Lean Startups for Social Change

The Revolutionary Path to Big Impact

Michel Gelobter (Author)

Publication date: 11/02/2015

Lean Startups for Social Change

“There’s a new way to change the world,” writes social entrepreneur Michel Gelobter. It's called the lean startup—but it’s not just for new ventures. It’s been revolutionizing businesses of all ages for years, and Gelobter shows it can have the same transformative impact on the social sector.

Traditionally, entrepreneurs develop a detailed plan, find money to fund it, and then pursue it to its conclusion. But conditions can change drastically at any point—you can end up locked into a process based on now-obsolete assumptions. The lean startup is all about agility and flexibility. Its mantra is “build, measure, learn”: create small experimental initiatives, get real-world feedback on them quickly, and use that data to identify what works and discard what doesn’t. And then test some more.

Gelobter explains exactly how nonprofits and advocacy organizations can adapt lean startup concepts to their unique circumstances. He offers dozens of real-world examples: an established homelessness group whose data analysis showed that reducing a single overlooked metric could get many more people off the street; a technology-based literacy startup that used lean techniques to reach 2 million children in two years, when a more traditional program took fifteen; and many others. The standard approach wastes time and money—the lean startup promises to help social sector organizations vastly increase the good they do.

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Overview

“There’s a new way to change the world,” writes social entrepreneur Michel Gelobter. It's called the lean startup—but it’s not just for new ventures. It’s been revolutionizing businesses of all ages for years, and Gelobter shows it can have the same transformative impact on the social sector.

Traditionally, entrepreneurs develop a detailed plan, find money to fund it, and then pursue it to its conclusion. But conditions can change drastically at any point—you can end up locked into a process based on now-obsolete assumptions. The lean startup is all about agility and flexibility. Its mantra is “build, measure, learn”: create small experimental initiatives, get real-world feedback on them quickly, and use that data to identify what works and discard what doesn’t. And then test some more.

Gelobter explains exactly how nonprofits and advocacy organizations can adapt lean startup concepts to their unique circumstances. He offers dozens of real-world examples: an established homelessness group whose data analysis showed that reducing a single overlooked metric could get many more people off the street; a technology-based literacy startup that used lean techniques to reach 2 million children in two years, when a more traditional program took fifteen; and many others. The standard approach wastes time and money—the lean startup promises to help social sector organizations vastly increase the good they do.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Michel Gelobter

Michel Gelobter is one of the country’s leading climate strategists, having worked for more than 25 years as a regulator, policy-maker, researcher, and thought leader on environmental and social policy. Michel co-founded BuildingEnergy.com, designing the world’s largest platform for building energy data and applications . Prior, Michel was Chief Green Officer of Hara Software, a Kleiner-Perkins portfolio company and the leading enterprise energy and environmental management startup.

Until founding Cooler in early 2007, Michel was President/CEO of Redefining Progress, the U.S.’s leading domestic sustainability policy institute. During Michel’s tenure, Redefining Progress helped design the world’s most aggressive climate legislation which was signed into California law in August of 2006, formed the Climate Justice Corps to train thousands of U.S. youth in climate activism, became the worldwide home of the Ecological Footprint (the world’s best known measure of sustainability), and created MyFootprint.org, a website serving over 2 million unique visitors a month.

Michel also founded and directed the Environmental Policy Program at Columbia University and the Environment and Energy Track at Singularity University. He worked as a Congressional Black Caucus Fellow and for the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, was Director of Environmental Quality for the City of New York, and served as an Assistant Commissioner for its Department of Environmental Protection (with over 6,000 employees and a combined budget of over $2 billion/year).

