(Social) Lean Startup Is Hard!


I have worked with lots of social enterprises as well as regular startups and corporates to help them implement Lean Startup, and the conclusion I have arrived at is that it is uncommonly hard.

Lean principles are inherently attractive because of the good sense that they make. We have been brought up to respect the scientific method and to expect trustworthy answers from its application.  As a result I have seen time and again organisations of all kinds jump into Lean Startup with great excitement and I have seen these same organisations, time and again, struggle to implement these principles.  They fall into a host of traps, which after the fact seem so obvious yet continue to trip us up.

 So how do we get it so wrong when it seems so straightforward?

 We act like Experts when we are really Novices

 The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition outlines a hierarchy of competence where, with experience, we move from Novice through Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient and finally to Expert.  At the early stages of learning a new skill the model calls for us to give “rigid adherence to taught rules or plans”.  Then, as we progress, we start to develop our capacity for things like flexible thinking and insight.  The trap we fall into is thinking that we can successfully navigate the Lean Startup environment by our wits alone.  We act like experts when we are still very much novices.  The result of this is that when faced with complex and difficult decisions, we back ourselves way too much to make the right calls, and the result is that things get off track really quickly.  This is especially true for social enterprises where our business models can explode in complexity with multiple customer segments, UVPs etc, magnifying our mistakes.

 We need Structure!

 To avoid careering off in the wrong direction, I recommend employing a really clear structure to control how you are implementing Lean Startup.  This will help you stay on track and avoid making novice mistakes.

 This structure needs to be simple enough that everyone in your organisation can understand it.  A structure that allows anyone at anytime to see how much progress you have made and to understand what you are trying to learn and how you are learning it.

 Even if this structure seems restrictive at times and all you want to do is go with your gut, think of it as training wheels.  By working with a rigid set of rules you and your organisation will learn to do Lean Startup from the fundamentals up, and when you have this nailed then you can start making your own rules.

Running Lean

I am a big fan of Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean.  This book outlines a comprehensive and well structured approach to applying Lean Startup that you can adopt for your social venture.  It includes templates to help you do customer interviews well as well as lots of other useful structure providing tools.

The Social Lean Canvas has been adapted from Ash’s Lean Canvas framework, so it is easy to take the tools that Ash provides in the book, run them alongside the SLC and apply them to your social enterprise.


 Everyone thinks Lean Startup is simple and that they will do it right first time.  I have seen some of the smartest people I know mess it up in grand style because they thought they were Experts when they were still only Novices.  Do your apprenticeship and start with some good structure.

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  • http://www.startupwebtraining.com/ Donncha Hughes

    Earlier in the year, I managed a team of trainers who introduced a short training and mentoring programme called Start a Social Enterprise for a small group in Galway, Ireland. This was a somewhat new departure for me having worked with for profit startups for over 10 years. But I had come across several startups who had social enterprise credentials, so when I was approached I was very interested in getting involved. When addressing business planning, we selected Alex Osterwalder’s original Business Model canvas as our one pager. BTW, I am a massive fan of Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas. Having now found the Social Lean Canvas, I am very impressed with this site. By way of feedback, we also found the participants on our programme were naturally adding the first (or 10th) building block being PURPOSE to their models. But they struggled with some of the language within the canvas. Struggled is maybe a poor choice of word – they got distracted somewhat as they hotly debated whether their social enterprises should refer to their clients or service users as Customers. To my mind this was a mute point as they got the point that there were different types of stakeholders and sometimes a few versions of the canvas depending on the audience. I will think about it, but I am not sure I would move from the BMC to the Social Lean Canvas. I am not sure how participants would react to the language of Problem and Solution. A lot of the time the social or environmental problem is so real that it goes without saying – numbers are good to validate its existence. A key issue is establishing such baseline figures for future impact analysis. I also think that the concept of UVP covers the issue. But I do like the IMPACT block being attached to the renamed FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY block as this is a key tenet of social enterprise. I suppose what I am thinking is that a Social Business Model Canvas might be the way to go for us. Thanks for all your work. regards. Donncha