Why We Need to Play Offense, and How

Boris Bulayev, Educate! CEO & Co-Founder & Loren Crary, Educate! Director of Revenue Strategy

How our social enterprise is rethinking and reorganizing to survive the peak of the pandemic and thrive in the new world it creates.

The nonprofits and social enterprises that emerge from the other side of this global pandemic will not be the same ones that entered it. Some, sadly, will close their doors permanently, and many of the ones that remain operational will need to transform their own organizational structure and how they work swiftly and dramatically.

At Educate!, we have tried our best to rise to the moment we find ourselves in and figure out how to serve youth again as quickly as possible. We don’t think anyone can say they know how to navigate this crisis which redefines “unprecedented.” We certainly can’t — we’re still learning major new things every day. But we’re taking steps to find our way forward day by day, and we’re sharing here the two key frames that have guided us so far: 1) swiftly and fully accepting the reality that exists now, and 2) focusing not just on “defense” but also “offense” — and forming teams accordingly. We hope that by using these frames, our enterprise can excel at both hunkering down to survive the short term and at proactively experimenting and taking risks, ultimately setting ourselves up to fulfill our purpose more powerfully than ever.

Accepting the now

We are in a chaotic time. All the plans, assumptions, and operating environments we “knew” in January are now expired beliefs. If we act based on old beliefs, we will fail. Educate!’s model has been based on the assumptions we can work in school, in groups, in person. We are a social enterprise that tackles youth unemployment by preparing youth in East Africa with the skills to succeed in the economy they’ll face after school. Our flagship model in Uganda is built on youth mentors working intensively with groups of students in high schools. Going into March, we had just started the 2020 school year (our eleventh) with 330 mentors working intensively with 34,000 new youth across 850 schools. By March 20th, Uganda had shut down all schools, which effectively shut us down, too. Rwanda, where we’re in over 400 schools, did the same.

We went from operating intensively at scale to being standstill overnight. After the initial shock settled, we realized fairly quickly that given our business model is rooted in in-person delivery, we were effectively out of business. And we had no idea how long we would be out of business for. We were forced to deeply and swiftly process and accept the new reality of today: Schools are closed indefinitely, the health and economic impact of the pandemic is uncertain, in-person group activities are high risk and least likely to resume in the near future, and there are no models or scenarios that can predict the course of the spread, political decisions, nor public behaviors with any reliability. Accepting that reality meant that deliberately planning around conjectural timelines, trying to overanalyze when things would go back to “normal,” or trying to guess the million ways the future might play out, would not help us now. Speculation would only distract from the key task at hand: get back in business.

We consequently turned our focus to moving as rapidly as possible to put ourselves back in business and serve youth now, based on the information we have today and in a way that matches today’s reality. We let go of annual plans and targets and dove into the question of how we might create impact for youth while our long-practiced methods are off the table and given the extremely limited information available about the current and future states of the world.

Moving quickly into both defense and offense

Once we started understanding and accepting where we were, we had to move as fast as possible. We shifted to thinking about the actions we are taking in two categories: “defense” and “offense,” informed by the Bain CEO plan for coronavirus and other resources.

Defense actions are survival focused, aimed at providing immediate stability. Defense is securing your team’s safety, your cash, and your immediate needs. Defense is oriented to the short-term and reducing risk.

Offense actions are re-imagining our organization’s role in the world and nimbly experimenting. It is about not just surviving but thriving. Offense is oriented to the future and expanding opportunities and requires intense grappling with the now, accepting its uncertainty and looking aggressively at the rapidly shifting opportunities the now affords you.

One source we learned about the crucial role of playing defense and offense from is a Deloitte article referencing the following study:

A Harvard Business Review assessment of corporate performance during the past three recessions found that, of the 4,700 firms studied, those that cut costs fastest and deepest had the lowest probability of outperforming competitors after the economy recovered. In other words, the group most likely to emerge from the recession as winners were those that struck the right balance between short- and long-term strategies by investing comprehensively in the future while selectively reducing costs to survive the recession. While the importance of this balance may appear obvious when the economy is strong, amid the pressures of a downturn, companies are particularly susceptible to a short-term mindset.

Defense: Short-term stability and survival

Lots has been written on this topic, so we have less value to add to the discussion of defense. Good resources are here and here. But in essence, defense is about ensuring you have the cash to survive for at least 12 months (with the for-profit startup space advocating for 18 to 24 months) and that you’re taking various actions to get there. To prepare ourselves, we quickly learned all we could to ensure we could survive in the near term and made a few challenging decisions, while continuously communicating our approach with our broader team.

Offense: Embrace change to create

At the same time as we dug into defense, we knew that it was imperative that we also play offense. This has, at times, felt counter-intuitive and even deeply uncomfortable as we are re-trenching and still reeling from the onset of the crisis. But to use a well-known phrase that has new meaning: your best defense is a good offense. We know we can persist for a limited time in pure survival mode, but in order to protect our enterprise, resources, and impact we need to have ways of moving forward and generating impact, which ultimately drives revenue. We had to figure out how, given today’s reality, do we get back to fulfilling our purpose as soon as possible? How are we preparing to fulfill our purpose–preparing youth in Africa with the skills to succeed in today’s economy–in the new, COVID-19 world?