Michel earned his B.S., M.S. and a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in Energy and Resources. He has served as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Advisory Board of Vice-President Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, and is presently on the Boards of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment, and CERES, among others.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Steve Blank
Introduction by Christie George

1 Making Change the 21st-Century Way
2 Lean Principles and Process
3 The Difference a Sector Makes: Lean Startups for Profit versus for Social Change
4 Discovery I: The Nine Guesses
5 Discovery II: Get Ready, Get Set...
6 Discovery III: Get Out of the Building
7 Discovery IV: Pivot, Proceed, or Quit
8 Validation I: Get Ready to Get Big
9 Validation II: Priming the Pump
10 Validation III: Keep + Grow = Scale
11 Creation: Scaling Impact
12 Institutionalization: Building the Lean Organization

Conclusion: Lean Change and the Choices Ahead
Resources: Sample Lean Change Canvases
Reference
Index
Acknowledgments
About the Author

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Excerpt

Lean Startups for Social Change

1

Making Change the 21st-Century Way

Making change is hard—even before you start making it.

Whether you’re in a big government agency, you’re confronting a problem in your own community, or you’re just trying to make a difference in a few people’s lives, getting started is a challenge. You convene meetings, make plans, find partners, agonize over the right approach, cajole donors or funding agencies, compromise. You build a model that a lot of people sign on to, you secure funding, and you get started.

The stakes are especially high for making change in the social sector because failure is often not an option. In contrast with the private sector, social innovation requires something harder to get than money—it takes political and social will. If an innovation fails to deliver a vital product or service the momentum required to try again is often dissipated for years.

Aware of these stakes, the team you’ve assembled is working from a playbook you’ve painstakingly built, but you launch into a world that hasn’t seen anything like this before. A new community forms around the idea. There’s an excitement about the change that will come, an anticipation of the start, dreams about the middle and the end, about the time when the world, in some measure, will be a better place. Whether it’s a new childcare center, an advocacy campaign to shut down a polluter, a trade association for dog trainers, or literally a new way of getting trains to run on time, a lot of work goes into gathering the energy and good will to get started.

And starting is when the real trouble begins. Sometimes the change you hoped to make actually happens, but, more often than not, there’s a hard road ahead for your initial vision to actually manifest or for the change you hoped for to be big enough to make a difference. You work with the risk that all the planning and good will has been for naught.

To the founding team this process feels unique, but it is in fact the pattern of much innovation in business, government, and the social sector. It takes a tremendous amount of personal, social, and financial capital to get an idea off the ground, but all too often when the initial plan meets the real world the results are nothing like those anticipated.

Just over a decade ago, a revolutionary way to make change emerged from Silicon Valley: the lean startup. Companies were starting and failing so quickly that the startup pattern no longer felt unique. The lean startup alternative bypassed the freight of a plan and securing social and political capital behind it to focus on where the change actually has to happen and where the best-laid plans almost always run into trouble: in their direct encounter with customers.

The Lean Startup for Social Change

The lean startup turns the traditional, process-heavy approach to innovation on its head. It replaces detailed planning, consensus-building, and fundraising for something you aren’t quite sure will work with speed, experimentation, and direct interaction with the people you are trying to reach. Initially the purview of software startups, the lean startup has jumped the fence to some of the world’s largest companies, including Facebook, Google, and General Electric. Lean startup techniques are how these companies now regularly serve billions of people.

Social change advocates as well as a wide variety of traditional nonprofits and government agencies have also started adopting some lean startup techniques. The Obama administration launched the General Services Administration’s 18F and then the broader US Digital Service to upend how the federal government delivers services. Mott Hall Bridges middle school in New York City’s Brownsville neighborhood endowed a program fully in less than a week (and ultimately raised more money than it needed) to overcome the systemic bias that keeps qualified low-income kids out of the best colleges. Invisible Children, a faith-based student organization, reached tens of millions of people in one week to raise awareness of war crimes in Africa. By using the lean startup model for social change, these efforts delivered social innovation more quickly and with a higher return for all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into getting them off the ground.

Lean startup practice has just begun to take hold in the business world, but its implementation in the social sector is still rare and piecemeal. This book aims to change that so that innovators and leaders across the social sector can accelerate and expand their impact to meet the challenges of our times.

