Rapid Innovation for Troubled Times: How to Keep Making a Big Difference

We’re all in a startup now.

The classic definition of a startup is an organization “designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”  You don’t need to be changing your mission for this to apply to your organization too. As of the last couple of weeks, many of the things that define what you do — the people you serve, the ways you reach them, where they are, and how you fund it — have definitely changed. So you have a startup.

(Although this is a “side issue” I want to put it up front: for the sake of all of us, please do consider whether using your organization’s skills to do a totally new thing isn’t in fact what the world needs right now.  Do you have a way to make immuno-compromised people safer or more secure? Can your tech or your services help kickstart the financial stimulus packages coming down the pike? Can you be the hub for a new, crowd-sourced way of getting something done?)

How can you use new-product-thinking right now?  Here are three important steps to take:

1. Be a Learning Player, not a Knowing Victim.

In this challenging time, it’s hard to not feel like the pandemic is victimizing us all in unimaginable ways.  We are all searching for hard knowledge, certainty about what is happening to us. Unfortunately, these are impulses that will stifle creativity and innovation.

Hard as it may be, take some time to shift in two important ways.  First, think of yourself and those you work with as Players, focusing on the things you do control: yourself, your actions as a team, the solutions you bring to the world every day.  Second, shift from seeking certainty and knowledge to seeking learning and understanding. Rather than stating what your experience tells you to be true, ask “what-if” questions even about what used to be so obvious. 

We are going through an unprecedented change.  It’s OK to challenge even our most tightly held beliefs and assumptions, including the one that says we are the victims of Covid-19.  Explore in yourself and those you work and live with the things you CAN control and the learning that you can do even now.

2. Revisit your core assumptions.

What, exactly, has changed for your organization?  

Take an hour or two to map out the elements of your work that the pandemic has genuinely shifted or will soon.  A great tool for this is the Lean Change Canvas, which summarizes in one page most of what makes any product, service or solution work in the real world.  

Has your value proposition evaporated (imagine an organization that drives the unhoused to medical clinics for checkups)? Has the way your reach people shifted radically (imagine almost any school in the country that teaches in a classroom)? Has a big chunk of your revenue disappeared (imagine mass transit systems that no longer have fare-paying riders or a museum in a city with a quarantine)?

The Canvas isn’t the only way to map out the changing landscape, but it provides a common way for you and your team to explore what’s really happened.  It’s most useful when people fill it out individually and then share results so that you get as diverse a perspective on what’s happening as possible. To map the delta between before Covid-19 and after Covid-19, build a “pre-pandemic” Canvas together and then have each person on your team go off for 20-30 minutes to list what’s changed in each of the Canvas’ 9 areas.

When you’re done, you should have a new perspective on what’s really going on.  Treat these insights as assumptions that you now have to go out and test before you validate them

3. Test against the new reality.

The severity of our situation demands fast learning (NOT fast knowledge!).  Build on the map of assumptions you built in the prior step to make a prioritized list of what you have to learn right now.  

One tip for prioritizing these learnings is to use a two-way screen.  First, identify the assumptions most important to survival or success in this new era. Second, rank them by how much real data you have to validate them.  Start your testing with the most important assumptions for which you have the least information. By starting where uncertainty is most critical you are likely to get the greatest return for your time and your resources at this critical juncture. 

The most common way to test assumptions about what needs to change or a new line of activity is to speak with the people or the organizations you serve.  Make no mistake — the people you serve will always be your greatest informants, but conversations with them are actually just one type of Minimum Viable Product (MVP).  Search “Minimum Viable Product types” to tap into lots of other options (or email me at michel@leanchange.net).

No matter how you choose to test your assumptions stick with the “learner” mindset and test iteratively.  Build your first MVP, measure the results, learn from them and start all over again.  If interviews are the way you’re going, come up with a structured set of questions, ask as many people as you can reach, evaluate the answers you get and either proceed based on those answers or go back and ask more.  

The reasons interviews are so important is that they give you the chance to directly sense how people feel about the changes or new products you want to make.  Other MVPs achieve this in other ways, but don’t make the mistake of sending out a form or a survey, because that only really tests how likely people are to open an email from you.  In this moment of quarantine, get close by calling and connecting.

If you only take the first two steps, you will still be way ahead of the game.  You will undoubtedly find many assumptions at the end of step two for which you have enough data to act.  You may know that some channels have definitely dried up (the kids, for example, are not coming back to class). You may know that some costs are now radically different. You can use this learning to prioritize budget and program cuts now and save vital resources you will need to pivot to a new operating model.

And you can start on all three steps today. You can map your assumptions this morning, make calls testing them this afternoon, and have a “new product” by tonight.  You can take the results of today’s sprint into tomorrow to find a way to survive, to contribute and even maybe to thrive.

Note: I wrote a version of this for businesses with slightly different language and examples…

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