With the autumnal equinox rapidly approaching, I wanted to take a moment to pause and reflect on our progress over here at Future Forward through a busy summer! Believe it or not, we’ve already made it about two thirds of the way through our experiment phase of this work, and have almost completed two cycles on two different innovation ideas.
We created this experiment dashboard to help anyone interested in this work track our progress, and we invite you to take a quick glance to get a sense of where we are. While it cannot be a comprehensive, detailed overview of everything that’s happened, it’s intended to help outsiders sense what is moving as well as who and how to reach out for deeper engagement. In case, like me, you’ve had a full summer, here’s quick roadmap refresher on where we are in the process.
We started Future Forward with a core group of committed funders and Forward Together staff affectionately called “the brain trust.” In preparation for this innovation challenge, we did a three-month program together called muscles and mindsets to help stretch our innovation and experimentation muscles.
Along the way we were identifying and inviting various entrepreneurs, funders, and doers (perhaps some of you!) to our innovation challenge kick-off, where over the course of two days we explored our core challenge together and identified ways Forward Together may be able to shift its existing funding paradigm.
After a successful Innovation Challenge Kick-off, we spent the month of June processing the fantastic ideas generated and transitioning to the experiment phase of this project where Forward Together and a smaller group of invested funders and stakeholders picked ideas they had passion around and have been pushing them forward using rapid experimentation techniques. Our roadmap through this experiment phase was to take at least one idea through three, rapid-experimentation cycles to try and quickly build up our learning, through action, about what it would take for these ideas to help move the strong families network towards more financial sustainability and autonomy. Ultimately, as you can see in our dashboard, we wound up with two volunteer teams moving forward with two different ideas, and have almost completed two cycles on both ideas.
Where are we now
Rather than give a full update on the intricacies of each experiment, I wanted to start by checking back in with the goals we set way back in February when we first conceived this work. Below I’ve shared these goals, how we wanted to measure success, and how I see us progressing so far.
(For reference, full goals spectrum available here.)
Goal1: Explore and experiment with bolder ideas to resource and support Forward Together at a deeper, more strategic level. Measures of success we identified for this goal included actionable ideas for testing different types of revenue streams, stronger and new relationships to help Forward Together identify more diverse revenue streams, the resources needed to test ideas, and a plan for generating 10 – 25% of Forward Together’s revenue from diverse sources.
At A Glance, How are we doing? While we are nowhere near our epic goal of generating 10-25% of Forward Together’s revenue from diverse sources, we have two actionable ideas in the works that we believe could start to push that direction. And, more importantly, the brain trust has really emerged as a core group dedicated to pushing one of these ideas (the funder’s table) alongside forward together. All that said, I think we’d all agree we’re a long ways off from having identified 10-15% new revenue streams. This feels like the beginning of a long road, and while there’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion around the two core ideas we’re working on, I don’t think we’re close to proof that these ideas can turn 10-15% revenue for Forward Together. At least not quite yet.
Goal 2: Identify and develop the muscles and mindsets needed for social justice leaders and their partners to be more collaborative, innovative, and effective. Target measures of success for this included stronger, deeper relationships among the core group, and that we accept mistakes as part of the learning cycle and adapt accordingly.
At A Glance, How are we doing? A quick perusal of our dashboard will show you multiple mistakes. In our first test of the Funder’s Table idea, we realized a foundational assumption around the value of the table was wrong and had to pivot to new framing right away. On the leadership development product idea, our first attempt at gathering customer feedback from a prototype agenda was a total flop: our return rate on participation was too embarrassing to type here. This is a long way of saying I’ve been really impressed with how clearly this group has embraced “failure” and “mistakes” as part of the learning cycle. Each of those failures helped reveal important, more accurate assumptions about our work. We’ve also recently come to see how working together through this process has improved our relationships and the ability to give critical feedback amongst our core group.
I think where what still remains hard, where we still need lots of practice, is figuring out how to scope these big, complex challenges and ideas into discrete, testable MVPs; this can feel like such a different way of working, that three tests has not been nearly enough to build up these muscles. Additionally, we’ve struggled to really find a rhythm through this experimentation phase (the realities of summer schedules being one of a few culprits on that front), rhythm that would have been so helpful for helping to build these muscles around a different way of working.
Goal 3: Share the story of this process in real-time so that others may benefit from what we learn. Our target success here is that the story of this process is both publicly available, and serves as a model for other nonprofits and foundations to try similar experimentation around this tough challenge we’re all facing.
At A Glance, How are we doing? Our fantastic storyteller, Amy Wu, has dedicated a lot of resources during this experiment phase to constructing a dashboard that can help people track our experiment progress, and she’s been interviewing participants from our innovation challenge to glean more, actionable, shareable lessons around how to use rapid experimentation techniques to make progress on this sticky resourcing issue we’re all grappling with. As this may reveal, our bias as conveners has been towards a belief that the most important part of this story is not the content of the various ideas we’re pursuing, but instead the process of breaking down complex challenges into bite-sized pieces, taking the time to get clear on our intentions and our hypothesis of how to solve this problem, and doing mini, rapid learning sprints where we advance our understanding of the hypothesis, the challenge, and our potential solution all at once.
I think where we’ve particularly fallen down is continuing to engage outsiders in the dashboard, both through our Facebook group and other challenges, and adding additional context to the dashboard data to help it make sense, such as through blog posts like this one! This shows that it can be hard to tell a story while you’re in it, not knowing how it’s going to end. But we still remain committed to working transparently and sharing along the way because we’ve found through experience that asking others to weigh in our journey mid-process can have outsized benefits for making our ideas and our experiments better. So thank you for being patient with us as we continue to improve our ability to leave trails and share nuggets of progress as we go.
I’m guessing if you’ve made it so far, you’re still wondering: what are the ideas?! Have you really made any progress on this revenue challenging we all signed on to learn more about? And if you’re almost through, what’s next? How are you going to wrap this up and hit these epic goals? That, my friends, is coming in a blog update at the end of this week. Because it wouldn’t be a story without a little suspense, now would it? Stay tuned.