Why ‘adapt’ is the new ‘nudge’ (and why that’s good for social entrepreneurs)

  Skininthegame I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and how they can spark off new ideas or generate new thinking on the way to and from work. My current fave is More Or Less, the Radio 4 programme about statistics, numbers, and how they relate to the news events of the day (often to politics and policy).  This covers everything from the real value of the national debt to the comparative effectiveness of different contraceptives. It’s more interesting (and entertaining) than it sounds, and  it is particularly useful to have that rational discipline and questioning mindset when, like me, you are giving a lot of thought to an organisation’s measurement and evaluation.

I mention all this because the main man of More Or Less is Tim Harford, also known as the FT’s Undercover Economist (incidentally, the book of that name is a great intro to economic thinking and gives useful insights into pricing, costing, markets and much else besides).  He has a book being launched later this year called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, and I’m looking forward to it to an almost indecent degree.

Why? Well, if you read my recent piece on how social entrepreneurs learn, or anything about SSE’s approach to learning, you’ll know that we are keen advocates of action learning or learning by doing. That the best learning comes from action, and that the most successful initiatives are not those with the perfect business plan, but those which learn from failures, mistakes and imperfections. That things get figured out on the frontline, not in back offices;  that it is not academic ‘experts’ who solve complex problems, but practitioners with experience; that solutions are often better generated from bottom-up action and adaptation than top-down planning and grand strategies.

Indeed, it is that flexibility, agility, and adaptability that is identifiable in the best social entrepreneur-led organisations around, explaining their ability to both continuously improve and innovate their product and service, and also their readiness to seize opportunities and utilise untapped resources. The blurb for Harford’s book resonates strongly with this, saying that ‘out’ go experts, plans and (top-down) leaders, and ‘in’ come adaptation, improvisation, failing and learning (and trying again). And it looks like he will apply that thinking to big problems (Iraq, global warming, terrorism) and ‘small’ ones equally (everyday decisions in life and business).

While ‘nudging’ focuses on influencing (and changing) behaviours, adapting is more fundamentally about encouraging action before planning, overcoming obstacles as they arise, changing approaches rapidly and, most of all, about shifting the culture of risk-aversity to one of risk-awareness and even risk-acceptance. And further accepting that there will be failures along the way.  It is an approach that makes most sense in a world in which contexts and circumstances shift rapidly, and in which the pace of society’s development (and life generally) seems to outpace the best-made plans of policymakers and theorists.

So 2010 might have been the year of ‘nudge’, but 2011 should be the year of ‘adapt’ (and the year after that….).

[NB – Some might then advocate for an ‘adapt’ unit at the heart of government, perhaps headed up by Tim Harford himself; but obviously that would be a top-down, strategic plan for adaptation with an expert at the centre…which wouldn’t really work at all :0) ]



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Unintended outcomes and impact measurement

Peoplewhocare I had the pleasure of visiting the SSE programme in Wigan and Leigh last week, to facilitate an ‘introduction to social impact measurement’ session with the students on the programme. I do love that experience of arriving in on a train to a place you’ve never been before, wandering down the road to a building, following the signs….and finding an SSE programme there just like the ones across the network.

I think the session went pretty well: great to meet the students and their projects at different stages, and help them think about the story that lies behind their work (aka ‘theory of change’), what tools and methodologies to think about using, and how much time and resources to commit to evaluation at this stage of their work. I like the process because on the one hand it challenges you to put numbers and objectives to the activity you are thinking of doing (and to what tangible difference you hope to make), and on the other it forces you to take your head out of the day-to-day of delivery and think about the broader context and overall story. Both timely and relevant activities for early-stage social entrepreneurs as they plan, work on communications, and set up systems and processes.

In the course of the couple of hours, before heading across to Liverpool SSE’s steering group meeting, we discussed ‘unintended outcomes’ as well: being open and alive to positive and negative effects that might not have been part of the original plan. They told me of a perfect example (which I’m reporting second-hand): how one Liverpool SSE student became Facebook friends with another one on the programme; via that network and a couple of conversations, he identified that this SSE student lived near his ex-partner and, as a result, close to his son…who he hadn’t seen for almost 18 years. He was able to get back in touch, and, in an appropriate tying up of loose ends, his son then attended his father’s SSE graduation.

