You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless. -Charles deGaulle

Think like an entrepreneur
When thinking big picture about how to plan for community system change, collaborations should consider planning “lean.” Used in the business world and in international development, the Illinois Early Childhood Innovation Zones adapted methods from the Lean Startup to create a powerful way for collaborations to be innovative when faced with a complex challenge. This approach encourages entrepreneurial thinking to help build impactful solutions for systems change on a shoestring budget.

No failure, only learning
The Lean Startup approach uses a simple scientific method: first collect and analyze data using a discovery process to form a hypothesis about a defined problem. Next, “get outside the building” and go into the community to engage diverse perspectives. This will help you learn more about the users of the early childhood system want. This will also help you better understand the root problem that needs a matching solution.

Building out a canvas to design a plan of action is the next step. This canvas names resources, stakeholders, activities. In the nonprofit world, this looks like a combined logic model and work plan. The idea is to “go slow to go far.” Think about the value-add of your solution to the families you hope to help. Does it make sense to them?

You do not have to perfect the idea first. You can be safe with uncertainty and pursue imperfect ideas without knowing all the answers. You action learn by testing in small, iterative cycles and collecting data as you go. Data helps to inform what is working and what is not working. This approach allows you to check your progress before investing more time or resources to the project. The Lean Startup approach gets you out the door and ready to implement and learn in a much shorter cycle.

This “lean” process allows collaborations to take risks to try new things. You evaluate progress at regular intervals and ask such questions as: Is the activity producing the outcome we hoped? Did the strategy work? Are we getting closer to the desired outcome? What do we need to modify? Should we shift gears (pivot) or stay the course (persevere)? There is no failure with this approach, only learning.

Systems change in a changing world
About 70 percent of startups fail, as do many well-intended programs. It can be immensely disappointing to invest a time and effort into a project…then watch it miss the mark. Rather than plan and launch a big, costly project with an uncertain element of success, your collaboration works in small batches to plan, test and improve lean versions of your strategy.

The lean approach challenges the idea of a 10-year strategic plan. Our world is dynamic, and is especially so for vulnerable families and communities. By the time you gather stakeholders and collect data, research, develop and agree to assumptions for a strategic plan, the world has already changed. The lean approach creates opportunities to learn as you go; to not know everything upfront. It allows you to make assumptions, work in the community, learn and adapt.

International development favors this model as it allows for many ideas to be tested and improved upon in short cycles. Rather than investing all resources to one idea, the lean approach allows systems issues to reveal themselves. The project can adapt and address the new issues that were not apparent when first launched.

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