The lean startup framework has been used to transform the field of entrepreneurship, and is now being adopted by large enterprises as well. A number of social innovators and funds are also advocating and implementing the lean startup model for the social enterprise sector.
Ann Mei Chang provides a comprehensive framework and extensive case studies for social innovation in her book, Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good. The 14 chapters are spread across 290 pages, and make for a useful and inspiring read.
Ann Mei Chang has worked in the startup sector, for giant tech firms, the government, and at non-profits. She was earlier Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, Executive Director of the US Global Development Lab, and Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps. She spent more than 20 years at Google, Apple, and Intuit, and serves on the boards of BRAC USA, and IREX. She has a BS degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, and is currently the Executive Director of Lean Impact at Lean Startup Company.
Here are my key takeaways from the book, summarized in Table 1 (below) as well. See also my reviews of the related books The Lean Startup Way, The Lean Startup, Lean Startups for Social Change, A World of Three Zeroes, Do Good, Scaling Up, and The Prosperity Paradox.
Innovation applies not just to technology but business, politics, education, culture and social change, as explained in the foreword by Eric Ries, author of the bestseller Lean Startup. The lean approach is not just possible for social entrepreneurship, but preferable as well.
Part I: The Lean Startup framework
Successful Silicon Valley companies not just think big, but have perfected the art of testing, learning and iterating faster. The lean startup approach can reinvent our approach to social good as well, Ann begins. “Think big. Start small. Relentlessly seek impact,” she urges.
The world needs not just altruism and philanthropy but systematic ways to maximize impact by accelerating learning, managing risk, and forming synergistic partnerships. “Social innovation involves iterative testing and improvement, refining business models, influencing partners and policy, fine-tuning logistics, and many other practicalities,” Ann explains.
“The aim of Lean Impact is to find the most efficient path to deliver the greatest social benefit at the largest possible scale,” she defines. “By combining scientific rigour with entrepreneurial agility, we can dramatically increase both the depth and breadth of our impact,” she adds. This calls for humility, flexibility, and grit.
For example, d.Light began as a low-cost LED light whose batteries could be powered by diesel generators. But Founder Sam Goldman pivoted to solar lanterns when he saw diesel generators were not as readily available in India; the company now has sold 20 million solar light and power products in 62 countries.
Understanding community needs for water supplies and designing along with farmers has helped Proximity Designs become the largest social enterprise in Myanmar. Proximity to the customers also helps build trust, gather creative insights, promote participatory research, and even enable serendipity.
Health in Harmony dug deeper into deforestation dynamics in Indonesian Borneo to discover that trees were being cut to raise funds for healthcare costs. The solution was to develop alternate livelihoods and local health clinics. The inquiry approach was based on the Five Whys technique of Toyota.
“Great ideas often blend a direct need with a creative vision and technical expertise,” Ann explains. Insights must be brought in from end-user communities. For example, protective suits initially used during the Ebola crisis were designed for air-conditioned buildings, and not humid climates; new designs were submitted via a Grand Challenge.
It is important for social innovators to replicate or build on existing solutions, rather than hoard insights and be bound by considerations of ego and politics, Ann advises. Innovators need to creatively find ways to get users to communicate exactly how they feel about the product, factoring in cultures where people may not want to be openly critical, eg. giving them multiple choices of features. Funders also need to go beyond endless pilots, and work on partnerships to scale.