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Startup thoughts IV: making the p2p approach to social innovation work

Over recent years, my work in social innovation has gotten me very excited about the potential of peer-support networks - having a community of social innovators supporting each other in developing themselves and their innovations rather than relying on established experts to tell them what to do and how to do it. One of the projects I am currently working on is the Wave Change Ireland programme where something truly exciting is emerging: a p2p approach to supporting young social innovators in Ireland.

wait a minute -
life is not a motivational talk!
This approach is departing from the convention promoted by many existing social innovation and leadership programmes aimed at young people which focus more on the inspiration and the motivation of their participants. In contrast, the p2p approach to social innovation avoids simply exposing participants to "genius" entrepreneurs, great leaders and stellar experts to inspire the heck out of them them to always work harder and achieve better.

The idea behind the p2p approach is in itself not new, but the devil is in the detail with actually making these networks work and persist in the long-term. Following are a number of elements we have found to be crucial to making this approach work at the Wave Change programme.

Life isn't a TED talk

Many existing youth social innovation programmes promote the idea that pretty much all it takes to be a young social innovator is a good idea, an intrepid personality, lots of conviction and the relentless drive to go out there and convince the right people that your idea is great.

However, this "genius" vision of social innovation doesn't agree with the experienced reality of many young social innovators. Because life isn't a TED Talk!

In reality, as young social innovators, we are often completely overwhelmed by the multitude of things we ought to be doing, hundreds of well-intended suggestions to follow up on and new opportunities to chase, coming at us from all angles. Despite this overload, we often don't dare to challenge or reject it because after all, we should be grateful for every opportunity. 

getting bombarded by good advice and great opportunities
can have its downsides
As a result, some of us will get lucky by impressing the right people, land some funding, have a go at realising their idea and get featured on a front page as representatives of a new up-and-coming generation of social innovators. But those among us who don't get so lucky can easily end up blaming ourselves - if only we had worked harder, networked with the right people and launched a better marketing campaign, our idea would surely have succeeded. This model of supporting young social innovators is not sustainable as it perpetuates the myth of the "genius" social innovator and discourages the valuable learning from failure which is really needed.

No! Stop blaming yourself.
The power of the peer-network

Instead of relying on motivational speakers and expert mentors, at Wave Change we have found the most powerful and sustainable source of advice and knowledge for young social innovators to be themselves and their peers. Even though we might still be in the process of gathering lots of experiences as we go along, our pooled knowledge and diverse experiences already represent an incredible resource for generating and testing creative ideas and making new, unexpected connections, which are the essential building blocks for social innovation.

Of course, experienced, inspiring speakers and expert skills workshops remain important to provide young social innovators with a framework to structure their work or a spark to start seeing their situation in a new light. But at Wave Change the actual 'fire' always starts in the group discussions, presentations and feedback sessions between participants after those talks, where we test and probe each others' ideas and give practical recommendations about how to develop our projects.

Best to avoid: success theatre

Crucial to making this p2p approach work is both involving a very diverse network of people in terms of experience, approach and background as well as establishing sufficient trust amongst its members for everyone to go beyond the "success theatre" that is so commonplace in the social innovation community. Getting beyond that stage and being able to openly share our doubts, concerns and failures as well as our achievements and being able to give each other honest, productive feedback is an essential requirement for p2p support to work. The wealth of perspectives in a diverse network of people can only be turned into an asset once there is sufficient trust and joint experiences amongst participants to see beyond their differences and be open to be inspired by each other.

Everybody has important knowledge, experience and contacts!

Avoid success theatre
Another vital element of this approach is to make the participants' knowledge and experience part and parcel of the programme itself. That can take many forms such as the innovative activity recently employed by a Wave Change colleague: she asked everybody in the group to share relevant contacts with each other. Everyone has an existing network and recommending your contacts to meet with someone new who might be of interest to them puts your network to good use and enhances the standing of everyone involved.