Change in Change Itself

The lean startup is radically more efficient than the old approach of driving human and financial resources into an elaborate but unproven plan. While it does not guarantee success, it accelerates the process of generating new understanding. For the business world, the lean startup holds the promise of being more revolutionary for the world than the emergence of industrial innovation in the 19th century. Where Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford, and others revolutionized production through rigorous study of industrial and human processes, the lean startup brings a radical new science to meeting the demand for products and services itself. In other words, the lean startup is designed, from the bottom up, to find the quickest, most efficient way of meeting a need.

What makes the lean startup possible are two fundamentally new capabilities that have emerged over the last two decades. First, it is possible faster than ever before to know the impact of a change you are seeking to make. Whether it’s a change in people’s behavior, their attitudes, or where they go day to day, or a change in the physical world, the instantaneous and ubiquitous connections that technology has enabled make it increasingly simple to know if that change is happening, and how. There is no single other factor that underlies lean startups more than this ability.

A secondary new factor is our ability to make small batches of almost anything faster than ever before. On the Web, in virtual space, we can test messages and product or service ideas in a matter of minutes by throwing up a webpage or buying click-words that magically appear in the lives of our target audiences. In the physical world, cheap, sophisticated product prototyping has been available for more than a decade in local markets or, with quick shipping, in emerging industrial nations like China and India.

This ability to quickly float a concept or a few samples of a physical product, when coupled with the ability to gauge its impact on people or the environment, almost instantly changes a whole lot about how we can conceptualize new products, services, and relationships and how we can scale them for maximum impact.

New products, services, relationships, scaled for maximum impact: the business sector is not alone in wanting these things. They are the lifeblood of progress in the social sector as well.

My Journey to Where Lean Meets Social Change

When I started my first company (a social venture called Cooler), I knew I wanted to make consumers a force for progress on global warming. I had already worked for almost twenty years as an environmental justice advocate, as a researcher, and as a government official, and with the passage of a number of groundbreaking laws on climate pollution, I thought I’d pushed the envelope on policy change as far as it could go in the mid 2000s. I wanted to keep moving people in the right direction, and I figured that I’d try to learn to go after them through their pocketbooks rather than the voting booth.

Cooler did OK as far as startups go. We were fast out of the blocks with terrific early customers, but slowed way down with the financial crisis of 2008. I realized that I had to start asking deeper questions about how to be effective in tough times.

My life changed the day I met Steve Blank. He’d been recommended to me as a “startup guru” and, luckily, we had a shared background as environmentalists. He met me at Kepler’s, the famous Menlo Park café/bookstore of startup lore. Steve and I spent a few minutes looking at the impressive platform Cooler had built to tell consumers everything they wanted to know about how their personal spending was impacting climate change. We had a gorgeous interface that magically sucked data from people’s bank accounts and calculated their global warming impact. Even better, we offered a menu of actions they could take to make the world a better place.

Steve cooed at all the appropriate places and I was feeling pretty good. Then he asked me to close my computer. He said that otherwise he’d be distracted by all the fun features. Then he turned to me and asked: “What’s the one thing you most want people to do?”

We chatted and came up with a few good candidates for that one, top-priority, thing. After a bit of this discussion, Steve leaned in to me and, it felt, almost whispered: “You want to build something that barely works, but, if you took it away from people, they’d beg to pay you for it.” I was in business then, and remained so for another eight years, but I knew I’d heard an insight for the ages.

I picked up Steve’s book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, which, along with Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, had already quietly become the bible for startups in Silicon Valley. I applied pieces of it to the clean-tech software companies I was starting or that I worked for. But I still spent a lot of my life on social change, advising friends in government and nonprofits about how technology could accelerate their impact, working at the board of directors level on strategy for the sustainability movement.

Thanks to Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup, the concept was growing in popularity as a transformative methodology for making new things in the business sector. And the social sector had a lot less money to deal with all the problems that were, by definition, too thorny for the private sector to take on. Surely these techniques were sorely needed to drive social as much as business change.

