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)!