Why We Need Lean Principles to Scale Social Impact


Even if you are an optimist like me, it is challenging to look at the world and feel like we’re making progress solving the biggest problems facing people around the globe. Some of the problems people face are devastatingly fundamental and can feel paralyzing when we consider what they mean for the state of humanity. Two that really get to me are modern day slavery and illiteracy. Around the globe, 30 million people live in slavery today, and, nearly 800 million people around the world cannot read or write.

To solve problems like these, governments and for profit firms must play meaningful roles through policies that govern regulatory frameworks and business practices like supply chain management. Yet, I also believe that nonprofits and social ventures have untapped power to solve big social and economic problems. Tapping into this latent power, however, requires the social impact sector to embrace a new way of doing work – defined and anchored by the Lean principles.

If we expect to create breakthrough change through the work of social impact organizations, we need to foster breakthroughs in the way we do our work. In my opinion, social impact leaders should publicly and constructively push our field to regularly learn and improve in a way that is:

  • Relentless about staying close to our customer to design products and services that truly meet the needs of those we aim to serve;
  • Constantly aiming to increase measurable impact by iterating based on feedback, and;
  • Always stewarding scarce resources as prudently as possible to make the right investments to spark scalable change.

These are three core tenets of applying lean principles to social impact work. The principles offer a methodology in which social entrepreneurs and social innovators are forced to test critical assumptions  – about the way people may value their offerings, and the potential virality within a market – before major investments are made in these approaches.  This approach can help alleviate some endemic problems among nonprofits and social ventures – namely the phenomenon of major, premature investment in big ideas that seem promising but don’t have core assumptions tested in a structured, robust way. This can lead to years passing, and millions invested, before we realize that our seemingly good idea just didn’t work.

Our problems are too great, and our resources too scarce to accept this as the status quo. Instead, we should build minimum viable products that allows us to test our most basic assumptions about the value we believe we deliver to our customers. With this approach we get insight directly from seeing how target customers interact with a product or service. This is especially important when we aim to solve our most vexing problems – because quite often, those of us trying to help, live worlds apart from the people and communities whose lives we hope to improve – increasing the odds that our assumptions may be farther from the truth than we realize.

BerkeleyHaas is a true pioneer in the use of lean principles for social impact. We’ve woven lean principles into our social impact courses for years, and now offer a full MBA course dedicated to this approach, called Social Lean Launchpad, which I have the privilege of co-teaching this fall with my colleague Jorge Calderon, a Social Impact Fellow and Lecturer here at Haas. This should come as no surprise given our excellence in advancing social impact, and our defining principles – confidence without attitude, beyond yourself, question the status quo, and students always – each of which reflect the core tenets of this new way of pursuing large scale change. I look forward to sharing the breakthroughs we see in our class in this blog – stay tuned for insight!

(Photo: Steve Jurvetson, via Creative Commons)


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