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Oh DEAR – Why Experimentation is Key to Social Innovation

In preparing for a presentation at a collective impact forum in Oklahoma, I was trying to decide what I could share with a room full of social innovators that they wouldn’t already know. After seeing the line-up –including foundations, collective impact initiatives, community and political leaders – it was clear these were people with tremendous knowledge and experience. I suspect, though, we all have at least one thing in common: at some point along the way, we’ve all been involved in social change initiatives that didn’t change the world.

How many of us have participated in big comprehensive planning efforts, then went about implementing the plan and had little success, found more barriers then opportunities, gradually lost momentum and funding, and finally gave up?

What I realized is that I could share is something we all know, even if only intuitively. These comprehensive approaches aren’t how we cause meaningful change – not in this messy, complex world we live in today.

So what’s the alternative? It’s something we all do naturally and have done since we were little kids trying to understand the world around us. Experimentation. Testing. Taking small risks instead of big ones. To try to do good just a little bit better each time.

With this in mind, I decided to talk at today’s convening about a simple way of moving from “oh dear, that didn’t work” to “yes, we can do it (one little piece at a time)”. Let’s call it the DEAR framework for social innovation:

  • DEAR ModelDiscover: Explore where you are now, where you want to go, how you might get there. Use tools like theories of change and roadmaps and develop them quickly, in two or three meetings, not a year of deep thinking. Draw on needs assessments, existing data, community focus groups and more. Do it all in three months!
  • Experiment: Experiment with small changes you can cause along the way (sprints instead of marathons). Maybe try out a shift in how collaborative partners make decisions about when and how to deploy their services.  Or try out a small public private partnership to see if a market-based model can achieve social change. Know the outcome you’re trying to achieve with your experiment.
  • Assess: Take time to learn about what’s working. Are you moving the needle against that long-term aim? Use evaluation (but only if it’s quick!), rapid collection of data and intuitive learning to figure out what is working and what isn’t.
  • Replicate: Scale what’s working by trying it in similar settings, with different people, or just doing it more often. Keep discovering, experimenting and assessing around the areas where you haven’t found something that works.

These four steps came from reflecting on how some of the most exciting, successful social change strategies I’ve seen have actually functioned. They had big visions, but small actions. They had massive problems to solve, but took little steps along the way. They gave up on believing they could plan the road ahead and instead decide to walk it.

So, let’s try the DEAR model of social change as part of whatever collaborative, visionary work we’re already doing. Let’s discover, experiment, assess, replicate, and then share what we learn.

Oh dear, imagine the potential of what we can all do together if we just start small!