It has been challenging at times to shift our way of thinking to be creative and forward-looking when our instincts are focused on survival and when the bulk of our organization was set up to operate at scale, not to reinvent itself in a COVID-19 world. We have had to ask ourselves big questions, like What would it mean to redesign our org from scratch, given the now? What do the users of our models and payers for them want right now? What do we contribute to the world that no one else does? We’ve had to examine our strengths and resources as carefully as we did our budget, and to embrace new, limber ways of planning and moving forward that don’t depend on an unknowable timeline for partial returns to “normal.” And we’ve had to be prepared to invest resources in our offense, even if it creates some added risk. Offense is not a nice-to-have to be minimized; it is a necessity for long-term survival.

For us, offense has meant pursuing effective “digitilization” of each of our models. We have three models:

  1. School Solutions, which focuses on delivering our core 100-hour or so experience directly to schools and students
  2. Education System Solutions, which focuses on integrating that experience into national education systems, and
  3. Out-of-School Youth Solutions, the newest, which focuses on turning that experience into a boot camp for out-of-school youth, for which users pay directly.

All three were rooted in-person delivery, and all are now focused on designing their digital delivery mechanism. In the long-term, we hope digital will be blended with in-person to ideally achieve greater impact, scale, and sustainability.

We should be honest–this was not our vision on day one of school closures. At the beginning, we just tried to act in whatever way possible to get back in business. This led to several experiments–with radio, SMS/text, robocalling, e-learning platforms. The chaotic energy of those early experiments helped inform a more coherent strategy over the next few months. And that continues to this day. We’ve learned that writing a radio script is a long way from getting that script to be broadcast to a high school student in a way that drives learning. Multiple steps must be achieved to get there, including several that go beyond just radio show production and distribution: complementary services like phone/text assessment, incentives, and listener groups that really drive actual impact. We wouldn’t have learned crucial lessons like this one already if we didn’t give our offense adequate attention from the beginning.

Offense requires operating like mini-startups

If running an offense and defense simultaneously feels impossible, we agree with you. For many organizations, and certainly ours, core operations have been focused on delivery at scale. The systems for that are very different from those that create new, innovative, and exceptional products and program models. The late Clayton Christensen wrote a lot about this through his theory of Disruptive Innovation. The process for managing lots of people to deliver a quality product at high volume is dramatically different from what it takes to manage a small team to create something new. Misapplying processes leads to missed results.

Consequently, as in many team sports, separating team members running our longer-term, disruptive-minded offense from our defensive team members ensuring our near-term survival is core to our understanding of how to be successful in chaos and crisis. It’s impossible for a person or a team to do both of these at the same time well, especially considering the innovative offense’s necessary startup mentality and structure.

At Educate!, we created autonomous or independent teams that act as startups within the org to sprint ahead on each of our key offense strategies. For us, that looks like three lean teams working with agile principles each focused on a different “offense” product:

  1. A version of our in-person, direct-to-school curriculum that can be delivered over a combination of radio, phone and SMS/text;
  2. A government partnership to continue student learning of core subjects by USSD and radio;
  3. A light-web e-learning platform focused on youth, but open to others, on how to start and run hygienic motorbike delivery businesses during the coronavirus pandemic and stay safe while doing it, with potential to expand into informal retail and other informal sectors.

This was the initial vision, and each team is evolving and iterating as they go. Hopefully a team or two will break through with a model that is impactful and usable in the future. Others may just learn along the way. Both are okay. These are, after all, startup teams, and start up success is not assured. All you can plan for is validated learning along the way.

We’re actively minimizing the interaction and coordination required between the offense teams and the rest of the organization: The goal is to reduce drag and increase speed. We know our offense teams should be working in a different way and no longer operating as though integrated into a big organization. They are mini-startups with an urgent need to figure out how to serve youth needs.

One tactic we have found speeds up our offense teams is consolidating our new expertise building. We set up an individual to be the expert on what we need to learn to make our new offensive plays, and learning funnels through her. After an initial discovery round, she invited questions from our offense team leads to learn more about specific needs and contexts. She was able to then create guides for our designers to learn and build from, including relevant theoretical frameworks, best practice case studies, impact results, etc. For example, while our radio team sprinted ahead on initial designs and content, our designated expert was able to learn from other impactful education and health organizations working in radio, including the Rising Academy Network and Shujaaz Inc. She synthesized what she learned and walked our design team through the basics of like interactive radio-based education and our script writing team through topics like edutainment and behavior change theories like the Sabido Methodology.

Winning and losing quickly to move through the chaos

We realize this is a time when–if we are doing it right–we will be learning from both wins and losses very rapidly. We don’t expect all of our current ideas and hypotheses to hold up as we build our experience in remote learning including the ideas we’re sharing here. We do think that by accepting and acting on what is and structuring ourselves to play both defense and offense, we are doing what we can with what we know now to set ourselves up to learn at the speed we need to maintain and strengthen our enterprise.

We believe the actions our teams are taking now will determine how well we will protect and grow our impact, now in the heart of the chaos and in the future as the crisis abates and the new normal emerges.