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Demystifying Rapid Innovation with Steve Ma

For the Future Forward Innovation Challenge, we were thrilled to bring together a stellar group of innovative folks from diverse backgrounds, including Steve Ma of Accelerate Change. I caught up with Steve earlier this month to talk about his experience at the workshop.

AW: You’ve been a changemaker for two-plus decades—founded Live Green, a social enterprise focused on building a thriving green economy. You’ve held senior positions at AARP, worked to pass environmental, good government, and health policies, and you’re currently serving on the Sierra Club Board of Directors. At Accelerate Change, you help organizations build people power and resources needed to create lasting change at scale. But in your own words, could you describe yourself in three sentences?

SM: Well, I am passionate about social change and I’m committed to building large scale change that’s sustainable and ultimately shifts the balance of power towards the public. And I’m driven and guided by this deep profound love for people, for the planet, for communities, for animals. It’s what keeps me going.

AW: That’s beautiful. Can you say a little about why you came to the Future Forward Innovation workshop?

SM: I guess I love the question you’re trying to answer, which is, “How can we help Forward Together specifically and the social justice movement at large become more sustainable, achieve their goals in a more effective way?” It is a real challenge. If we keep doing things the same way we’ve been doing them, I think we’ll get the same results—which is not all terrible: The model that we’ve been going off of has led to success and victories and incremental change.

“I see a massive concentration of power in the hands of very, very few. I see injustice continuing and expanding in certain places. Thinking through how we can create a better system and make social change more financially sustainable is a question that really lights my fire.”

But at the same time, when you step back and you look at the big picture, I see a massive concentration of power in the hands of very, very few. I see injustice continuing and expanding in certain places. Thinking through how we can create a better system and make social change more financially sustainable is a question that really lights my fire. It’s something I work on all the time, so I was happy to be a part of that workshop.

AW: Your contribution was critical. What did you consciously bring to the workshop?

SM: I have my own perspective working in grassroots movements, and also working at AARP where they have a hybrid model: they’ve got a policy-focused (c)(4) non-profit and a for-profit social enterprise that feeds that non-profit. Ever since working at AARP I’ve thought there’s no reason why this model has to just be for seniors; it can apply to so many different social justice organizations. And now, my job is to help non-profits build social enterprises so that they can scale up like AARP did.

I always try to bring my full self and build on my experience in doing this work. Although the work is innovative and new in some ways, there are models that we can draw from, and I’ve been blessed with some relevant experience… so to the extent that I could add some insights, I did my best to share them at this workshop.

AW: And what did you get out of it?

SM: I have never been a part of a thing quite like that, where funders and organizational leaders and outside folks came together to try to tackle a really interesting problem and were very open to the solutions. Seeing that modeled was fascinating. And I’m always interested in the perspectives of people who are doing similar work but in a different space.

“I have never been a part of a thing quite like that, where funders and organizational leaders and outside folks came together to try to tackle a really interesting problem and were very open to the solutions.”

AW: What are your hopes for the project going forward, for the experiments?

SM: In general, I am very hopeful that the traditional way of solving big intractable problems is going to be reinvented. I’ve seen this graying between the for-profit and non-profit worlds and it’s exciting… we might come up with something in between or something on a totally different plane. More and more folks are starting to explore in this space. So my hope is that we find better ways to do social change on a larger scale way… to shift the balance of power toward everyday public and toward social justice.

Specifically for Forward Together, I hope that we help them answer the question, “How can Forward Together be resourced sustainably, with autonomy, with independence, so they can create solutions toward their agenda in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re limited by foundations as their only funding source.”

AW: How do you want to be involved going forward?

SM: I’m definitely willing to offer advice, support, and guidance. Maybe there’s a way to work in a formal way with Accelerate Change. We’re working with a group called Parents Together, which is a relatively new organization that is working to become a large, membership-based progressive voice for families. In some ways, you could argue that they’re competing with Forward Together but I don’t like to think of this type of overlap as “competition.” In the social sector, I like to think of all of us as collaborators. So there maybe potential in making some connections with Forward Together and Parents Together. And if there’s another workshop, I’m very open to attending and offering whatever kind of support I can.

“We should be asking, ‘How can we serve people in the ways that they want to be supported?’ And the only way to do that is to listen to them….If we’re really paying attention and asking the right questions, they’ll tell us.”

AW: What advice do you have for the experimenters right now?

SM: Well, one big piece that I felt was missing from the workshop was having the constituents in the room. So my advice is to make sure that we’re constantly talking to the people we hope to serve and getting their feedback and input as soon as possible. Our philosophy is to not get stuck on trying to make the perfect idea but to come up with ideas, with your constituents in mind—oftentimes with your constituents in the room—and then getting the ideas out in front of them for feedback and really deep listening. Because I think for us to be successful, we should be asking, “How can we serve people in the ways that they want to be supported?” And the only way to do that is to listen to them and understand what their needs and wants are, and where they want help and support. If we’re really paying attention and asking the right questions, they’ll tell us.

