The Lean approach helps maximize your impact under conditions of uncertainty. Based on the book Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good by author Ann Mei Chang, Lean Innovation helps teams quickly move from a big audacious goal, to small experiments that help create sustainable and scalable solutions faster. The approach focuses on three principles:
- Think Big – set audacious goals and build an engine for growth that will move the needle relative to the size of the problem
- Start Small – build the agility to run fast experiments and drive feedback loops that will accelerate your pace of learning and reduce waste of time and money
- Relentlessly Seek Impact – identify and track the metrics that matter most to increase impact and scale
Spring Impact coaches teams through Lean Innovation to equip them with the mindset and tools they need to be ambitious, take risks, rapidly learn, and act nimbly. This approach has already helped many social impact organizations embed innovation in their day-to-day work, including Jewish Vocational Service (JVS).
Since 1973, JVS has helped more than 85,000 people in the Bay Area to build skills, find jobs, and transform their lives. From hunger to healthcare, the impact of returning to work is tremendous for the individuals who come to JVS, their families, and the economic stability of their entire community.
In 2020, JVS turned to Spring Impact to develop the organization’s capacity to innovate and scale their impact. The need to innovate was exacerbated when the realities of COVID-19 became increasingly complex and communities saw record job loss. As a result the demand for JVS’ job training and placement programs was higher than ever. Due to shelter-in-place orders, JVS needed to quickly shift in-person programs to virtual services. In addition, the JVS team needed to determine which employers would likely remain throughout economic instability and which job skills would continue to be in-demand.
In a good economy, upon completion of the job training program, JVS had quality jobs lined up for its participants. But with a shift in the marketplace, questions arose, including: 1) how will the job market change, 2) what job skills are in demand now and will be in the future, and 3) how will JVS provide wraparound support to ensure the ongoing success of clients?
“Our team was challenged with a lack of information – we had reservations in pushing forward with what we’ve already done but also sensed the real immediate need for our services in the community,” said CEO Lisa Countryman-Quiroz.
Traditionally, many organizations take a “build it and they will come” approach due in large part to funder demand for fully-functioning programs prior to financial backing. This approach is rarely effective in solving social issues at scale as it forces social impact organizations to spend a substantial amount of time and resources upfront, requires making risky assumptions about customer needs or predictions about future environments, and emphasizes immediate results over strategic investment for scaled impact. Instead, through its Lean practice Spring Impact challenges social impact organizations, like JVS, to develop the mindset and practices for innovation by thinking big, starting small, and relentlessly seeking impact. This process takes place in a series of four virtual, 2-hour workshops, followed by up to eight weeks of coaching calls.
The first step of Lean Innovation is to set an audacious goal that can’t be achieved with business-as-usual practices. Without a long-term aspirational goal, day-to-day pressures cause us to focus on short term wins rather than sustainable, innovative solutions that can make a bigger difference.
While JVS was making a meaningful impact for its clients, the team knew the volume of Bay Area residents looking for quality jobs was far greater than JVS could serve on their current trajectory. JVS realized that in order to encourage its team to innovate, it needed to make it okay to take bold risks. That meant setting an innovation goal so ambitious that continuing business-as-usual would inherently mean failure.
In the first workshop Spring Impact and Ann Mei Chang worked with JVS to set an ambitious innovation goal, and then choose a specific problem statement rooted in the needs of Bay Area residents seeking quality jobs.
With a clear foundation for the ultimate impact they aimed to achieve, JVS then generated possible solutions to help clients find high-quality jobs even in a depressed economy with record-high unemployment.
JVS’s first solution was a cohort program for career coaching with participant support that would be relatively low-intensity, allowing JVS to work with a large number of people with fewer staff. Before planning out the cohort program in detail, JVS took a step back to ask what risks, unknowns, or assumptions might cause its solution to fail. One of the highest priority risks that emerged was whether clients would be willing to sign up for a virtual career coaching program alongside strangers. Together with Spring Impact and Ann Mei, JVS created a mock application for the cohort and shared it with a small number of clients. Most clients didn’t respond, and JVS learned that this first idea wasn’t the right approach. By starting small, JVS could walk away from the cohort program, celebrating what they had learned with the added assurance that it hadn’t wasted time and resources pursuing the wrong solution.
Relentlessly Seek Impact
With new skills around rapid learning and testing, JVS applied client feedback to rethink its solution and test a new idea – a small business bookkeeping program. Together with Small Business Majority and Turning Basin Labs, JVS conceptualized a bookkeeping program that aimed to solve two problems: 1) helping JVS participants get paid work experience, and 2) helping small businesses (that otherwise can’t afford to hire a CPA) manage their finances. For a small fee businesses can apply for bookkeeping support from JVS Bookkeeping students, who receive guidance from an overseeing CPA.
This time early experiments worked; both small businesses and JVS clients signed up to take part, and the program began gaining traction. JVS immediately saw a near 100% client sign up rate and knew that there was demand for this type of program, allowing it to dedicate additional time and resources to develop a more robust program. Today the JVS Bookkeeping Training Program is providing clients in the Bay Area with dependable and safe jobs.
“JVS had the incredible fortune to participate in Lean Impact workshops and coaching at a critical time, which has been transformative. It helped us to not only imagine a bigger vision for our work but also equipped us with the actual methodologies, practices, and mindsets we need to be able to innovate more quickly and adjust our work to achieve greater impact. The Lean Impact approach is both practical and understandable, but also affects deep change.” – Lisa Countryman, CEO, JVS
In traditional planning approaches it could take months or years to build a full workforce development program. By applying Spring Impact’s Lean Innovation, JVS’ Bookkeeping Training Program is making an impact for clients and small businesses in the Bay Area just weeks after conception.
JVS has had strong early indications of the program’s impact. JVS continues to run small experiments to ensure the program can deliver impact at scale, and plans to roll out further staff training to embed the principles of Lean Innovation across the organization.