I started to see how the revolution that Steve’s work was driving in business had equally powerful implications for those of us trying to drive social and policy change. Even more than in business, innovation in social change could be accelerated by the rapid feedback and rapid prototyping that was changing the for-profit landscape. The social sector’s need for efficient ways to test and deploy new ideas was pressing.

Lean techniques also held the promise of dealing with some of the biggest frustrations of social sector innovation. So many social sector innovations are measured by how well they stick to “the plan” rather than by the impacts they have. In climate activism, for example, the real world news was always so hard to take: CO2 emissions were steadily increasing, no matter what policies or campaigns we ran. So we measure our progress by membership or polling data or, even more remotely, by how many high-level elected officials and corporate leaders say that they believe in global warming. Because lean practice is based on new ways of measuring impact, it holds the promise of shifting the social sector to more useful, more immediate real-world measures as well.

At the end of the day, social change is about impact, and I started seeing advice, articles, and tools from the budding lean startup movement materially improve the work of my colleagues in the social sector and grow their impact. Startup nonprofits like Color of Change and the Citizens’ Engagement Laboratory were expanding in scale and impact at unheard-of speeds.

Beyond impact, there are some critical additional reasons for the social sector to understand and to adopt lean practices. So many of the issues addressed by government and nonprofits are a result of business activities, and, thanks to lean startup processes, a whole bunch of new businesses are booming. From Facebook to Tesla to a host of “enterprise” software companies changing the basic infrastructure of government itself, the speedy transformation of our information and technology infrastructure has critical implications for justice and well-being across the board. The social sector needs to raise its game to keep up so that we can be sure that our values still guide the change rather than the other way around.

A Growing Movement

The good news is that it’s already happening! The social and political stories of change highlighted at the beginning of this chapter illustrate how lean startup techniques are already driving unprecedented change in the social sector as well. As we’ll see later in this book, each of the examples at the beginning of this chapter used one or more dimensions of the lean startup toolkit to achieve extraordinary results.

Furthermore, there are lean startup techniques that the social sector has been using since long before the lean startup movement began. (Listening closely to “customers”… well, that’s called “organizing” in the labor movement.) What’s important, though, is how these techniques form a coherent, whole approach to starting and growing an innovation. From end to end, lean techniques help at every stage of generating and developing a new idea.

The tools of lean startups are for a wide array of actors in the social sector, from the individual entrepreneur to managers in well-established nonprofit and government agencies. They are for employees seeking to excel, and for funders looking for transformative change. The lean philosophy is for elected officials who strive to make a deep and long-lasting impact.

But there’s something else about the first examples in this chapter—about stories like Mott Hall School’s mentoring program—that remains astonishing. They feel, in the parlance of Internet startups, like sightings of a unicorn, a rare, mythical creature. But what they have in common with stories about Google or Facebook or Amazon is the revolutionary role played by information technology. Like those companies, each of these social and political efforts used information technology to make change happen faster than it ever had before in their respective domains.

That’s lean startups for social change—using lean techniques to achieve social and policy impact faster and more efficiently than ever before. And that’s what this book is all about.

The lean startup has been on the cover of the Harvard Business Review, but it’s still in its infancy, barely known outside Silicon Valley and a handful of business schools. It has barely begun to be adapted to nonprofit and government practice. This book introduces that practice: bringing the lean startup revolution into the field of social and policy change.

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Endorsements

“Whether you’re developing a new campaign or trying to innovate within a large organization, this book delivers the goods for how to make change at an unprecedented scale.”
—Mike Brune Executive Director, Sierra Club

“Gelobter shows how to bring the cutting edge of Silicon Valley to some of the wicked problems facing the social sector. A must-read for all funders and change makers.”
—Barry Gold, Environment Program Director, Walton Family Foundation

“Social change requires not just good ideas but also effective ways to implement them. In this excellent book Michel Gelobter lays out his revolutionary and practical methodology. An immensely valuable contribution.”
—Adam Kahane, Director, Reos Partners, and author of Power and Love

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