What I didn’t need to worry about

Last Saturday morning I had the chance to give the opening keynote address at Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University.  The energy in this conference is just amazing, and my hat goes off to Jennifer Staple-Clark and her team who pull off a 2,000+ person conference every year with a full-time staff of just three people (that’s right, three).

The fun part for me was that nearly every part of my talk came from ideas I had developed on this blog.  The talk focused on innovation, where it comes from, and how to design and organize around it – with a particular focus on the structural elements in the nonprofit sector that orient us to extremely long cycle times and a massive “build” phase in the buld-measure-learn cycle.

Put another way, the focal point of the talk was the lean nonprofit, with context provided by the observation that my toothbrush was good enough and by the notion of the adjacent possible, themes I’ve explored in-depth in posts on this blog.

This served as an important reminder that one of the great benefits of blogging is the practice of taking ideas further and deeper, forcing me to mine my understanding of concepts that are influencing my thinking and to take the extra step of relating these ideas to my own work.  I literally don’t know where the ideas would come from if not for the discipline of writing this blog.

So thank you for showing up to read every day.  I couldn’t do it without you.

The one thing I shouldn’t have spent any energy on (though I certainly did): the size of the crowd.  The notion of speaking in front of a full house at New Haven’s Shubert Theater created a mantra of “2,000 people!” that I couldn’t keep from running through my head in the lead-up to my talk.  Of course the reality is that whether it’s 50 people or 2,000, it’s still my job to stand up there and share what I’m going to share, tell the stories I’m going to tell  – the size of the audience makes no difference whatsoever. (In fact, with the lighting I could barely see past the third row, so it’s as if the audience wasn’t even there in the first place.)

Just a lesson in how the mind tricks us into focusing attention on all the wrong stuff sometimes, especially when something is brand new and when fear seems like an appropriate response.

It never is.

Stories, Facts and Synthesis

Break down any presentation and you’ve got three building blocks: stories, facts and synthesis.

Since we’re generally not comfortable as storytellers, and since it feels safe to report on the facts, lots of presentations divide up the pie like this (“we did this and then this and then this.”)

There are two shifts we can make across the board so that we can connect with our audience.

The first is to radically change the balance between the three layers of the pie – spending about equal time at each level.

The second, equally important, is to realize that your facts are only there to work for your stories or to support your synthesis.  That means you only share facts that serve either to substantiate a point that a story makes someone feel; or you share facts that serve as a jumping-off point for synthesis (aka “the big picture” or “the takeaway”).

Facts that aren’t working for you are facts we don’t need to hear.

The Lean Nonprofit

I think of Eric Reis’ book, The Lean Startup, as an innovation handbook.  Eric, a software engineer turned successful entrepreneur, sets out to dispel myths around innovation and entrepreneurship.  He unpacks what it actually takes to innovate in the real world.

What the book really does is recast the old entrepreneur-in-a-garage yarn we’ve heard so many times.  Eric reminds us (video link to his Google talk) that every entrepreneurship story we’ve ever been told (think The Social Network) has the same basic structure:

Part 1: entrepreneur (and a couple of friends) have a revolutionary idea.  They pull all-nighters in the proverbial garage, write a bunch of code, and the idea comes to life.

Part 2: “photo montage” that lasts about two minutes long while they actually build the company.

Part 3: entrepreneurs fight over how to distribute the spoils.

The Lean Startup is all about Part 2, the actual work of figuring out if the thing you’re building is of any value to your customers.

Eric’s main premise, based on his own experience as a serial entrepreneur, is that most innovators and their teams waste huge amounts of time because they prioritize getting work done over figuring out what their customers want.  In Eric’s case, as the CTO of a software company called IMVU (which lets you make cool online avatars), he spent six months killing himself writing 25,000 lines of code.  The catch was that when IMVU put the software in front of 16 year old kids (their customers) they discovered that a core functionality of the software that had taken six months to develop – that it worked with every major instant messaging  platform – was absolutely useless to the 16-year-olds.  Six months of work totally wasted because the team wasn’t willing to test their assumptions at the beginning.  Six months building functionality when they could have built a webpage in one day and gotten the same answer.

If innovation is all about operating within conditions of extreme uncertainty, and if we are first and foremost in search of answers and only THEN building our products, then we have to get a lot better at getting answers quickly (and yes, I do believe that social change work nearly always operates under conditions of “extreme uncertainty.”)  To do this, we have to get better at what Eric calls “validated learning” – getting clear data around our core assumptions – by iterating through a BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN cycle:

By embracing a Lean Startup mindset, you build products in a completely different way.  Your early products’ only job is to allow you to test your assumptions; you do this by MEASURING results that validate or reject these assumptions; and you LEARN from these results, and either pivot your company strategy to a new direction or continue on course.

The big point of the giant chart (the whole point of the book really) is: the main determinant of whether / how quickly we innovate is how quickly we can go through the BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN cycle.  The faster we go, the more quickly we learn, the more often we pivot, the less time we waste.  We optimize for learning and build organizations that are made to adapt quickly.

Makes sense, but it’s not how we (any of us) act most of the time.

And this is where the lightbulb went off for me about the social sector.  It’s never felt to me like we are, by and large, built for innovation, yet that always felt like it had to do with willingness to take risk – especially on the part of the big institutional players.  And while there’s some truth to this critique, it also partially misses the mark.

Imagine if you had to write Eric’s chart for the nonprofit sector.  My best attempt at this looks like this:

The lightbulb moment for me is that we are structured as a sector to have a BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN cycle that lasts three years (sometimes longer)…the time it takes to get a grant, execute against that grant, write the grant report during and after the grant, and potentially renew.   So the underlying problem isn’t about willingness to take risk, the underlying problem is the false premise that long cycle times make sense – when in fact as a sector we need new and better solutions nearly everywhere and need to create engines of innovation to get us there.

