What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the final installment of a three-part series detailing lessons learned from the world of software development that can be applied to the social change work. Previously, we talked about identifying obstacles to action and using data to inspect and adapt. Today we’re talking about the importance of making small improvements along the way.

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It often takes a series of smaller ideas to get to the big one you love. (Photo via ratch on Shutterstock.)

Have you ever been really excited about a new project, but you’re not sure how to start? Some people prefer to plan as much as possible from the very beginning, while others just want to dip their toes in with a small step. These two approaches are common in the software development world. The first approach is called “waterfall,” and the second is known as “iterative.”

Iterative development is at the heart of Agile software development strategies. Iterative methods assume that in a complex project, there will be too many variables (sometimes called “risks”) to account for up front.

Instead, the goal is to identify the smallest possible increment that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. And we build only that part!

Of course, we might have other ideas in mind, but we focus on building a small piece and then we collect feedback from people, see how it’s actually being used (which is sometimes different from how we expected), and figure out the best way to move forward.

Iterating in the social good space

Linda Kay Klein leads the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social impact accelerator which has awarded $31 million dollars in start-up funding to over 500 promising social entrepreneurs in 40 countries since its founding in 1987.

Work on Purpose is a perfect example of iterative program development. Linda says she was originally brought on to promote a book by the organization’s senior vice president, which illustrated one principle for finding your purpose through the stories of five of Echoing Green’s social entrepreneurship Fellows. She says at that time, Echoing Green had a hunch that it could become more than a book, but they weren’t sure where it would lead. It was unclear how her job would take shape, but both Linda and the organization were willing to take a risk.

Over the next two and a half years, Work on Purpose evolved under Linda’s leadership. Echoing Green’s staff identified nine more principles for finding your purpose, each of which are now illustrated via stories and taught through interactive activities. The stories and activities became a series of workshops, then an online learning platform, and eventually a curriculum on which faculty and staff of over 50 colleges, universities and nonprofits have been trained.

Linda and her colleagues evaluated each piece of the program at every step along the way via surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings. They even refined their evaluation methods as they went, drawing upon research in the fields of education, psychology, and organizational behavior to develop proxy measures that would enhance their evaluative methodologies. She credits this formative evaluation process for the fast growth of Work on Purpose from a book into a successful program.

Linda believes Echoing Green’s “evaluate early and often” technique is relatively common in the social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have a long history of evaluating buyers’ responses to products and changing them up as needed; social entrepreneurs do the same thing with social programs and products.

“Our Echoing Green social entrepreneurship Fellows are all in start-up phase,” Linda adds. “They haven’t had a long enough history for longitudinal research, so—like the Work on Purpose program did—they evaluate and make changes in real time. That’s what being scrappy is all about.”

She says that traditional nonprofits haven’t always done this, instead evaluating programs at the end of a long pilot phase, perhaps missing opportunities to make adjustments along the way.

Evaluate early, evaluate often

Here are some things to keep in mind for an iterative approach to program development:

  • Identify your MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This might not be applicable to every social good project, but it’s probably applicable to more than we realize. Your minimum viable product is the smallest deliverable possible that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. This means getting something in front of real people as soon as possible, like Echoing Green’s first round of workshops, and collecting feedback before iterating further. Be careful not to confuse this with “the least amount of work we can do.” It’s not small for the sake of small; it’s the minimum needed to isolate variables and learn as much as possible.

  • Evaluate against problem statements, not solutions. In software development, it’s tempting to evaluate success based on simple metrics like traffic and feature use. But every feature is attempting to solve a problem, and if people are using the feature but the problem isn’t solved, the feature has failed. Similarly, in the world of social good, projects must be evaluated on their impact, not their use. Echoing Green set goals not only about the number of schools who would adopt their curriculum, but also the impact the curriculum would have on participants.

  • Use proxy measures. Linda credits the TCC Group with helping to shape the way Echoing Green approached evaluation for its Work on Purpose program, specifically helping them identify trustworthy measures that would allow them to project longer-term effects than they were actually able to assess. As an example, research shows that people who feel more related to one another are more likely to work on one anothers’ behalf. With this research as a proxy measure, the Work on Purpose program can now assess participant’s long-term likelihood to work on behalf of others simply by measuring whether or not they felt more related to others after a workshop.


How have you used an “evaluate early and often” approach to iterate on your programs?

For another example of iteration in action, check out our post about Farmigo, a company that’s bringing the farmers market to you.

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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the second of a three-part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Today’s post is about using data to make better decisions. Read the first part about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are here

One of the defining features of Scrum (the software development methodology we use here at Idealist) is the regular opportunity for “retrospectives.” Once a week the team gathers to talk about what went well during the previous week, and what we want to change for the next week.

The key here is the short cycles—it allows us to experiment with semi-crazy ideas, because we’re only committing to them for a week. If they don’t work, we throw ‘em out the next week. It’s very low risk.

