Build, Measure, Learn: “Lean” Principles and Innovation Process

By “going lean,” nonprofits use an cyclical, feedback-focused development process to use limited resources more effectively.

Image: Lean Impact.
At the New York Lean for Social Good Summit in December 2013, participants explored the practices and principles underlying “lean” methodology. Image: Lean Impact.

If you work in an arts nonprofit, the following situation may seem familiar:

You are awarded a grant to implement a new program, or your Executive Director or a board member has come up with a new idea and you are charged with making it happen. You grumble because you are not convinced that the idea fits into your organization’s mission, but you push forward because you have a directive to do so. Once the program is implemented, you often feel you are struggling to get audience participation or buy in, and as you write your final report, you think, “I hope we never have to do that again!”

I experienced this frustrating, inefficient cycle in several organizations that I worked for and was excited to discover a new set of language and principles for planning, launching, and learning from new initiatives: a “lean” methodology.

At the first mention of a “lean” methodology, you might have the same reaction that one of my colleagues had: “But nonprofits are already lean.” Nonprofits often assume an environment of limited resources, but by “going lean,” they can use an iterative, feedback-focused development process to effectively use those resources and test new programs with significant social impact.

The basics of lean

I was interested in learning more about how “lean” methodology could directly apply to nonprofit organizations’ work, and I came across two organizers, activists, and nonprofit workers, Leah Neaderthal and Leanne Pittsford, who created an initiative called Lean Impact. They focus on how nonprofit and social benefit companies can use lean methodology to drive innovation. To further familiarize myself with this methodology, I attended the Lean for Social Good Summit they put together in New York this past December. (Click here to learn more about other Lean for Social Good Summits, including one recently hosted in Washington, DC on March 26.)

While nonprofits often operate in a perceived or actual environment of tight resources, doing more with less is different than a lean approach. The basics of this approach were developed by Eric Reis and discussed in his book, “The Lean Startup.”

The ideas of “lean” center around testing an idea with potential users, quickly moving an idea to a “minimal viable product,” getting feedback from users on that product, and then adjusting the product in response. This can be summed up in the cycle of “Build, measure, learn.”

What do your constituents actually need?

“Is the problem that you think people have a problem they actually have?” This is a key question for determining how to take a lean approach in the nonprofit space. At the December Summit, Marcos Salazar, founder of Be Social Change, and Dominique Aubrey from Lean Startup Machine, shared the three main inquiries to consider when launching a new initiative.

During the planning process before a new project or initiative, an organization should clarify:

  • Who are you actually serving and helping?
  • What is the product or service you are actually producing to address the problem?
  • What do your clients or constituents actually want?

To explore these questions, Salazar and Aubrey emphasized talking to constituents through interviews and surveys to understand what they want and need, and to understand how they define the problem that you think you have identified. These explorations need not be expensive, time consuming focus groups, but engaged conversations that share your idea with the community that it’s meant to support. “Dare to be vulnerable in front of your constituents,” they advised during their presentation, “and try to prove your assumption wrong.”

Lean methodology and innovation process

The lean approach struck me as very complementary to the way EmcArts and ArtsFwd discuss the principles and process of organizational innovation. When learning about “lean,” I thought of the many innovative arts organizations whose work is documented here on ArtsFwd, who find ways to reach out to their audiences and communities and ask them what they want, let go of old assumptions, and take a risk to pivot gracefully to fulfill that need.

How can you implement lean methodology in your organization? With the lean approach of “build, measure, and learn,” your organization should consider the following process when brainstorming new ideas or evaluating existing programs:

Ask: Does this new idea solve a problem for our constituents? How do we know?

Move fast: Pilot a program that tests the idea with your audience or constituents, and reevaluate where necessary.

Get feedback: Collect enough information to create a service your constituents actually want.

Think about sustainability: Can you maintain the existing level of service or engagement as you scale up?

Of course, it takes real resources to do work — even “lean” work — and writing a grant to pilot a new program may be in your near future. During December’s Lean for Social Good Summit, Sasha Dichter, the Chief Innovation Officer at Acumen said that by “going lean,” organizations can speed up the development cycle and use limited resources more effectively. “It’s not that nonprofits don’t take risks, but structurally we don’t move fast enough,” he said.

Applying lean methodology and process at Wellowater

The WaterWheel is a rolling water drum with a large capacity to hygienically store water — developed through a “build, measure, learn” cycle by Wellowater.

At the Lean for Social Good Summit, Cynthia Koenig, the founder of Wellowater, discussed how she developed her approach to improving access to clean water, education, and healthcare for people living in poverty in the developing world. Koenig found that a problem facing many women and children in places like rural India face is that they spend a significant amount of time fetching water and lack a hygienic way to store it. From Koenig’s perspective, time spent getting water is time lost for studying and engaging in sustainable work.

To address this issue, Wellowater used the “build, measure, learn” cycle of lean thinking to devise a response. After conducting interviews, designing prototypes, and gathering feedback from initial users, Koenig and her team developed the WaterWheel, a rolling water drum with a large capacity to hygienically store water. They collected insights from the people most impacted by the task of water collection in these areas and, over the course of 15 months, quickly came up with a workable, implementable solution to help alleviate some of its immediate effects.

What would “going lean” mean for your organization?

Does your organizational practice or consider “lean” principles? If so, what has been your experience? If this language or thinking is new to you, how do you think lean methodology could work in your organization?

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.