Our sector conducts itself with an academic approach to learning – with all of the rigor and the long, slow cycle times that always entails.

Of course there’s amazing work going on nearly everywhere, people bucking the system, working around the barriers, making incredible things happen despite the structure being all wrong.

But what would a world look like in which we acknowledged that we don’t have all the answers?  What would it look like if we asked ourselves NOT to be right from the get-go but instead to create approaches and systems that are designed from the outset to incorporate learning quickly?

I think it would look pretty different from what we’ve got today.  I think that business approaches would be a bigger part of the answer not because it’s inherently better when people pay for things but because businesses are designed with built-in feedback loops from customers.  I think that providers of capital would feel more like long-term partners and no one would survive who didn’t learn quickly and adapt often.  I think we’d listen to end customers a lot more and treat experts less like experts and more like people with accumulated experience from which we can all learn.

What else would a Lean Nonprofit sector look like to you?

It’s not personal, it’s business


Feels to me like that’s a big part of the problem.


A student at a nonprofit school of management told me that they are learning a lot about how to operate under conditions of scarcity – because that’s what the nonprofit sector is like.

The catch is that if you start with the notion of scarcity and how to cope with it, that’s your mindset.  Money is scarce, it’s a zero sum game, you see constraints all around you.   You’re being taught to operate within a broken system.

Let’s break this system (that includes the schools with this mindset).  Let’s reinforce in our students a mindset of abundance, of possibility, of agency.  And then let’s rip out all the classes and lectures about scarcity and replace them with lectures from the best fundraisers and executive directors and philanthropists we can find – so we can give students the tools to create these conditions of abundance.


Reflecting on the last two days’ posts – one on the long, hard, stupid way and one on mobile gift giving, I’m left with the notion that if we’re going to bring on serious partners to solve serious problems, then we actually need some friction.

That is: Kony2012 is essentially frictionless.  It spreads like wildfire.  But the disconnect between the apparent ease of “doing something” about Kony (“buy your Kony action kit”) and what it will take to address all the complexities in Northern Uganda and beyond is….stark, to say the least.

It seems like we have three options:

  1. Confine high-velocity, frictionless stories to ideas that are pretty simple
  2. Use high-velocity, frictionless stories as the hook to get people’s attention, and then start a longer, more engaged dialogue
  3. Decide that real solutions will require embracing complexity from the get-go – so a big push to engage with an audience that craves simplicity is actually not time and money well spent.

Which do you choose?

Good Karma?

It used to be that remembering someone’s birthday was a big deal.  If you called someone up, sent them a nice card or an email, it meant something.  That’s because remembering someone’s birthday used to rely either on your memory or on trusty File-O-Fax (or similar).

Then Outlook came along, and things got easier.  Birthday reminders would pop up on your calendar, but there was still some friction in the system since it was up to you to input each birthday manually. And then we got Plaxo (remember Plaxo?), LinkedIn and Facebook, and it became impossible not to remember someone’s birthday.  Birthday reminders became ubiquitous, and the effort of writing a Facebook wall posts (“Happy b-day!!”) became as minimal as the effort that went in to remembering the birthday.  So it’s easy, but it’s not special.

The other day I downloaded Karma, an amazingly slick new mobile app that launched last month.  It takes things to a whole new level (you should download it to see for yourself).  Karma is all about making gift-giving easier, with an oh-so-smooth onboarding (you can give your first gift without entering credit card info OR a mailing address for the recipient), a seamless user interface and an intuitive user experience that just begs you to start giving gifts.  No wonder Kleiner and Sequoia led a $4.5 million round.

The most surprising, glimpse-of-the-future feature of Karma is that it can read and interpret your Facebook friends’ status updates.  So when I downloaded it, not only did it show me friends’ birthdays for the coming two weeks, the app also told me that I might want to send a gift to someone who was having a bad day – because it has seen that someone had replied to his Facebook status update saying “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Wow.  Talk about crazy.  So the app not only knows how old each of my friends is and their birthdays and anniversaries, it’s also able to interpret their updates and their friends’ updates to tell me (or anyone in their network) when they’re experiencing highs and lows in their lives.

That terrified me a little, but I’m betting that it will feel run-of-the-mill 18 months from now.   No doubt sometime in the distant future (say, 2014), we’ll each have a futuristic virtual assistant every bit as knowledgeable and proactive as the best executive assistant of 20 years ago – prompting us with a mood-sensing dashboard for the goings-on and well-being of all of our friends and business contacts, and allowing us to chime in, send a kind word or give a gift the push of a button (or maybe the blink of an eye).

The Karma app is kind of amazing, and this interview with founder Lee Linden gives a sense that they actually care about the interpersonal connections we could be making with the help of technology.

But the big, complicated irony here is that as our apps get more intelligent, as they evolve from pushing us people’s birthdays to sending us smart updates about what’s going on in their lives, we run the risk of opting out of doing the work it takes to really be connected to one another. I know the tools are just tools, but if gift-giving (in all senses) is about putting something real and personal into something that you do, does the exponential reduction in friction that these apps create actually make it harder to give real gifts?  When the app does all the work, does it elbow us out of the picture entirely?

The question isn’t “should this evolution happen?”  It’s happening just as much as journalism will soon be unrecognizable and self-publishing is becoming mainstream.  The question is how do we understand these changes and make the best of them?

The Karma app is cool, I bet it will catch on, but having this all in our hands puts the onus on us to make our actions more genuine, more thought-out, more personal – like a hand-written three-page letter in the era of 140 character updates.

It will be our job to put the friction back into the system.