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Photo via Nomad_Soul on Shutterstock.

An obvious benefit of this “inspect and adapt” habit is that it allows us to continuously improve our processes. A less obvious benefit is that it creates a culture of empiricism. Whenever we can, we bring real data to the retrospective.

We might start off with an instinct or a hypothesis like, “I wonder if we’d get more done if we aimed higher next week” (which is a valid question, not a foregone conclusion).

We can then test that hypothesis immediately and a week later gather to look at the results. We aimed higher—did we or didn’t we get more done?

Inspect, adapt, change the world

Nonprofits and other worldchangers use inspect and adapt processes as well, of course. The staff at Single Stop USA, for example, are working to end poverty. They keep students in school by helping them and their families navigate the world of public benefits, providing them with access to tax preparation support in addition to legal and financial counseling.

Since their founding in 2001, Single Stop has continued to work towards that goal with laser-like focus, but understands that their approach must be nimble enough to evolve based on empirical data.

Nate Falkner is the Vice President of Strategy and says that Single Stop USA makes better use of data than any organization he’s worked with. For example, they’ve used data to identify potential partners to help distribute their programs.

Early on, they looked at studies that showed that programs that gave community college students at risk of dropping out just two to three hundred dollars would often mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

A lightbulb went off, and the Single Stop team realized community colleges were ideal partners. Single Stop’s programs could serve as a dropout prevention strategy for the colleges (on average, Single Stop clients receive benefits and services worth over $1,000), while the colleges could provide Single Stop with access to a large number of potential clients and an infrastructure through which to expand.

Similarly, after gathering data that showed the words “tax preparation support” carries less stigma than “government benefits” (think politically charged terms like “food stamps” and “welfare”), Single Stop refined its messaging to potential clients. They focused their outreach message on the tax preparation parts of their program, drawing in clients who later became interested in their other resources.

Let out your inner data nerd

When it comes to developing an “inspect and adapt” process, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

1. Schedule time for reflecting on process, and treat it as sacred.
It can be tempting to skip the retrospective when other things seem more pressing, but we’ve found that treating it as sacred has kept us sharp.

2. Minimize the risks associated with innovating on process.
We limit our experiments to one week, which allows us to try out some pretty dramatic ideas. You’ll often hear someone say, “It’s only for a week, guys” during our retrospective sessions. This reduces anxiety for people who tend to be averse to big changes.

3. Adapt the process; don’t move the goalposts.
As Nate says, “Our mission is ending poverty, and that doesn’t change. We’re being smart and nimble about how we approach that discussion and how we approach stakeholders on their terms.”

How have you used “inspect and adapt” techniques to innovate on your internal processes?

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Start right now! Tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs

Being graduation season, we asked some of the most innovative thinkers in Colorado to share some advice with young and aspiring social entrepreneurs. Check out what they had to say, why Colorado a great place to let your imagination flourish, and how you can get started right now.

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Photo via Hampton Roads Partnership on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

I’m an aspiring social entrepreneur. What should I be considering?

Tamra Ryan, Social Enterprise Alliance Colorado Chapter Chair and CEO, Women’s Bean Project: Look to what others have done, and when seeking advice, be specific about what you need. The community of those who have already done this work is invaluable; at Women’s Bean Project we have 24 years of mistakes to reflect upon and learn from – and help others avoid.

Nathaniel Koloc, CEO, ReWork: Make sure you love and are invested in the idea you’re working on. Building a company is really hard work and you’ll need the motivation to get through the rough points and the uncertainty. Also, it’s going to take a lot of your time, so you might as well spend that time on something that feels very worthwhile.

Banks Benitez, VP of Partnerships, Unreasonable Institute: Be proactively coachable – open to receive advice when offered; some of the best entrepreneurs we work with have this quality. They go out and ask for advice, recognize what they don’t know, are aware of their blind spots, and seek understanding about what’s coming. They seek out mentors who can help and have walked the same path. Proactively coachable entrepreneurs recognize the limitations of their knowledge and have the humility to ask for help.

Micah Williams, Marketing + Special Projects, TEDxMileHigh: Be useful to others. Be a connector. Go out on a limb for someone. Aspiring entrepreneurs do most for themselves when they strive to do the most for others. Selfish, power-hungry, and narcissistic are characteristics of 20th-century iron-fisted leadership. We’ve arrived to a new century, where seeking avenues to do good for others is what sets people, and organizations, apart.

What makes Colorado so fertile in innovation? It seems like many businesses and ideas are first taking root here.

Tamra: We’ve always been pioneers in Colorado, with lots of energy and creativity, and it carries over into social enterprise.

Nathaniel: I think the quality of life in Colorado (very high), the outlook (progressive), and the style (laid back and accessible) has combined to make it a place where the “activation energy required” for innovation is low. It’s easy to get people to try pilots and prototypes, it’s easy to connect with decision-makers and get advice, etc. So things that elsewhere would get killed by inertia (and judgment), are able to take off and learn to fly in Colorado.

