The Competition Conundrum

Read this post on United Prosperity this morning. It reminded me of Nathaniel Whitmore’s self-proclaimed snarkiness on Twitter a few weeks back at the announcement of “yet another” web-based social change content aggregator. I reacted:

This looks sadly like a manifestation of one of the downfalls of our current philanthropic system. Why, when a project like Kiva already exists, has crossed numerous startup hurdles, and is well on their way to actually making it in to the mainstream, would someone choose to create a competing organization with no significant competitive advantage (that will spend money on redundant overhead, not to mention having to learn many of the lessons already learned by their predecessor) instead of throwing their energy, passion, and whatever innovating ideas they have behind the existing successful project!? It’s hard to see that as anything other than ego getting in the way of the best interests of the cause.

It was an honest question. Still is. But it’s got me wondering something else.

Does everyone who’s thrown themselves behind an idea develop a competitive advantage blind-spot?

Some days I think I have. Someone sends me a link to a site I’ve looked at dozens of times and I can fire off a response email with half a dozen points of differentiation without even looking at the screen. I even find myself getting impatient when others don’t seem to see how clearly different the Tipping Bucket is from this other site they’ve come across.

When it comes to assessing the “competitive landscape,” I’ve pretty much stopped listening.

I’ve spent so much time analyzing, evaluating, classifying and subdividing the players in this space…I’m so familiar with the subtleties of distinction and overlap, that I hardly listen when some well-meaning associate starts a sentence with “Oh, it’s like…”

Thing is, it’s those perspectives that really matter. These cursory, uniformed, unsophisticated perceptions shape the market, and social entrepreneurs (myself included) would do well to pay attention to them.

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Becoming an Agnostic

Question from an application I recently completed: “[fantastic mentoring organization] attracts leaders from a wide range of fields: traditional non-profit, social entrepreneurship, traditional for-profit, public service, and academia. What sector do you most closely associate yourself with?”

This question comes up a lot–in my opinion, more than it should.

I have started describing myself as “sector agnostic,” a term I first heard in a presentation by David Bornstein. It’s not merely a matter of semantics, either. For years, we’ve talked about and worked to move past the “silo-ing” that wastes resources, squelches collaboration, and limits the impact of all kinds of organizations–businesses, non-profits, agencies, and departments alike.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths any social entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) can offer is an ability and commitment to “associate closely” with ALL these sectors; to take lessons, adapt best practices, seek inspiration and integrate principles from each of these traditionally segregated arenas to get beyond the semantics and the status quo and focus on solutions.

So what does that look like? How do you recognize a sector agnostic?

I think there are some subtle cues: Their circle of friends and mentors is wide and varied…so is the magazine selection on their coffee table. The examples and stories they bring up in conversation come from everywhere and nowhere, yet they always end up relevant. You might even find yourself stumbling as you describe their work; “well, technically…” But they never seem to.  In fact, you seldom hear them using neat conceptual handles at all. Labels just don’t stick with them. All they seem to think and talk about is what works.

The world looks pretty different as a  sector agnostic. And I like it.

Are You a Platypus?

A few thoughts on David Wiley’s ESR conference keynote, in which he described FlatWorld Knowledge as “a bit of a platypus” in the market.

Think about it: A venemous duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed egg-laying mammal really shouldn’t exist. It’s no wonder that the european naturalists who first discovered the thing at first thought it was some kind of elaborate practical joke.

But the platypus does exist, last surviving member of its genus, and the remarkably well-adapted anchor of the Australian wetlands.

The point is this: Many of the most disruptive social innovations of all time have been playpuses–unexpected, even illogical ideas that reasonably shouldn’t exist. Like banks for people with literally nothing to put in them. Or peasant farmers who give eye exams. Or college textbooks you give away for free.

Each of these organizations, and many who will yet change the face of social entrepreneurship have adapted like the platypus–in some ways to better function in their environments (with webbed feet and self-sealing nostrils) and some in ways that help them shape that environment (like the beaver tail, or even the venom.)

One might argue that you have to be a platypus to make in the space.

But this much is sure. Any platypus out there can relate to the classic Ghandi quote that for me was the crux of David’s talk: “First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Long live the platypus.

What’s Your ‘Gateway Drug’?

We owe much of the perennial growth of the drug market to a collection of substances known as ‘gateway drugs’— relatively quick, harmless highs that open the door for progressively stronger, more expensive drugs. But perhaps social enterprise can help turn this insidiously successful tactic to more productive ends…

Like junkies, successful change agents fixate on their cause. They crave it, sacrifice for it, and are willing to expend ever greater effort, against ever greater odds, to move it forward. Leaping headlong into that life would leave just about anyone exhausted, overwhelmed and cynical.  That’s where the ‘gateway drug’ comes in.

