Lean Startup + Social Impact = Lean Social

A new way of working in the Third Sector

In austere financial times there is more need than ever for smart solutions to social problems. 

Media for Development specialises in helping the third sector find media/digital solutions to social problems.  Some of what we offer is tried and tested, but much of our work is about finding a new way of tackling a problem, often using cutting edge technologies.

In a traditional delivery model, you know what works and the challenges are about good planning and tight project management.  Innovation requires both of these, but deployed in a different way.  The start is good customer insight and a hypothesis about how to improve a situation that you want to test.  You then need an effective methodology to test, measure results and adapt until you come up with the correct solution.

Learning and experience about how to do this has been growing over the last few years in the world of digital start-ups and has been brought to popular attention through ‘The Lean Startup‘, a book by Eric Ries that’s become a global movement.


The Lean Startup: build; measure; learn.

With any new product or innovative way of delivering a service, there is a high degree of uncertainty.  At the initial research stage methods such as focus groups don’t work as people’s intentions (‘yes I’d use xxx’) rarely match observed behaviour.   And so you risk putting an expertly worked plan in place to deliver something on time and within budget which you then find no-one wants or which doesn’t have the outcomes you hoped for.

‘The Lean Startup’ outlines a rigorous approach designed to avoid these expensive failures.  It allows organisations and funders the adaptability to focus on delivering the desired outcomes and making the necessary pivots to achieve this.  It also builds in stages where it is in the end possible to walk away from a project if the evaluation metrics show that it simply cannot deliver what was intended.

The key elements of this approach are:

  • An initial phase of action research to test your hypothesis about what the need is that you’re trying to meet.
  • Once you have some clear insights to start with, you build the simplest possible product.  In the lean start-up jargon, this is called the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).  It won’t have all the features that you envisage the final product will have, but it will be something that you can give to consumers and get them to start using.
  • You then enter into a build – measure – learn cycle.  Using clear metrics you get information back about the use of your MVP, adapt it to respond to what you’ve learned, test it again, and so on.  The success of many start-ups comes from their ability to make this cycle as short and intense as possible.
  • This feedback will mean that many ideas have at some stage to make a fundamental pivot.  After all, it’s the outcome that’s important.  You discover that something that you thought was essential actually doesn’t matter to the consumers at all and that what they really want and need is something you hadn’t even considered.  The lean start-up approach allows for this agility and flexibility, so long as it is focused on delivering something that works for the consumer.  Success is judged on outcomes rather than outputs.


 Lean Social

This approach has particular relevance to Media for Development as a company dedicated to innovation.  However, we believe it can be useful across the sector and that it could also provide a framework to help funders support innovation.

Thanks to funding and support from the Esmée Fairbairn, Media for Development will take the principles of ‘The Lean Startup’ and test them in the Third Sector. These principles will act as a starting point but we expect that they will need to be adapted to provide the best fit with each project we work on. We will apply them to our own work over the next twelve months, sharing our learning as we go. If the principles prove to be of use then we will help other organisations to make use of them too.

This is our ‘Lean Social’ mission, we hope you’ll join us.


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