There are other ideas which include trying to speed up the experimental process, being open and free to be creative and not stuck in a particular way. That’s definitely the advice that I would give to funders, too, which is to give Forward Together the space to test, ask some questions, and just try some things out. It’s also important to embrace that innovator/experimenter mindset where we feel like we have the space and the freedom to experiment a little bit and try things that we haven’t done, because that’s ultimately the only way that we’re going to change dramatically —  to do things we haven’t done before or do them in a very different way.

AW: Your method emphasizes the centrality of empathy from design thinking approaches, while applying Lean principles of speed and iteration.

SM: Yeah, and I think that’s exactly right. There’s great value in the design thinking process but you can get stuck there trying to make it perfect. Adding that Lean approach which speeds up that process, allows you to make some mistakes, and then iterate on the learnings, helps a lot. It feels like Ev and the Forward Together team are embracing that, but I also could sense some trepidation around the process and the language we use. It might seem scary.

A video clip of our Skype call.

So I hope to demystify some of the stuff that we’re talking about. Nothing that we were talking about are things that they haven’t done before, which is to: talk to their people and listen well and try things out… and if it doesn’t work, make changes to it. It’s really just taking advantage of the skills that they already have, but trying to put some framework around it that helps them experiment and learn. For example, we did that survey [during the workshop] and there was only nine respondents. I looked at it and there were really interesting insights. And then people just said, “Well, what do we do now?”

AW: Right, exactly. Now what?

SM: Being able to take feedback and input and then think through, “Well, how can we change the solution and then how can we run an experiment to test it?” So the way my brain works, I think of hypotheses or assumptions or tests, and then I go and run those tests and I get data and I see if my ideas are validated or invalidated. And if they were invalidated, then we try again. If they’re validated or there’s some in between stage, we try to think of some iterations and changes and improve. But this is just as much of an art than a science. You can look at the data and try to make the right decisions, but you also have to be creative and thoughtful.

AW: Just to talk about specifics, for that survey, we only got nine responses. Normally for your experiments, how many responses do you try to get that feels like you’re actually learning something significant?

SM: It’s not that much more. If you can get 50, 100, it’s really good. When you’re talking about a specific niche population and you want good data, you might need to interview a whole lot of extra people to get those 50 respondents that are just the right population. When you talk about scientifically valid opinion surveys, you oftentimes need 1,000. But we’re not trying to get necessarily perfect information as to where people stand on a particular issue. We’re trying to get insights as to what might be interesting to certain people and again, instead of making the idea perfect, it’s really just getting that feedback, listening to the feedback and then making iterations, so even nine people starts giving me insights.

“I have ideas all the time and I think I’m pretty insightful, but I am wrong so often. And it’s only when I go out and talk to even five people, I start realizing, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. You think of that this way, and I thought it was this way.'”

I have ideas all the time and I think I’m pretty insightful, but I am wrong so often. And it’s only when I go out and talk to even five people, I start realizing, “Oh, that’s interesting. You think of that this way, and I thought it was this way.” So sometimes nine is even helpful. If we have an idea that I think is pretty good, and literally nine people in a row say, “I’m not interested. I don’t like it,” and give me insights that I didn’t think about, that’s already helpful. It’s like I said, one of the critical things is just going out there and talking to your constituents. And I wouldn’t be intimidated by the number of respondents we need to have before we move forward. Because the alternative is just sitting in a room and debating it amongst ourselves.

AW: What questions do you have for us?

SM: I’m interested in the next steps. I’ve been following a little bit along on some of the emails and looking at the blogs. It looks like the funders’ table [Turning the Tables] is the idea that’s moving forward. I would hope that it leads to an experimentation fund or something that then leads to other experiments and it keeps going. So I’m interested in where you see the trajectory and what are the next steps?

AW: It’s hard to know, right? What you’re describing is my hope as well, that this is just the beginning of an ongoing experimentation practice for Forward Together. So we’re trying to build some simple persistent structures to support that, such as the Experiment Dashboard. For what we hope to be an ongoing practice, it feels especially important to create lightweight structures that enable folks to step in and out of the process gracefully. The purpose of the dashboard is to show what’s alive, so interested folks can find out more or participate, as well as learn from what has happened. For example, you said you believe the funders’ table was the idea moving forward. With the dashboard, you’d be able to see that, in fact, several ideas are being explored, and how to get involved if you had the time and interest, or just follow the progress.

SM: Yeah, that’s right. I’m interested in the shape of the dashboard experiment tool. We use pretty simple things like Google Docs, and one of the spreadsheets we use has basic columns that make it easy for us think through our ideas and test them. We start by writing down an idea. Then we list a bunch of hypotheses about that idea. Then we describe the three tests we’re going to run to test those hypotheses. Then we describe what we think success is. And then we actually run the test, and we write down the results of those tests. It’s simple but it helps us make our decisions based on the data.

AW: Yes! simplicity principle for iterative, rapid innovation. Thank you for chatting with me!


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