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What Nonprofits Can Learn From Thinking Like a Lean Startup
A practical guide for social movements and nonprofits on rapid experimentation and innovation
Thesis/Intro (scroll down)
When you think of an innovator, who is the first person who comes to mind? Many of us think of the inventor of a product or service that has changed our lives. Some of the most common examples at the top of people’s minds are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg with Apple/iPhone, Microsoft, and Facebook, respectively. All are truly great innovative products and services that leveraged incredible technology in new ways. However, we are missing an entire sect. First, we are missing female innovators and second we are missing innovations that happen outside of traditional products and services. We are missing social movements and the people behind them.
Arguably some of the largest movements of our generation that have mobilized in the past decade have been founded by women. Women’s March (Evvie Harmon, Fontaine Pearson, Breanne Butler, Theresa Shook), #BlackLivesMatter (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi), #MeToo (Tarana Burke – Wikipedia), #FridaysForFuture (Greta Thunberg), and #TimesUp (Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen), are all widespread cultural and societal tidal waves aimed at challenging the status quo and demanding change. These movements started the same way that product or service innovations do, so why don’t we think of these innovations and innovators first? Two main reasons are the lack of tangibility and change/progress indicators around the innovation, and that the innovations targeting the situations which cause unrest among underrepresented populations, if equalized, threaten to topple the societal systems that benefit those currently in power (who have up to this point controlled the innovations).
To address the first reason, traditional innovation results in something tangible (a product you can hold, a service you can use). Social movements produce tangible results, but not in the same way or time frame that we measure traditional innovations. Mobilization takes time, social change is slow, opinions and structures are ingrained in the fiber of society. The concept of hashtags and going viral that newer movements have relied upon to mobilize quickly are still relatively new compared to traditional and tangible products and services. That is, we are still learning the best ways to leverage technology in social movements and how to recognize the results of this usage as innovation.
Technology is enabling the spread of social movements visions, purposes, and participation rates that helps to elevate social movements. Over the last few decades, the individual ability to create content, deploy ideas, and collaborate with others throughout the world has exponentially increased. The world has become ripe with opportunities to reach others and spread messages far and wide in fractional amounts of time at extremely low costs.
I first started thinking about this evolution and phenomenon in my undergraduate program. I was assigned to read the book The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman) (not about the flat-earthers who are certifiably crazy and didn’t exist in full force upon its publish date, but about the flattening of the world’s innovation and collaboration playing field). Friedman discusses how technology advances make sharing of ideas more accessible to all. Through new discoveries and software products, it becomes easier to connect with each other anywhere and anytime while not having to think about the efforts and innovation behind this functionality, which quickly becomes table stakes and is taken for granted.
A vital factor for traditional innovation is that the results and outcomes are measurable and tangible quickly. You can hold an iPhone in your hand, Facebook has billions of daily users, Microsoft has 77% of the global operating system market. These corporations are here to make money which is the most tangible benefit of all. They all started small, with those one or two people with the ideas, little funding, and intense motivation. They may or may not have known they were going to change the world with their products and make billions of dollars, but that was certainly the goal. It’s how they worked we can learn from and adjust to make less visible contributors appear and tell their stories.
This leads to the second reason movements and their founders are not thought of as innovators. In the above examples, immense efforts behind the scenes from software engineers, product managers, and the systems they use (that even more people produced) that allow this level of connection, collaboration, and idea expansion are not credited. We miss crediting other people both in the development of these companies and solutions because they are less visible, less tangible, perceived unimportant or they simply weren’t there. Where are the ground level innovators? Where are the ones who put in the grunt work? And where are the ones who didn’t get the chance to claim the credit? Where are all the women?
The pervasive ideas that are not focused on capitalization or traditional products are still changing the world and that is where many female innovators with high levels of social passion flock. Social movements have humble garage beginnings and world changing dreams, too. Their messages were enabled by technology in different ways to make their difference. Not in billions of dollars earned, but in billions of impressions made.