For example, a recent survey from DigiActive suggests that online activists often come into that community through other, more run-of-the-mill social networks. Social networks are a gateway drug for online activism. Once you’ve learned the norms, mastered the tools, and made the connections in facebook, creating online petitions or leading a discussion board comes pretty naturally.

The same could be said of disaster relief drives that cultivate life-long volunteers, the flickr comment that inspires an amateur photographer to start booking portrait sessions, or the sporadic blogger who ends up spearheading a massive social media campaign.

Metaphorically speaking, every cause needs addicts, junkies, even dealers. What current utilities, networks, or platforms could be the key to ‘hooking’ your next evangelist?

The Social Entrepreneurship Peloton

35 miles into a 60-mile ride this week, clipping along (I thought) at a respectable 18mph, I was passed by a group of 5 other cyclists. At their invitation, and with surprisingly little extra effort, I joined the back of their group and was thrilled a moment later to see I was pushing 25mph. I rode with the peloton for 20 miles, keeping 20+ mph through a stiff headwind. When I wore out and fell back, I could barely pull my own weight through that wind at 14 mph.

Heaven knows I’m not the first to use this analogy, but the experience was so compelling I had to put it out there.

Pelotons exist at this strange and wonderful intersection of competition and collaboration. The riders are still individuals, still driven to be the best, to push themselves. Each one wants to win. In order to win, you must ride fast, and you must ride fast until the end of the race. And regardless of her individual abilities, even if she could beat every other rider in the group in a one-on-one race, each rider knows she will be faster riding with the peloton.

As Seth Godin and Sean Stannard-Stockton both reiterated this week, the problems we’re working to solve are enormous, intense and insistent. They demand speed, stamina, and collaboration. They demand we ride as a peloton.

The good news is that social media has made it easier than ever to find (or build) a peloton. I first ride with my personal peloton; the team of partners, volunteers and mentors whose strengths complement mine, and who simultaneously push and support me. Then I join the larger pelotons of my sector, my region or my mission and find myself, with just a little extra effort, moving faster, stronger, and more efficiently than I thought possible. When the time is right, I’ll take my turn to “pull,” leading out into some new risk, some unproven model, facing some new opposition and immensely grateful to have my ‘competitors’ still riding behind me.

A New Prescription for Innovator Growing Pains?

Aaron Sklar’s exposition on the potentially analgesic effects of integrated evaluation really got me thinking. He points out that innovation is by nature uncomfortable, and suggests carefully-defined and continually re-defined meaningful metrics can play a role in easing that discomfort by clarifying the”end” to keep in mind.

Perhaps there’s even more to it than that:

So often in life, discomfort is the result of poorly managed expectations: It’s the classic “this won’t hurt a bit” you hear from the well-meaning nurse as she jabs a 4″ needle into your hip, the regularly-spaced reassurances of how important your call is while you wait interminably on hold, the gut-wrenching panic when you try on “your size” at a new boutique only to discover you can’t even button the trousers.

In addition to, or perhaps as a result of providing structure in a new (ad)venture, integrated, authentic, continual evaluation creates a different set of expectations in an organization. We expect to discover things that don’t work, we expect middle-of-the-ride course corrections (and the accompanying jolts), we expect transparency and honest critique, and we expect iteration.

It’s amazing the levels of “discomfort” we can adapt to if we expect it, and the performance we have the capacity to achieve through it is even more exciting.

The Trouble with Stakes

Last evening, during the President’s health-care speech, I found myself frustrated. Why can’t someone just talk to me straight!? Why can’t anyone simply compare the perspectives, analyze the arguments, and explore the implications free from rhetoric, empassioned mantras, scare tactics, and tear-jerking stories. Why can’t we have some kind of genuinely objective perspective?

The answer’s pretty simple: the genuinely objective observers don’t CARE enough to do the careful analysis.

The people who care, the ones who invest time and energy and resources, are the one who have something on the line. They have a stake.

The connection from there was at once natural and surprising. So often in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship worlds, we extoll the virtues of (and even decry the absence of) objective, third-party impact assessments and evaluations. We proclaim (often quite correctly) that it is impossible for those at the heart of a venture, doing the day-to-day work, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their programs to accurately assess their own impact and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, with these stakeholders (and any stakeholder) is that they CARE.

Essentially, we’re saying that in order to provide a reliable assessment, you must not be a stakeholder in the venture. You must not care.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a hyperbole. But it seems worth looking at. If what we want from non-profit and social entrepreneurship evaluation is thorough exploration, careful analysis and strategic recommendations, can we truly rely on evaluators without a stake?