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Ann Mei Chang on Applying “Lean” Innovations for Social Good

“How many of you feel that despite our enormous efforts, we’re just not making enough of a dent on problems that plague our society?"

The majority of hands in the room flew up.

In her Social Impact Lab talk, Ann Mei Chang - author of “Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good,” and an expert on social innovation - shared that we need to think differently to solve problems in the social sector. Upon pivoting from a career in technology that included stints at Google, Apple, and Intuit to the nonprofit and government sectors, she was astounded by the scope of the problems she faced. “We can draw inspiration from best practices for innovation that come from Silicon Valley,” she said. “But innovating for social good is much harder. How can we adapt these tools and techniques for social impact?”

In her most recent role as Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID, Chang dedicated herself to exploring this question to accelerate impact and scale in international development. Her book’s philosophy draws from the business methodologies initially popularized by Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup,” which stress the importance of rapid experimentation and learning. However, these innovations that work well in the private sector don’t seamlessly translate to the social sector. Funding is often highly restricted, impact can take a long time to realize, and experimentation can seem irresponsible in situations where organizations are working with highly vulnerable populations. “Social sector leaders are planning based on constraints,” said Chang. “Within these constraints, what can we do?"

Three principles – (1) think big, (2) start small, and (3) seek impact – can help provide a framework for social sector organizations to move past these constraints and make larger strides towards fulfilling their missions.

(1) When it comes to thinking big, Chang recommends setting an audacious goal and planning based on the needs of the world. For example,, a nonprofit that leverages financial technology to empower low-income Americans to take charge of their financial lives, set a goal of reaching one million people even when they were only serving 7,000 individuals. Within its first year, the organization built an online platform and reached 85,000 people. If they hadn’t set an ambitious goal at the start, they would never have grown their impact twelve-fold in just one year.

(2) On the point of starting small, Chang believes that social sector organizations need to get their people out into the complex environments they work in as quickly as possible to learn at a small scale, experiment, and see what works. Topia, a company that seeks to bring the convenience of e-commerce shopping to underserved populations in Kenya, took just a few days to create an early version of their product catalogue before testing it door-to-door and talking to local households. By acting fast instead of waiting to perfect their operation, they quickly learned that the most commonly requested product was cement - something they never expected - and that people would in fact use the catalogue. These experiments significantly shaped their business by allowing them to see how people actually behave.

(3) As for seeking impact, it’s important for organizations to hold themselves to a high bar. “We should not be satisfied with making some impact and some good, but we should equally be as rigorous about the scale of impact of our work,” said Chang. One way that organizations can tactically do this is by using unit measures - not absolute numbers - to measure their impact (e.g. cost per person served, rather than 500,000 people served). In their pursuit of 100% of students graduating from college, Summit Public Schools focused on rapid iterations of their internal processes and cultures. By varying the mix and range of teaching techniques used, running frequent assessments, and feeding these results back into their system on a weekly basis to determine what they’d do the following week, they were able to refine their approach and break down the correlators that led to educational achievement.

Chang concluded by sharing her thoughts on how to begin systematizing innovations in the social sector. Gaining the necessary buy-in and setting up innovation labs or departments within organizations, such as USAID’s innovation lab, are an exciting first step to show the potential of what innovations can start to produce. For Chang and many others tackling social innovation work, the next challenge is determining how to mainstream these innovative practices.

By Jasmine Ako, MBA ‘19