Applying lean startup principles to nonprofit strategy — Is that a thing yet? Because it should be. I observed a recent discussion that asked about keeping strategic plans alive. These conversations dry up fast. I mean, another topic on nonprofit strategic planning?

But the language was succinct and clear. Well, most of it. No one explicitly mentioned lean startup methods, but the crux of the conversation was to, yes, make the time for strategy, but shift the focus into clarity, practicality, and simplicity.

As for the other comments? I got lost with the gobbledygook to even figure out where they stood on the matter. I think they agreed — or maybe not? I couldn't tell.

Clarity, practicality, simplicity? OK. But we should've shifted towards rapidly testing and validating nonprofit strategy.

Like, yesterday.

There's one more thing that really stuck out in this thread, though:

One consultant really dissed short planning processes and defended long but thorough processes: A series of 3-4 two-day sessions over a span of six months so that nonprofits can understand what to become in 3-5 years.

Six months to think about future success in those 3-5 years — if "done right."

Let that sink in. It's shrouded in mystery as to what thinking activities actually happen within that timeframe which should merit so much time. Couldn't a nonprofit just be smarter and wiser with its time?

Someone else probed him on the point, and he finally revealed his rather rigid dichotomy:

  • More time = A better investment to get the "best thinking" on board to "think deeply" and "think things through." Only leaders do this.
  • Less time = Quick fixes and quick consensus. Busy people and their excuses about being busy to avoid "thinking things through." Status quo. They only like tweaking what they know. Only managers do this.

My point of contention: A short "planning" process doesn't straightaway mean that the board was ignorant, desperate, or that it shirked its responsibilities and imperiled the cause.

It's equally possible that these leaders simply remembered a couple of things:

  • Paradigms change and new ones emerge even in one year. Whether it's the markets, economy, governments, cultures, technology, social systems et al.
  • Donor and client circumstances can and will change.
  • So much is learned in just a few months which will question the originally stated goals and their execution.
  • Crafting long-term predictions and timelines is predicting the unpredictable. The farther out into the future, the bigger the guessing becomes.
  • Sometimes the assessment of the problem or obstacles turn out inaccurate, anyway.

Which possibly helped them adapt an agile mindset and a slimmer process so that they can continually capture opportunities along the way.

Which also possibly allowed more time for higher-impact activities: Learning better research collection, better collaborative skills, testing assumptions in the real world, building up a knowledge base of tools, etc.

Because maybe continual learning and growth just happened to be a part of their strategy planning.

Time is precious. If you're not exploring, testing, and validating your strategic choices, then what exactly are you doing with all that planning time?

You don't even need to refer to these activities as lean. When you see how rapidly things around you change, six month planning endeavors to predict the next 3-5 years become suspect.

Besides, the lean startup methodology was adapted from various existing management and product development practices (I pretty much paraphrased that part) — including design thinking which is further rooted in the field of applied creativity.

But more on these distinctions for another time.

Anyway, here's what I'd love to see more of:

  • Adapting the Build-Measure-Learn cycle to reiterate on any nonprofit's current strategy. If you're already doing this, let me know where the party's at.
  • Prototyping strategy, where the first stage of your strategy is only a set of hypotheses and guesses until you've actually gone out and tested it. (Try the Value Proposition Canvas)
  • Reiterating on a nonprofit's programs and services. Pet projects should NOT be spared.
  • Structured creativity in making sense of complex nonprofit challenges and "wicked problems."
  • Cross-sector collaborations and wicked problems. (Here's one organization right now that is really engaged in some proactive work with this: Living Cities)

And most of all? A shift on the why to the how: How might one get started, experiment, and take baby steps. How might we adapt human-centered design and lean startup methods to ______?

Fill in the blank. What do you want to achieve? Get real concrete and turn it into a wishlist. (Some more great ideas at Lean Impact)

Just as we would seek new skills and tools to reiterate on programs and services, would reiterating on strategy be any different? The altitude is just different.

Pioneering nonprofits don't want to waste their time, money, and energy creating products, services or programs that do not solve the problem, or do not benefit their constituencies at all.

When it comes time to face the music that your engine was running on assumptions for months, even years — and all of us find out at one point — you can choose to learn and evolve the organization. Even just small steps towards being more adaptable to your circumstances will pay dividends. Maybe a culture change is needed, but not overnight.

But are you really going to opt for a round of 3-4 two-day sessions over a span of six months, again?


What about you? Your thoughts and ideas? What stops you from upturning tables and pushing forward? What do you want to see more of in 2014? Let me know in the comments.

Tweetable stuff:

"It's 2014: We should be talking about rapidly testing nonprofit strategy."

"Six months of nonprofit strategic planning time? Then you better be testing, not guessing."

"Reiterating on nonprofit strategy: Long overdue? Yes."

"How to keep nonprofit strategic plans alive? Reiterate."

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