Micah: The massive growth and excitement in Colorado is a realization of years of backend work on improving its infrastructure, managing its growth, keeping money local, and protecting what makes Colorado intrinsically awesome: the 300+ days of sunshine, the towering snow-capped mountains, the endless outdoor activities less than an hour from major cities, and innovative research institutions that churn out jobs and educated young minds.

What can I do to get started right now?

Tamra: Look into the Social Enterprise Alliance; they have many resources for social enterprises. The Colorado Chapter has local events throughout the year. Follow us on Facebook!

Nathaniel: If you are starting a company and haven’t taken the time to understand what lean methodology is all about, you should stop everything you are doing and do that. Also look at design thinking and agile.

Banks: Attend entrepreneurial events and get embedded in the entrepreneurial community.

Micah: Seek meaningful relationships. That’s the number one resource we have as entrepreneurs. Don’t rely on a ‘great network;’ rely on great friends. Surround yourself with curious people who dream big. Finally, always remember the words of Ben Franklin: “Well done…is better than well said.” Yes!


Want to learn more? Micah also recommends reading Unreasonable Institute’s blog and PandoDaily, as well as attending the TEDxMileHigh event on June 15.

In Colorado? Banks thinks you should check out New Tech; Ignite Boulder; Silicon Flatirons Center; and the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at CU Boulder. 

Learn more about Colorado month at Idealist!

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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the first of a three part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Part one is about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are.

I work on the web development team here at Idealist. My business card has the title of “Scrum Master,” which sounds equal parts terrifying and mystifying (in reality, it’s neither). One of my primary responsibilities is to remove obstacles for our web developers.

Scrum” is one of several popular software development methodologies collectively known by the umbrella term “Agile.” Agile processes seek to address some of the issues inherent to highly complex projects such as software development, by providing a set of shared values, engineering principles, and communication methods.

As I’ve learned more about these methodologies, I’ve discovered there are many applications to the work that members of the Idealist community are engaged in every day. After all, what’s a more complex project than eradicating poverty, ending homelessness, or convincing world leaders to cooperate on climate change?

A technique for recognizing obstacles

Every morning, we have a 15-minute meeting called “the daily scrum” where each developer makes a commitment for the day, and talks about their obstacles.

One technique we use is making a list of certain words that we think might indicate a hidden obstacle, like “try,” “maybe,” and “hopefully.”

We write them on a whiteboard. Whenever a developer uses one of those words during the daily meeting, we call it out. For example, a developer might say, “Today I’ll try to finish the new blog feature…,” and the rest of the team will challenge him to explain why he’s only going to try.

This isn’t some Yoda-esque motivation strategy (“Do or do not. There is no try.”). Rather, it’s an attempt to understand what is causing the hesitation. Typically there’s an underlying obstacle, like the developer isn’t familiar with the relevant part of the code. Once that’s been articulated, we can work as a team to solve it—perhaps by having him pair up with another developer who’s more experienced with that part of the codebase.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

Applications for world-changing work

Identifying your own obstacles, or your organization’s, is a key step in any plan to change the world. Here are some strategies:

1. Make it a regular practice.
In Scrum, we ask ourselves every day what our obstacles are, and what’s getting in the way. In your context, this may be a weekly ritual, or something that you do at a twice-annual staff retreat.

2. Learn to recognize symptoms of hidden obstacles.
In the world of web development, there are a few common signs of unspoken obstacles: a general lack of progress, having more work “in progress” than there are developers on the team, or releasing buggy code. In the world of social good, the signs might include: not hitting your fundraising targets regularly, skipping writing your annual report to stakeholders, or getting unsatisfactory feedback from clients. Recognize these symptoms for what they are: evidence of some underlying obstacles.

3. Make obstacles visible.
Some Scrum teams have an “Impediments board” where they list their obstacles to action on index cards. Cards get removed when the impediment is removed. By making the obstacles visible, everyone sees them and they tend to get resolved faster.

4. Prioritize obstacles.
Not all obstacles are created equal. For example, an obstacle that is preventing your organization from receiving donations might be more important than something that prevents your organization from getting a new logo in time for your summer campaign. Some Scrum teams limit the number of obstacles “in play” at any one time. This forces you to prioritize, and choose the most significant obstacles to focus on.

5. Share responsibility.
A good Scrum Master will facilitate the removal of obstacles by creating a culture of shared team responsibility. Similarly, an executive director or project manager might be ultimately responsible for removing obstacles within an organization, but by empowering the team, they will be resolved more quickly.

We’ve found paying special attention to identifying and removing obstacles has greatly improved our development work at Idealist. What do you think? Do you have any tips or tricks for finding and resolving obstacles in your organization or projects?

p.s. Stay tuned for the next part of the series, where I’ll share some ideas for how to “inspect and adapt” on your internal processes.

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