Lean impact: How to innovate for radically greater social good

How to transcend the barriers to innovation in the impact space.

Lean impact: How to innovate for radically greater social good
[Photo: wacomka/iStock]

Let’s be real. Innovation for social good is harder than innovation for 
business. Period. It took me some time to realize this. Like many
 practitioners of Lean Startup, the techniques seemed so universal
 that it was hard for me to imagine a domain in which they wouldn’t
 apply. Then I tried. I shared the methodology from Eric Ries’s seminal book The Lean Startup with a
 nonprofit. At first, reactions were positive, even enthusiastic. Most 
people recognized the innate uncertainty of their work and welcomed 
ideas for being more nimble, managing risk, and accelerating 
progress toward their mission. But then, nothing changed.


When people returned to their desks, they found a grant proposal 
to write or previously funded activities to execute. I discovered
 that traditional grants require that a detailed design be laid out
 in a proposal–down to discrete activities, budgets, and staffing
–and that implementation must faithfully adhere to that plan.
 I came to call this the enforced waterfall model, in reference to the
 outdated process for building shrink-wrapped software when the
 need to manufacture and distribute floppy disks or CDs meant 
infrequent, high-stakes releases. Each stage of designing, building,
testing, and shipping was planned in advance and performed
 sequentially. The advent of the web and cloud-based computing 
freed software development from these strictures and unleashed a
wave of innovation.

This is an excerpt from Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good by Ann Mei Chang. [Image: courtesy Wiley]
Unfortunately, breaking out of this mode is not a simple matter 
of convincing your manager. Even the CEO may have little say.
 Control often sits with the donors who hold the purse strings.
 Imagine if software engineers had to beseech a venture capitalist for permission before trying any new idea for a feature. That
 would certainly slow down innovation. Entrepreneurs do exist everywhere,
 but if they are grant-funded, their arms may be tied behind 
their backs.

Those mission-driven organizations that are fortunate enough to
 have access to more flexible funding may still find difficulty in satisfying
 their two entirely different types of customers: beneficiaries 
and funders. Even individual donors and impact investors frequently 
focus on defined geographies or sectors, be that health, education,
 poverty, climate, or otherwise. What if you’re funded to reduce
 malaria, but you discover that what is most needed are primary 
healthcare clinics? What if you’re funded to reduce rural poverty 
through agriculture, but people prefer to migrate to the city? What if
 you’re funded to improve girls’ education, but you realize what would 
make the biggest difference is sanitary pads? In the private sector, 
satisfying your user will increase profits and delight investors.


in the social sector, what people want, what will make the greatest 
impact, and what funders will pay for are not always the same.
 The barriers to innovation don’t end there. Our instincts may 
lead us astray when working with populations whose experiences 
are quite different from our own. We work at the treacherous intersection 
of failed markets and failed policies. Metrics tend to be 
geared toward compliance and accountability, rather than decision-making 
and learning. Measuring social impact is far more complicated 
than measuring e-commerce transactions. And, taking risks 
implies a potential for failure that could jeopardize funding streams
 or make things worse for vulnerable people who are already living
 on the edge.

If you’ve found it difficult to adopt concepts from The Lean
 Startup and other innovation tool kits, you’re not alone. But, despite
 the added complexities, many mission-oriented organizations have 
found it not only possible, but transformative. They are better serving
 their customers, accelerating their growth, and magnifying their 

[Photo: wacomka/iStock]

Principles of Lean Impact

Lean Impact is an approach to maximizing social benefit in the face 
of the complex challenges in our society. It builds upon the best 
practices for innovation from The Lean Startup and beyond, while
 introducing new techniques tailored to the unique nature of the
 mission-driven arena. By combining scientific rigor with entrepreneurial 
agility, we can dramatically increase both the depth and 
breadth of our impact.


The essence of Lean Impact is captured by three core guiding

• Think big. Be audacious in the difference you aspire to make,
 basing your goals on the size of the real need in the world rather
 than what seems incrementally achievable.

• Start small. Between a desire to help people who are suffering 
today and pressure from funders to hit delivery targets, interventions
 often scale too soon. Starting small and staying small
 makes it far easier to learn and adapt–setting you on a path to 
greater impact over time.


• Relentlessly seek impact. Whether due to excitement, attachment, 
or the requirements imposed by a funder, we can become wedded 
to our intervention, technology, or institution. To make the
 biggest impact, fall in love with the problem, not your solution.

Despite the obstacles to innovation, nonprofits, social enterprises,
 companies, foundations, philanthropists, governments, and impact 
investors are beginning to chart a new path that embraces many of 
the concepts from The Lean Startup to solve the pressing social and
 environmental issues of our time. They are starting small, listening to 
their customers, rapidly iterating on solutions, and designing business
 models that can scale sustainably.