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Key takeaways from Ann Mei Chang’s book on “Lean Impact”

As a development and design professionals, we spend our time as “Fencers”. Those who constantly sit aside the fence that separates two worlds.  Being a Fencer is good.  You always see the bigger picture, watching and learning from each side, without ever losing sight of the other. And Anne, it turns out, is a Fencer.

Previously, a Senior Engineer Director at Facebook before becoming the Chief Innovation Officer for USAid, she presents a thorough, accurate and Fencer analysis of the social sector.  She shines a light on what is obvious from the fence – and offering realistic solutions that are fed by her Fencer mind.  She knows that the sector is currently obsessed with the latest buzzwords of “innovation” and “human-centred design” and yet is woefully inefficient and ineffective in its application.  She also knows that innovation is a slow cooker approach completely at odds with the short (not to mention tiny) funding cycles of donors. And so it is with refreshing honesty that Anne writes that the way the social sector is financed needs some serious innovation! Hurrah, another voice added to the largely ignored!

Nevertheless, we must press on. Here are five key takeaways from her book that we thought were relevant from the African development perspective:

  1. Innovation and invention are not the same thing… Invention is a eureka moment, innovation is slow, meticulous steps that build into something fit-for-purpose, sustainable and impactful.
  2. Innovation is much harder within the social sector for a number of reasons – the way the sector is financed, how regular people respond to freebies, the gap between cultural mindsets, and consistently missing the problem.
  3. Fail small, fail fast but keep your funding. Imagine end users are locked in the room. Then imagine innovation as the door, prototyping (or randomised controlled trials) are the bunch of keys… but financing is the door handle.  Without adequate funding mechanisms, potentially successful innovations are choked as resource get redirected and long reports get filed about poorly designed programmes.
  4. Digital solutions work well within social sector in developed economies, but in developing economies, we are just not as digitally literate yet. And yet, young, talented social entrepreneurs are quick to tie their solutions firmly and unquestionably to digital… and so the bottom of the pyramid remain ignored.
  5. Without scalability, an innovation solution remains just a well-developed prototype, regardless of all the hype. To achieve real impact, the kind that lifts even just one million out of poverty, solutions need to be scalable and quickly.  Without scale, we are still just pontificating, faffing and tinkering.

Thank you, Anne Mei Chang for providing an inkling of hope.

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