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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Comments (2)


  1. Phil writes:
    June 26, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    I read once that big software companies typically spend only about 15% of a project budget on actual coding. According to the article I read, the bulk of the budget is spent on market research and thinking things through before leaping in to creating the product.

    After coding online for almost 20 years, it’s become clear that most of the significant mistakes I’ve made involved getting swept in the joy of creativity and big ideas, and neglecting the planning phase.

    I’ve seen this mistake in a local wildlife rehab group we volunteer for too. The passion for the day to day hands on work with the animals seems to easily lead to neglecting bigger picture administrative tasks which would have a more significant impact on the animals in the longer run.

    It seems a pretty common problem that we often can’t see the forest for the trees.


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