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June 20, 2013 » 11:40 am

Lean Social Entrepreneurship: Lessons from Changemaker Bootcamp

My plan for figuring out what I want to do next consists of:

  1. Going slow. Giving myself time to rest, reflect, and play.
  2. Listening. Trying to understand the challenges that changemakers are facing, and learning what cool things others are doing in the world.
  3. Experimenting. Learning aggressively, and sharing what I learn openly.

I’ve been applying the principles from The Lean Startup as a way to carry out my experiments in a disciplined way. I’m also determined to do my experiments in an open way, so that people who are curious and motivated can see what I’m doing and learn from every step and misstep along the way.

My primary goal is to figure out ways to scale collaborative literacy. My hypothesis is that information is a less critical need than experience.

There are a thousand books, articles, and blog posts that correctly outline the skills and mindsets that changemakers need to be successful. There are also top-down trainings focused on delivering information. On the other end of the spectrum, there are leadership development programs and other kinds of retreats. Finally, there’s coaching, which is the closest thing out there to supporting the kind of practice I’m talking about.

There’s a huge gap in the middle for what I’m calling balance bikes for changemakers — safe opportunities to practice real skills repeatedly with real-time feedback.

My initial experiment has been Changemaker Bootcamp. It’s designed to be a safe, structured place for changemakers to get more intentional about the work that they’re doing and to practice skills needed to work skillfully with groups.

My role is guide, not teacher. I’m designing workouts that do not require an “expert” to do, just as you don’t need an expert to teach you how to run. I’m also sharing those workouts openly, so that people can do them on their own, organize their own workouts, or even start their own bootcamps. This is part of my strategy to scale, which is to start a movement rather than attempt to own a market.

If I do decide to try to build a business around this, I see this openness as a differentiator rather than an obstacle. People appreciate an ecosystem, community-oriented mindset, and I believe my experience and reputation will draw plenty of great people. (It behooves me to prove the latter.) This is the Internet-equivalent of a platform play, except without the subversive creepiness around monetization and privacy.

I’m now on my second iteration of my experiment with Changemaker Bootcamp, and I’ve been keeping detailed notes of what I’ve been learning on that website. Here are some metanotes about what I’ve been learning and about my process overall.

Practice Works

Practice indeed works. I’m trying to be more disciplined about quantifying impact, but thanks to the weekly feedback loop, I can see firsthand people developing skills that they are immediately putting into practice.

This work feels fundamentally different than any of my consulting projects ever did. As a consultant, I focused on crazy, complex projects that benefited from my unique experience. I was applying my college-level skills toward a specific goal, while also trying to help my clients move their own skill levels from junior high to high school.

Now, I’m removing myself from the equation. This is about helping others go from second grade to third, from third grade to fourth. No shortcuts. But by moving slowly and deliberatively, I think I can have a much greater impact.

Frankly, even though I worked with top leadership on my consulting projects, I feel like I have more leverage helping the changemakers I’m helping now. It doesn’t sound as sexy as working on California water issues or leading a culture change process for a global biotech Fortune 500 firm, but it feels more meaningful. I’m loving it!

Minimal Viable Product, Working Openly, Building Ownership

Being disciplined about Minimal Viable Product is challenging. I’ve had to be very focused about what I’m trying to learn, and to move even before I feel ready. In the two bootcamps I’ve done, we’ve had four different locations, and we’re moving to our fifth location next week.

The workouts are still rough and will need many more iterations before I feel confident about their effectiveness and replicability. But that’s the point. I wouldn’t be able to refine them by simply thinking really hard about them. This is practice for me, and it’s what’s allowing me to refine the model.

The website is well below my standards, but it’s serving its purpose as a vehicle for sharing learning, and I’m getting a remarkable number of newsletter subscriptions. (This is further evidence of how we often throw away money on aesthetics rather than being laser focused about what we actually want our websites to do.) Working through these iterations has helped me shift my design priorities to things that I think will have a higher impact.

The biggest returns have been from working openly — making my participants and my followers partners in my experiment. It’s easy to feel self-conscious about wanting to deliver value, but my participants seem to appreciate that I’m practicing with them and that I don’t know whether this is going to work. Simply by participating, they are helping me, but they’ve all gone above and beyond that, finding different ways to support what I’m trying to do. I don’t know that this would have been the case had I been proprietary about this process or if I had tried to project an aura of polished expertise as opposed to incomplete learning.

Market Questions

Last month, I surveyed my network to try to better understand the obstacles that changemakers are facing. (I’ll publish a full synthesis next week.) Only two out of 107 respondents even mentioned the word “practice.” No one’s been clamoring for something like Changemaker Bootcamp.

I’m essentially trying to define the market, which is a high-risk, high-reward place for an entrepreneur. It’s contingent on me to explain my vision clearly, to connect it to the real challenges that people are experiencing, and to see if people find it compelling.

I’ve been relatively quiet about recruiting participants, as I’ve been focused on a specific demographic (currently in an organization, but no C-level or executive leaders). I’ve managed to find enough participants for my initial experiments, but I’m nervous about my ability to recruit participants at a wider scale once I start doing this “for real” (probably the next bootcamp) with a fixed price and many more available spots.

My sample size is way too small to draw any conclusions, but there have been two noticeable patterns. First, of my six participants so far, one comes from a social venture, the rest are from nonprofits and philanthropy. I think this work is hugely beneficial for businesses in a way that translates into profit as well as impact, but I haven’t drawn that crowd so far. I also think the bootcamp would benefit from that diversity of experience.

My friend, Justin, has correctly pointed out that my language is very social-sector oriented. For example, people in companies don’t necessarily identify with “changemaker,” even if that’s exactly what they are. I’d rather not do a focused offering specifically for for-profits, but I may have to explore that.

Second, all of my participants have been women. I’ve had one man apply, and a few others express interest, but it’s been predominantly women. There are probably reasons for this, and my sample size is too small to draw conclusions anyway. The bigger question is, what have I learned from this?

In this bootcamp, my participants have mentioned multiple times how great it is to be in the space with a great group of women. I’m wondering whether I should be more intentional about marketing this toward women or even doing women-only offerings (which again, I’m reluctant to do). I had actually been thinking about giving all of my participants — men and women — copies of Lean In, so maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

Focus, Focus, Focus

I have a long list of experiments in mind, but I’ve been forcing myself to focus on one at a time. That’s counter to my personality, but it’s been a very positive discipline, and I think it’s really helped Changemaker Bootcamp evolve.

I’m about ready to try a second experiment, however. The challenge for me, as always, is to focus on just one, and to take it slow.

If you have thoughts on what I’m doing now or what I should do next, post them below!

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