Another way in which the network's expertise can be developed and tapped into, is by brainstorming "blue-sky" solutions for the big-picture challenges of the day. Whether the topic is youth unemployment, intercultural integration, charity funding or equality rights legislation - discussing these topics with a diverse network of informed and engaged people always bring in new perspectives and ideas on long-known challenges, thereby turning the p2p network into its own expert counsel. At the same time, raising awareness of the big picture landscape, which young social innovators are operating in, also helps with putting new ideas into perspective, putting visions into a broader context and connecting new initiatives with existing organisations already working in the area.

  The lean startup approach

  In terms of project development, it's crucial to   focus not just on the project idea we are excited  about at the moment, but on the overall process for developing new social innovation ideas.

A particular social innovation idea might not work out, for whatever reason - it's time might not have come yet, personal circumstances change etc. What is vital however, is that the social innovators behind the idea always extract the maximum learning from that experience and keep developing it further even when things didn't work out as planned this time. Too much energy is currently being wasted in social innovation because the lessons from failures aren't sufficiently processed or communicated.

Instead of an honest discussion about how social innovations actually emerge, we are told way too many fairy-tale stories about how individuals or organisations achieved stellar success (see the "genius" myth reference above). A much more consistent approach to talking about social innovation is needed, which isn't afraid of looking at how past failures and successes actually came about. Providing young social innovators with tools and skills like the lean startup approach to persevere in their quest even when their initial ideas don't work out is vital to achieving this.

Resilient social innovators

Finally, at Wave Change we believe that all these different project-development elements need to be supported by fostering resilience and self-care skills amongst young social innovators. If an idea will only take off if the person behind it is heading straight for their first burn-out, it cannot be considered sustainable. Self-exploitation is not exactly innovative and it's definitely not a solution to anything. Here again, the network effect is very essential because it provides a community of practice which can help establish and reinforce resilient ways of working. 

A work in progress
While we are seeing these elements and their impact emerge, the Wave Change programme is of course still a work in progress. The whole programme consists of 5 workshop weekends and we're just mid-way through the 2013 programme. While the results so far are encouraging, the biggest test will be to what extent the peer-network will persist beyond the programme and have an impact on the Irish social innvoation landscape in the long-term. It would be very exciting for example, if the newly formed peer-network would not only help further individual ideas but give rise to new collaborations and initiatives, combining the pooled ideas, talents and approaches present in the Wave Change network. In any case, I can't wait to see what happens.

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Startup thoughts III: What's holding young social innovators back?

Anything holding you back?

Coming back from my last workshop weekend with young Irish changemakers at Wave Change made me reflect on the social innovation journey and how we share our experiences about it.

Now when you're starting off to find and implement a new solution to an existing social problem, it is often as if you're in a vast pitch-black room trying to find the exit, equipped only with a small flash light.

any social innovations hiding out there?
You can research, study, analyse, interview and observe as much as you want, you can try to think up the perfect solution for the problem you are trying to address. But there will still be lots of stuff that you need to find out just by putting yourself out there and trying things out because there will always be assumptions that are wrong and unknowns unknowns.

Feeling your way around that darkness can be hard, lonely and frustrating work, especially as you can't be sure that you'll ever find the solution you're looking for. At meetings between social innovators or when talking about our projects we don't like to admit that to each other. I guess it could rather spoil the mood if everyone was talking just about the problems and uncertainties they were facing. Instead we like to portray ourselves as having researched, planned and thought it all through and are now straight on track to being the next Mohammed Yunus. That is "success theatre" and I know because I've used it plenty of times myself.

nothing succeeds like success, right?

"Success theatre" comes from the following other trend in the social innovation community - if someone happens to have hit on a successful way of doing things, everyone gets very excited and wants to know how they did it. Interestingly, what rarely gets asked is about how many times they had failed before they finally hit on the solution. This creates a misguided "genius cult" around people who do come up with socially innovative solutions. This cult is propagated by lots of the social innovation videos on TED and Youtube featuring social innovation enthusiasts blabbing on about how they experienced this big problem, and then one day, sitting on the toilet, they had a great idea of how to solve it and then just got enough other people excited about it so that they're now all working on implementing that solution. It makes for great stories, we all love to hear and believe it's true. But that's not how things actually happen. And definitely not how social innovation happens.

all hail the genius!