Unintended indeed, but a great outcome. :0)

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Hopes and wishes for 2011 for civil society

Social Investment Business have done an interesting powerpoint which shares the views of various sector leaders' wishes for 2011. Including (Sir) Stephen Bubb, Matthew Taylor from RSA, Rod Schwartz from ClearlySo, Julie McEver from Local Partnerships…and more. Including, first up, our own CEO Alastair Wilson….enjoy.

[You might also be interested in Third Sector's Austerity Panel's advice for the year ahead.]

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How social entrepreneurs learn from experience, 24-7

Jackbauer In between celebrating Ashes victory (making having an Australian franchise even more enjoyable than normal) and watching Series 8 of 24 (Jack Bauer very much a leadership role model), I managed to write a quick article for the Guardian Social Enterprise Network on how social entrepreneurs learn, expanding on the old question of "are entrepreneurs born or made?". You can read the whole piece here: Look back after you've leapt: how social entrepreneurs learn from experience

The title refers to one section, where I was explaining how the old proverb "look before you leap" didn't quite apply to entrepreneurs….the process being more like:

"It's key that you leap….definitely leap….
….but why don't you hear from some other people who who have already leapt and see how they landed….
….and then you won't leap in that way that landed them in a puddle…
….then learn a bit more about where to choose to leap first…..
….then get inspired by (and encouragement from) people around you also leaping…
…then Leap – and then look back and see how that went…..
…and how you might leap differently next time….
…and then look for the next leap that's needed."

Not necessarily the snappiest bit of writing ever, but a fair approximation of what 'progress' looks like for a lot of those we support; and which underlies the way our programmes and our approach to learning is structured.

And also what we look for in applicants: is prone to action, takes risk + responsibility, demonstrates persistence and commitment, seizes opportunity, utilises resources, has a sense of vision / direction, clear about mission/objectives and so forth. Entrepreneurial characteristics and traits, indeed, many of which are embodied by Jack Bauer himself. Told you he was a role model… :0)

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2011: what does it hold for social entrepreneurs?

Rulesexperience Happy New Year all readers, followers, subscribers, SSE Fellows. It feels here at SSE that we haven't so much hit the ground running as landed with a thump on a treadmill at full pelt. Our social franchising programme enters its second block, our new specialist programme for right-to-request leaders starts in January, there's a new evaluation report on the way, and our main core London programmes graduate….as well as recruiting for the next cohorts! And the story is similar across the network: delivery, delivery, delivery.

So, sadly, little time to write a comprehensive post of what to expect in 2011, which will also be my (*gasps*) 6th year at SSE (hence the graph about experience above….). So with little time and cheating slightly, I'm going to point you to the Guardian's round-up of "What's going to be big for social enterprise in 2011?" which features my own contribution, but delightfully also that of current SSE student David Floyd, and esteemed SSE Fellows Paul Hodgkin and Jobeda Ali. You simply couldn't wish for better advice and thoughts to prepare you for the year ahead….

My brief bit reads as follows:

"2011 is going to be a tough one for many because of the combination of spending cuts, unemployment, and lingering economic depression, and it will be no different for social enterprise. There will be opportunities that come from delivering the big society vision and making it tangible, and the challenge will be to remain resilient and to be, if not an optimist then at least a 'possibilist'.

For all social entrepreneurs, the recipe for the year is QED: Q for quality, as organisations must prove their impact and improve their performance; E for enterprise, as earning income and seizing opportunities becomes crucial (the phrase "get over it, you're in sales" could be useful here); and D for delivery, because rhetoric and hyperbole aren't the cornerstones of a sustainable business with a credible track record.

So keep the antennae up, the radar on and the networks live: there are opportunities out there, and your best bet for 2011 is among them"

As a couple of the contributors to the article pointed out, the key will be deciding what is a real opportunity and what is a 'poisoned chalice' being offloaded onto an unsuspecting, well-meaning individual or organisation….we'll see what the landscape looks like at the end of the year, and who's made the right decisions in the short-term in order to keep fulfilling their mission in the long-term.

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