Last week, I had a chance to share the work of Living Cities and how we’re using lean principles in our efforts to transform systems to end urban poverty in the US with the DC Lean Startup Circle.
If you are not familiar with the lean startup methodology, I’d encourage you to check out the work of Eric Reis and Steve Blank for two reasons. First, it is useful—it advocates that the traditional approach of planning everything up front and then executing as has traditionally been the case in business (and in philanthropy and nonprofits) is high risk because it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. It offers a different methodology which favors (as Blank describes it) “experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over tradition ‘big design up front’ development.” The second reason is that the lean startup framework is being talked about everywhere. Blank recently authored a Harvard Business Review article entitled “ Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything.”
So much of what I’ve read about lean has related to product development and technology, even in the social change space. My participation in the Lean Startup Circle event got me thinking about the conversations we’re not having about lean and social change and distinguishing between two different types of problems in the world.
One type, technical problems, refer to situations where the problem and solutions are clear, and the work is to optimize execution. I heard a great example of how the lean startup approach can support the development of solutions to technical problems from Hyungsoo Kim the founder of Eone Timepieces. The problem that Hyungsoo and his team were trying to solve was that as the world becomes more oriented toward touch screens, the visually impaired have a challenge of finding out the time.
Their solution, a time piece called the Bradley, developed through iterative feedback from their target audience, works for the sited and visually-impaired alike. The resulting product is elegant and functional and their website tells the story of its lean development beautifully.
The second type of problem is adaptive, which has no known solution. Adaptive problems have no known solution, because they are produced by the interaction of a lot of people, institutions, practices, and policies, and require the stakeholders who produce the problem to learn together, experiment and take smart risks, and change their hearts and minds to be able to untangle and solve. An example of an adaptive problem: world hunger.
Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky, two of the fathers of adaptive leadership write in Leadership on the Line “The single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify…is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”
This idea was ringing in my head on Wednesday, when I read an article on Wired entitled Soylent Raises $1M, Reminds Us What’s Wrong With Silicon Valley.
During Soylent’s pitch video, two stereotypical Silicon Valley young, male entrepreneur types named Rob and David describe their product, a nutrient-rich goop that can replace meals. In the first minute, it sounds like Soylent is a product developed for people like them who view food as solely fuel and want, “to have more freedom with [their] time and money.” Fine, technical problem and technical solution.
But, then they assert (1:30):
World hunger is a logistics problem, we produce plenty of food, it’s the storage and distribution that’s problematic. Soylent requires no refrigeration, no cookware, and doesn’t spoil for years…this could have a significant impact on the planet, reducing hunger and subsistence farming as well as cooking, cleaning and especially agricultural practices that are harmful to both humans and the environment.
There are many problems with this argument, but I am going to focus on just one. This is a vast over-simplification of the causes of world hunger which are not just about logistics, but are created by a complex interaction between national policies, global businesses, environment, and people. Soylent is offering a technical solution to an adaptive problem, and to make it worse, it’s not an original one. The World Food Programme already has similar products. I don’t claim to be an expert on this problem, but if there was a technical solution to world hunger, we wouldn’t have world hunger.
Which begs some questions, as lean continues to change everything, and more and more entrepreneurs (in business and the social sector) focus on solving our toughest social and economic problems, how can we prevent these leadership failures in the future? How are investors and entrepreneurs alike being pushed away from oversimplifying to engage with complexity? And how can we use lean startup principles to develop adaptive solutions to our world’s most wicked problems?
This post originally appeared on October 25, 2013.