Both the "success theatre" and the "genius cult" in social innovation are understandable and useful when presenting your idea to potential funders or supporters. For conversations between social changemakers however, they are toxic and counterproductive. It's a mix up of target audiences with bad consequences.

The first consequence is that we do not share the true insights about what works and what doesn't work in social innovation by trying things out. So each new initiative and project is very much left to find out for itself again many things that probably lots of people have tried and tested before them. That is a waste of resources and knowledge that the social innovation community cannot afford. It is time to start sharing as much about what doesn't work as what has - the insights are equally important.

What is stopping that from happening? It is a lack of trust and the high level of competition between changemakers for influence and limited funding. On building the trust we can work.

The consequence of the "genius cult" around successful social innovators is that new changemakers entering the field don't appreciate the value of finding out what doesn't work and the sometimes slow, iterative process that lies behind identifying new social innovations. That can make one less resilient when things don't work out as planned.

Instead, we need to celebrate much more those who are finding creative ways to go through the process of finding social solutions - as this article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review argues.

Also, it is worth celebrating every effort to finding new solutions to old social problems. If we are open enough to learning and experimenting with different ways of reaching our goal, we will always find worthwhile information, whether our projects work out as we intended them to or not.

I cannot help but wonder whether the "genius cult" is actually a handy way of keeping young changemakers in check. It's like the political and economic establishment saying "of course we'll take you serious, but only if you're actually successful with your crazy social change ideas." Which is a circular argument, because, what that success might look, is of course defined by that very establishment itself.

Young people working on realising their own social change project should not fall victim to this counter-productive logic, learn as much as possible from their experiences and always give each other a big high five for giving it a try!

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Startup thoughts II: Going Big Fast vs Starting Small First

In looking for ways to get my social enterprise off the ground I have been pursuing two very different strategies over the last couple of months:

Strategy 1 was about going very big or national - this involved pitching the idea and the concept of my social enterprise to a number of institutions with the aim of soliciting their support or startup investment to make the idea happen possibly on a national level.

Strategy 2 was about going very local - this involved partnering with a local community organisation in my neighbourhood and putting a funding application together to fund the local realisation of the project.

Intuitively I sought to integrate the two strategies by focussing my presentations and stories on how my 'product' could benefit 'the person on the street' because I thought that everyone could relate to it at that level. But I had to realise that the ideas, arguments and visions required at the two different levels are very different.

Trying to integrate the two strategies, I found myself torn between explaining to people locally what the project could offer them (as participants), while trying to sketch out to potential funders and investors the wider market potential of the product in terms of how many organisations would be interested in paying for this service. Of course, going "very big" early on is tempting as it holds out the promise of becoming financially viable quickly.

Drawbacks of Strategy 1 
However, for a new startup social enterprise idea national market analyses tend to be very hard to do. Mainly because there's a lack of accessible data on how much organisations and companies are already investing, plus little research or surveys investigating popular attitudes towards the problem. So you end up trying to patch together a story of market analyses outlining the supposed potential of your business idea from suspect stats. Really, all you can provide is lots of assumptions and intelligent guesses because nobody knows yet what the real potential of the idea is.

Preferred Strategy 2
Working on the local level on the other hand you can gather real insights into whether people want to use your product. You start with a draft version of your product or service and gradually work your way towards product-market-fit. The experimentation and hypothesis-testing possible during such a localised trial  generate reliable data and customer feedback you can base your pitch on. So, driving the local prototyping strategy first seems like the obvious choice.

The catch
The catch however, is that in order to get local projects going or to get even that initial start up funding to make anything happen, you'll need to have a good story to tell and demonstrate its potential without having access to those reliable stats. An added difficulty in the social enterprise field is that often your actual paying customers are public institutions or big companies who pay for your services being delivered to benefit and engage their users or customers (see illustration below). These are risk-averse customers, wanting to see clearly documented how the desired impact will be achieved and how it will work in their particular situation.

