The 5 Things to Get Right in Social Innovation

To make your social innovation succeed, you need to get these right:

  1. Value
  2. Viability
  3. Impact
  4. Scalability
  5. Feasibility

The catch: I believe you need to figure them all out pretty much at the same time. If you leave one or more out, thinking: “I will figure that out later.”, you are probably heading for trouble.

And you should figure them out incrementally, learning while you go, as each one “interacts” with the other ones, in unpredictable ways. The good thing is that there are plenty of methods and tools to support you in this incremental learning process: Lean Start-up, Lean Impact, Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design, to name the most prominent ones.

The following figure shows the 5 things to get right in Social Innovation, the overlapping ovals and rounded arrows underline the interactive and incremental nature:

Following a brief explanation of each aspect.

Value: is there demand?

You should start with value: your solution/product should solve an actual problem of actual people. It should fulfill a need or at least a want. They should stand in a metaphorical “line in front of your store” to get it.

Illustrating by example: think of Apple fans who literally stand in front of the stores in line, even sleep there the night before, to be the first to get their hands on a new product.

Another famous example is the mobile phone or smartphone: see how fast and wide this product has ‘penetrated’ every part of the world, even those people who struggle to keep themselves and their family fed, want – and have – one.

Viable: is it financially sustainable?

To make your innovation work and to make it have the impact that you want, probably takes a lot of time and energy. If it was easy and trivial, it would already have been done, right? And you probably cannot do it all by yourself, you need help. Especially if you want to make the most of it and let the maximum amount of people benefit from your great innovation.

So, you need money. And not a one-time project grant to ‘make the solution’, but continuing money to keep doing what you are doing. Maybe you can work for free, but if you need help, most people cannot. They need to pay their groceries, their rent, etc. So if you want your initiative to go beyond a hobby, from spending “some hours per week” to “some days per week”, you need hard cash.

How to get a sustainable stream of money? By figuring out your ‘business model’. Yes, often a dirty word in NGOs and social initiatives, and therefore even avoided, but you need to get to it. I call it: figuring out a ‘sustainable financial model’.

Impact: does it work out as intended?

This is the most important aspect that makes a Social Innovation different from a ‘normal’ innovation. It is also the one most difficult to measure. You want to have your initiative change the world for the better. So you have an intent of that in mind. That is your impact.

To be clear: impact is not the same as value/demand! You may think: if there is demand, then the solution has value, which means a positive impact, right? Or: if the solution makes a positive impact, then that is valuable. No, there is a clear difference.

Simple example: there is a clear demand for Big Macs. So people find eating them valuable. But then saying that McDonald’s has a positive impact in the world, is at least questionable.

A more elaborate example, the one that really made me understand the difference. I got it from Lean Impact and will give you a short summary. It is about the success of micro-financing. This innovation has proven to be very valuable: there is a high demand for both getting micro-loans and providing money for them. The result is many initiatives popping up and a whole new financial sector being created.

However, the initial goal of micro-financing was to get people sustainably and systematically out of poverty, or on a “higher socio-economic level”. The idea was that people would get a micro-loan to for example start a business, or get an education to improve their economic situation. Academic research shows that this intended impact has not materialized.

People get micro-loans mostly for short-term purposes, do in general pay them back, but by-and-large do not get to that sustainable improved economic situation. Does this mean that micro-financing failed? Well, not from a value, feasibility and scalability point of view. But yes, from an impact point of view it mostly has.

Scalable: will it scale?

Most times when doing social innovation, we do one or more pilots at some point to figure out if our solution will ‘work’. In Lean Start-up terms: to test our riskiest assumptions and (in)validate them, so we can learn. But there comes a point when we want to scale up. After investing so much time, energy and money we find out that our innovation works, so we want to make as many people as possible benefit from it, right?

Unfortunately, many good initiatives suffer from ‘Pilotitis’: they depend on grant money, subsidies and/or voluntary input and never reach the scale-up point. Especially NGOs suffer from this phenomenon, because a vital aspect of scaling up is figuring out that ‘business model’ or as I call it: sustainable financial model. NGOs are simply not used to and not even equipped to ‘thinking like a business’ in this way.

So, just like the before-mentioned aspects, scalability needs to be incrementally figured out. It needs to be discovered. One mind trick that always helps me, is with every decision think: would this limit scaling up the initiative in the future? If so, then look for an alternative option. Or at least be aware that this is something to be figured out later.

Some examples of things that prevent scale-up: depending on grants, having a 1-time project-specific sponsor that delivers equipment and tying your solution in with local or national laws or regulations.

You may even believe that your initiative cannot be scaled up, as it is so context-specific and tuned to a unique situation. That may very well be the case. But maybe there are aspects of what you do that can be standardized, documented and repeated elsewehere. Things that then do not need to be figured out by others anymore. To figure that out, you need to implement your solution multiple times until you start to see the patterns. See for example TEDx and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Feasible: can you make it?

Last and also least: feasibility. Of course it is essential that you actually make your solution, but by far most of the times this is not where the uncertainty lies. Nowadays pretty much everything you can imagine, can be made. So, unless you are going into Cold Fusion, you can safely assume that your solution is feasible. Or, if the particular solution you have in mind is too complex, probably a simpler version will get you the results as well.

In Software Development a typical question of a client or Product Owner is: “Can feature such-and-such be built?” To which the answer always is: “Yes!” In software everything is possible. The impossible just takes longer.

This does bring forward an important aspect of making your solution: the costs of developing, building, shipping, supporting and maintaining it. These costs are most of the times underestimated. What I often see, is that only development costs (“the project”) is taken into account and that the rest if left up in the air. To give you any insight into this: we know from software development that on average 30% of costs of a system are the inititial one-time “project costs” and that 70% of costs are spent during the operational time of the system.

However, I would say that product costs are not a primary part of the feasibility aspect: they are part of the financial model, the viability aspect.

Origin of the “social innovation flower”

Finally, please note that I got the idea of the above model with the 5 aspects of social innovation from 2 existing innovation models. Two models that are very profound in their insight, that partly overlap, but I never saw used in combination. I always came across an article, book or presentation where one of the two was used. I found them of equal value and since they overlap in the value/demand aspect, had the idea of integrating them into one.

The first model is shown below, as found in the book Lean Impact:

The second model is found on

What do you think? Are these 5 aspects essential to take into account? Is it valuable to integrate these two models into the “flower of social innovation”?

A next thing could be to look at the various canvases that Design Thinking offers and map those on the various aspects, to form a holistic visual of the state of an innovation.

– Diderik

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