounts. Help a million people in the next five years develop a habit of savings. And that's a huge leap from 7,000 in their first ten years.
But by setting this goal that is a stretch. he had no idea how he was going to get there. It forced the organisation to rethink their model. They could no longer do in-person visits to everybody and provide a financial match. They have to think about a more scalable way to approach the problem. And what they ended up doing was creating a technology platform that could reach a lot more people a lot more cheaply. And so in the first year in rolling out the technology platform, they have reached 85,000 people, more than ten times as many people as they did in the first ten years all together. And so by setting this audacious goal, it forced them to recognise that their current path was not getting them there and to look at and take risks on taking a new approach.
To be continued... Blog 2 is here
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