The One Reason Lean Startups Are Here To Stay…(part 1)

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ (En kol chadásh táchat hashámesh)

Ecclesiastes 1:9

I hate fads.

I’ve been doing social change work since I was a little boy. I registered my first voter when I was five, and until I went to college I got up at 5 A.M. on election days to open polls with my parents. I’ve been a student of politics, advocacy, and grassroots organizing for as long as I can remember, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are no shortcuts to social change.  Real change requires innovation, commitment, hard work, and usually a bit of luck.

So whenever a new idea comes around touted as a new way to make change happen, I’m more than a bit suspicious.  When the idea of Lean Startups for Social Change grabbed me, the first question I had to answer for myself (but ultimately for the people I wanted to read the book) was “What is truly new here?” What distinguishes the lean startup from any number of other tools and techniques vital to making change happen?

The very core of lean is about learning:

  • You start your innovation with hypotheses instead of a plan — your goal is learning whether you’re right, not executing a plan that you assume is right to begin with.
  • You iteratively build and measure your service or product in order to learn what really works as quickly as possible.
  • As you mature the organization, you institute innovation accounting – a tool for measuring your organization’s learning metabolism – so that you can change how quickly you are learning.

But if a focus on learning was what distinguished the lean startup from other innovation techniques, my non-profit and government colleagues should be rolling their eyes already.  Learning is a bit of a fad these days, particularly among funders.  It’s a good bet that writing “we are a learning organization” positions you better for a grant. If you’re a foundation, it’s kind of a required statement to be cool: “We are always learning…”  Who, after all, could be against learning?

What makes the lean startup so much more than a fad isn’t its emphasis on learning.  Its unique importance doesn’t even stem from within the concept of lean itself.  Rather the lean startup is a natural result of something in the world that is fundamentally new…

Stay tuned for part 2 (and an explanation of that Hebrew saying above)!

Why I wrote Lean Startups for Social Change

Sometimes an idea takes hold of you and won’t let go.
I’ve had a few ideas like that in my life — mostly having to do with environmental and social justice, family, faith, even software — but I never expected to become obsessed with a new business practice.

Within a year or two of being in the software business, I began understanding that a new set of practices was changing the landscape of change itself. The volume and speed of business successes and failures in Silicon Valley were (and still are) monumental, but so was the learning about how to build things that worked, how to make products that drove real change, and how to grow their reach and impact at unprecedented rates.

These practices have come to be called the lean startup and they are spreading rapidly from really famous internet companies like Google to bigger and bigger companies outside Silicon Valley, like General Electric. I became obsessed with this stuff for two reasons. 

First, the lean startup is a really big deal. It’s not a fad or a trendy management mantra. Compare it instead to Taylorism, the set of business methods behind the industrial boom of the 20th century. (Look for a separate post on this analogy very soon.)

The thing is, I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and government, working with people who regularly drive real change — change in communities, in churches, in workplaces, in policy, in laws.  Yet, as vital as change in the social sector is, the most transformative tool for innovation today is virtually unknown there. There is a community of government and non-profit lean startup practitioners but it is small and still struggling with how to adapt the practice to a world where the metrics are far more complex than money.

So reason number one to write the book: to start spreading the news – there’s a radical, new way to solve big social and political problems and the sooner we start using it the faster and more effectively those problems will be solved.

Which leads me to reason number two.

The lean startup, like scientific management at the turn of the 20th century, is also creating a lot of problems. The rate of change is disruptive to the fabric of our workforce, our economy, our culture. We have gadgets so compelling that we aren’t paying enough attention to each other anymore, supply chains efficiently squeezing small businesses into extinction, software so sophisticated that it replaces people in vital service industries (think “travel agents”).

Black Lives Matter is lean and powerfully disruptive. So is Uber. Two sides of the same coin.

That coin of cultural, social and political change is the currency of government, faith institutions and non-profits. The social sector is where we act, collectively, on the stuff that really counts: our lives, our happiness, our security, our souls.

The second reason I wrote this book was to make us all authors of the emerging disruption. The practices of the lean startup are here to stay. What they get used for is not just up to businesspeople but up to all of us working to make the world, in small measure or large, right.

That’s why I wrote this book.

From here on out, this blog will dive into key questions about using the lean startup for social change. It will raise up interesting case studies and practitioners and serve as a forum for debate and for new information. Please take a look at the book (excerpts coming soon!), read this blog, and join the conversation and the community