Social entrepreneurs can use the same “lean startup” techniques for innovation that are used in Silicon Valley. (Credit: Ben White on Unsplash)
Social entrepreneurs can use the same “lean startup” techniques for innovation that are used in Silicon Valley. (Credit: Ben White on Unsplash)

Social innovation – the development of better solutions to social and environmental challenges – is much harder than tech innovation.

Yet I firmly believe that the same “lean startup”  techniques for innovation that have fueled dramatic progress in Silicon Valley can be the basis for creating radically greater social good. Eric Ries popularized the lean approach, which encourages experimentation over elaborate planning, in his 2011 bestselling book, The Lean Startup. The core idea is to launch with a “minimum viable product” and rapidly iterate based on customer feedback, rather than intuition.

[Related: Learn about how these women social entrepreneurs started up]

In the social sector, innovation doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. In my new book Lean ImpactI outline an approach that builds upon the lean practices of the business world, while introducing new techniques tailored to the unique nature of the mission‐driven arena.

One guiding principle: Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

Begin by Listening

Here’s a real-world example. Kinari Webb loved orangutans and became passionate about protecting the rain forests in Indonesian Borneo where they live. But rather than jumping into a typical conservation project, she decided to start by engaging in something she calls “radical listening” – trusting community members to identify their own challenges and needs, asking for their ideas, and implementing their solutions. She wondered, Why were people cutting down the rain forest? And, How could it be stopped?

She discovered that much of the deforestation was happening when a health crisis would force a family to raise large sums quickly to send their loved one to a far away, expensive hospital. By understanding the dynamics in the community, Kinari was able to home in on the underlying causes of habitat destruction as a basis to determine the best solution. The result? She started Health In Harmony to build a local health clinic and develop alternative livelihoods. Today, the number of households that participate in logging has dropped by over 89% through this nontraditional approach to conservation.

[Related: This Doctor Started a $5 Million Nonprofit That Saves Pregnant Women’s Lives]

Understand the Problem

Too often, we leap to a solution before fully appreciating the multidimensional nature of the problem at hand. Without a deeper understanding, making positive impact is a crapshoot, and interventions may even lead to negative, unintended consequences.

One technique for understanding a problem is called the 5 Whys. Through an iterative inquiry that asks why repeatedly, we can move from symptoms to the root‐cause problem. Originally conceived by Sakichi Toyoda as a critical element of the Toyota Production System, it takes a scientific approach to determine the underlying nature of a problem.

For Kinari, the path forward was revealed along these lines:

  • Why is the number of orangutans declining? Their habitat is being reduced.
  • Why is their habitat being reduced? People are cutting down the rain forest.
  • Why are people cutting down the forest? They have to raise money quickly to send a family member to the hospital.
  • Why do they have to go to an expensive hospital? There is no local health clinic.
  • Why is there no local health clinic? The area is poor, remote, and ignored by both government and the private sector.

Having a deep, immersive engagement with your target customers, as Kinari did, is ideal. Absent that, even a simple interview can add depth and nuance to your understanding of their pain points and desires. In a class I taught at Berkeley, we required each team to conduct at least ten interviews a week, to learn from real customers and stakeholders.

Don’t Talk About Your Solution

In interviews to validate a problem, the most important criteria is to not mention your solution – no matter how excited you may be.

Once the discussion turns to a solution, the conversation will inevitably revolve around its plusses, minuses, and practicalities. The real problem may not surface. If Kinari had approached the community with a conservation project, she might never have heard about the connection to health crises. Instead, ask about customers’ challenges, pains, and frustrations. How do they currently handle them? Have they tried other alternatives? Have they encountered anything that has helped?

Falling in love with your problem means getting to the root cause, wherever it may lead. When we don’t stop to understand the underlying drivers, we can waste time perfecting a solution that merely addresses a symptom and doesn’t lead to sustained impact.

Problem validation should not be a one‐time endeavor. Throughout the evolution of an intervention, it’s important to stay curious and vigilant for indications that the original assessment was incomplete or that the nature of the problem has evolved.