The Promise of Lean Experimentation

Building a large-scale membership organization that appeals to millions and is financially sustainable (doesn’t rely on grants or outside funding), is no small task. You might think you’re sitting on an idea that can help your organization explode but unless you’ve tested and validated it, you’re likely off the mark.
Learning from leading companies in the business world, the social sector is embracing a rapid experimentation framework that creates better solutions and reduces wasted effort: lean.
Lean practitioners don’t enumerate the precise tactics that they will use because they don’t know in advance which ones will be successful.
Instead, they run many small tests and adjust their efforts after discovering what works (and what doesn’t work). Done well, lean helps organizations innovate more efficiently, build new services that meet the needs of their constituents, and develop disruptive solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Lean can be particularly effective as a means of testing and validating revenue models that have the potential to create sustainable, long-term funding streams.
We have adapted the core components of lean from the business-world to form a model that suits the way that organizations operate in the social sector. Here are the key steps.
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With your target constituents in mind–or better yet, with your constituents in the room–generate ideas for programs and solutions that you think might solve their problems or help them achieve their aspirations. Then, research who else is doing something similar.
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Get out of your office, put your ideas in front of your constituents, and and listen to the people you hope to serve. Done well, constituent discovery will bring to light ideas that you hadn’t considered, and those ideas in turn should lead you back to the ideation phase.
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If you’ve got an idea that people are excited about, build a minimum viable product — MVP. This could be a small-scale version of your program or service or a “paper MVP”—a lean tool that could be in the form of a simple flyer about a not-yet-built program, or a basic online sign-up page for a prospective service.
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Roll out your MVP to a group of constituents and collect data on how they react to it. Focus on metrics that validate (or invalidate) your riskiest hypotheses about your idea and avoid focusing on vanity metrics (metrics that might make you feel good but don’t actually help you validate or invalidate your idea).
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Analyze the results of your test. If your data show that you have a flop on your hands, hit the reset button and begin the experimentation process again before investing more resources in your idea — this is known as a pivot. If your data show promise, use feedback from the test to build a better iteration of your idea. Then test that version of the idea, and continue iterating and testing the idea until you have verified that it will deliver its intended value.
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Once you have validated that your idea works through lean testing, use the data that you have gathered during the constituent discovery and testing phases to get buy-in from your board, staff, and funders for program expansion.
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Peter Murray, Accelerate Change Founder, and Steve Ma, Accelerate Change Senior Partner, have written a more detailed article about the promise of Lean Experimentation, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in the Spring of 2015.

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