So even though starting on the local level to test and perfect the product is the preferred strategy, it won't work without a good and convincing story even if that story is based on shaky stats and loads of leap-of-faith assumptions. A way around this dilemma is to focus on illustrating and illuminating the problem you're trying to solve for your customers (both paying and non-paying). The bigger the problem is and the more your audience feels the pain associated with this problem, the bigger the desire to fix it.

The Social Enterprise Record Player: Who's the real customer? Those who pay or those who use the service?

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Startup thoughts I - A missing Piece in Lean Startup Accounts

I have been reading a lot about lean startup techniques and have been pretty excited about the prospect of using these techniques to test and develop my business idea in cooperation and conversation with my customers. Especially for developing a new business idea in the challenging area of social innovation it is vital to reach "market-product fit" without having to invest a lot upfront because the outcome of all your work and  investment is so insecure as you're constantly treading on new ground.

the importance of talking to customers and partners

In many accounts by startup entrepreneurs talking about using the lean startup method you can read lots about the importance of customer interviews, and how they talked at length especially with their first customers and partners to really understand how the product should work so it actually adds value.

the missing piece - how do you get lots of customers to talk to you?

Going through this process myself I have found one piece missing however - how do you get all these people to actually talk to you at length? The reality is - you're one startup entrepreneur amongst many, nobody has heard of you or your product, people don't have time and you can't offer tons of incentives. Even talking to friends and family will give you only a very narrow selection of potential customers and won't give you an objective perspective on whether people would be willing to use and pay for your product.

story, vision, presentation and perspective taking

Nevertheless, there are a number of strategies I have found useful in engaging customers and partners. They centre around story and vision, performance and perspective-taking.

When you do ask people to talk to you about your product it really helps to tell them a story about why you're doing this and where the idea came from. The story should draw on your personal as well as your professional experience - most important is that it gets across something about your personality and that it's inspiring. Secondly it helps to have a "big" vision behind your product - you're not just trying to sell chewing gum in a new location but you're trying to do something new and exciting that no-one has done before.

Thirdly you can relatively easily present yourself as a pretty respectable entrepreneur - I don't mean faking it but I mean putting the elements of a corporate identity in place and filling them with content. That means a website, blog, organisational email address, business cards etc. You can and should be open about the early startup stage you are at. But even just having these things in place will illustrate that you're serious about pursuing your goal which will impress people. The musicians from the collective A Headful of Bees have done something interesting in that respect. Too few people took them serious as individual musicians so they just got together and created the "Headful of Bees" label and booking agency etc. and tadaaaa - suddenly radio stations that had turned them down before took them serious, listened to their music and wanted to play it.

Putting yourself in your customers' shoes - literally

Finally there's one other crucial thing to consider - it is super important to put yourself in the shoes of the person/organisation you're talking to and ask yourself what they might be looking for at the moment and how you can help them with that. This includes becoming aware how you might come across to them in your dress, behaviour, language etc. Ask yourself or others if you might come across as using lots of startup slang and as "from another world" to your customers. If that's the case consider remodelling your presentation to something your customers can personally relate to.

You can do some desk or popular culture research before or ask your customers about their life situation and relate your proposition to that problem. It's essential to long-term relationships that both sides see clear benefits from doing business together. This is especially hard for startup entrepreneurs - we're often quite self-obsessed while focussing on improving our product and getting it just right. However, at this early stage it is actually more important to learn as much as possible about your potential customers, their reality, their issues, their hopes and dreams. You can feed that information into your product development process but it's also very helpful to convince people to talk to you about your product. It's the difference between saying "I've got this great new online sales website I want to show you. Would be great if you could let me know what you think about it." versus "I know you've been wondering where you could find that product - I've got a new website that can help you with that - want to give it a try?"

For another perspective on what makes p2p networks work see this reflective post from the P2PU.
Any thoughts on this? Comments are very welcome.