Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations
Poster Hanging @ Menlo Innovations

Scale (“go big”) and success (“think ‘win’”) dominate the focus of many leaders and organizations. Understandably so, as each individual and organization are measured by tangible results. When I look at work that has a lasting impact and is much more sustainable, however, I find that “going big” and being successful weren’t the center of attention.

Recently, I had a few insights shared with me that I thought you might like as well:

Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, was explaining to me how design thinking has played a role in the way an organization operates and develops new ways to produce value for customers. As he was counseling me on where to begin such a journey, he advised me, “Mike, start small. And try not to make the first prototype, your first attempt, too precious.”

Those words connected me to a conversation I had with my brother Tom Brennan of the Green Garage — a business enterprise and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future. He said to me, “Mike, it is far better to fail early and often than to fail late. Failing late is rarely good. And remember, small is big.”

When designing for success, creating room to test an idea or concept is far better than jumping right to a wholesale solution.  For example, our first attempt to improve early reading habits of parents with newborns didn’t fair well.  The design of the program was too costly and difficult to manage.  In the end, we had to close it down in order to re-design our approach.

We applied those early painful learnings to help us shape a new early childhood pilot with the Detroit Medical Center that links moms with resources in the community such as literacy development and parenting skills  to ensure short and long term success for the child.   We have learned already from this early pilot how to improve our approach and to strengthen the long term relationship with the parent(s).  For example, it is far better for the mom if we follow up with her 30 – 45 days after the leaving the hospital than 14 days or 90 days.  These insights give us an ability to alter the design to ensure success.  To see more about this innovative program, click below.

These insights on the power of small and failing early made me think of how new and long established organizations have embarked on creative paths to solving problems and imagining a different future.

In a recent article in Fast Company, small start ups throughout Detroit are described as central to the rebuilding of Detroit.  New frontiers are often started with small beginnings.  The New York Times article describes Dan Gilbert and his early beginning — small in scale — that ultimately led to a much larger vision and capacity of transforming Detroit into one of the best places to live and work.

I think the next time we talk about going to scale and delivering success, we need to think about how we can start small, fail early and not make our beginning too precious.  From that we will ultimately experience big wins and lasting impact.

Other Blog Posts on Social Impact Design:

Social Impact Design: A New Way

Social Impact Design: Design Thinking

Design + Social Impact: Why They Belong Together?

Job #1 : Design For Joy

Now, Near and Far: Tri-Zone Leaders

What do you think?

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