Movements start with no funding and a huge vision. They start with a few people and gain momentum. They expand rapidly with hard work and passion and with many invisible people behind their cause. Social movements are a different type of product not started for glory or monetary gain but rather to change a system of inequality and oppression.
While there have been successful social movements before the technology age (Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights), their influence was largely limited globally and information sharing came at a high cost. Today, the sheer volume of bandwidth and demand has driven these costs down and flattened the playing field for social innovation. Why then, with over 20 years in the technology age, were these social movements not more permeating until very recently (the past 5-10 years)?
Unfortunately, the root of the societal problems causing inequality and oppression are wholly ingrained in the patriarchal values that run through the fiber of western society. That is, the system is broken and those who operate it are doing what incentivizes them. This is not to say that everyone in a position of power is abusing it and actively oppressing others. It is simply pointing out that the tangible incentives that come from traditional innovation (aka money, glory, power) incentivise behaviors to keep the status quo. When people in power make unethical decisions their effects compound and the options seem limited to either bring the entire system down or cover it up to save everyone’s face and interests.
Women and people of color have been systematically oppressed by those the patriarchal system and coverups benefit, powerful (often white) men. In challenging the status quo, it challenges the power dynamics of everyone. Fear often drives the reaction of silencing perceived threats because the power to spread messages was historically controlled by the oppressors (news stations, government, corporations etc.).With technology flattening and enabling more free speech, this power and influence is disseminated to the masses. Examples of this are as pervasive as the oligarchies that fell: Susan Fowler and Uber, Chanel Miller: Brock Turner and Stanford, the survivors of Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, Jeffrey Epstien (who did not kill himself), Harvey Weinstein, Jerry Sandusky and Penn State – this list goes on. Technology enabled these and many others to surface, spread, and start movements for justice and change. Once their voices were heard, they would not be silenced but amplified.
What enabled this technology though? Again, the many ground level innovators and workers behind it and the innovation in the new ways they work. At a close parallel to the internet age, the way engineers thought about software development changed, too. Instead of big up front requirements and designs with long development and testing cycles, the engineering and application product development system started shifting. Inspiration from Toyota Production Systems manufacturing of physical products through rapid experimentation and short development and testing cycles began to permeate application, engineering and idea development thus lean startups were born.
The Lean Startup (Eric Reis), often referred to in conjunction with Agile software development methods, resulted in faster development of technology solutions that could be quickly released to users and evaluated against their needs to gain crucial feedback. Some use methods relating to automation of testing to ensure quality, others focus on user testing by building a prototype, measuring the results, and learning what the users want, while still others focus on making the system effective and efficient by eliminating wasted time and effort. There are libraries written on the subjects but one result is clear: by rapidly experimenting with technology and understanding its fit for purpose, it enabled the voices of all to be more clearly heard more quickly via the technology platforms. More on this and other agile methods in Chapter One.
By learning from the principles and methods technology platforms used to develop solutions that fit the market, innovative social movements can learn how to act like a lean startup in spreading and achieving their missions for social change in tangible ways. Throughout this book, a software development movement turned nonprofit, Women in Agile, Inc (WiA), will be used as a case study to tell the story of how the lean agile principles can be applied to create tangible social impact and innovation.
WiA grew up non traditionally using values and practices related to agile software development, with tools created using agile software development, and with practitioners of agile software development leading the march. WiA utilized the power of the flattening world and idea sharing through social media and personal blogs. They harnessed the passion behind the value of diversity and innovation through lean and agile methods to amplify the voices that have been less noticed within corporate technology. This was made possible by examining the roots of the problems and experimenting toward sustainable change within the current and future systems.
In this book you will learn how to identify the root of problems, understand how and why the system is operating a certain way. I will talk about stating current conditions and designing experiments to rapidly evaluate ideas and visualize impacts via leading indicators that can help make progress more tangible. There will be a plethora of lessons learned and other resources to consult to change movements and charge forward. Finally, you will learn how much potential and further growth your movement is yet to acquire and how to apply lean startup skills to prepare you to respond proactively (which may or may not be a nonprofit). I sincerely thank you for choosing to come on this journey.