Government Says Yes to Lean Startup Methods

Written by Heather McGough, Co-founder of Lean Startup Co. @UrbanitySF

Government agencies are traditionally sluggish organizations. But many of them are looking to change the pace at which they test and execute upon new ideas by looking to startups — and specifically organizations like The Lean Startup — for direction in how to increase the amount of good they do for their constituents.

Take, for example, the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which works in more than 170 countries, many of them poverty-stricken or dealing with the aftermath of armed conflicts. The challenges of UNDP and other socially- and civically-minded public organizations are immense. According to the World Bank Development Indicators study, almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 per day. Over 80 percent subsist on less than $10 per day.

UNDP operates in a sector that is undergoing dramatic changes. New players are emerging in the development landscape and international UN organizations have to increasingly prove their relevance. UNDP’s Innovation Facility, headed up by Benjamin Kumpf, aims to meet these challenges by working off of some key Lean Startup tenants:

1) Focus on Design Thinking vs. Analytic Problem Solving

Government organizations usually operate by identifying a problem and formulating a solution for it. It’s a linear process that offers little room for iteration along the way. By using a design thinking approach, the different facets of a problem are carefully dissected, particularly the insights from the very people affected by the challenges. Solutions are developed as assumptions that are then tested. It’s a constantly evolving process that creates more agile responses to problems.

2) Work Out Loud

Usually, the communication cycle in a development programme is like this: quite a lot of communication for the launch, then very little (or radio silence) during implementation and then a polished report in the end. This is obviously overly simplified, but points out how ‘working out loud’ is changing the approach. It allows stakeholders to input all along the way. It also allows for course correction, and identifying new partners throughout the journey. UNDP blogs about the project as it’s coming along to ensure transparency and encourage critical feedback.

Working out loud is a cross-cutting element of UNDP’s innovation framework. Basically, it is a six-step process:

  1. Identify opportunities or potential bottlenecks
  2. Find inspiration and partners, especially people already working on the problem
  3. Co-generate ideas with partners and end-users
  4. Prototype and pilot solutions with partners and end-users
  5. Measure and iterate solutions
  6. Invest, scale, and adapt

Because end-users are the ultimate judge of effectiveness, bringing them on board during the development process is an integral part of creating solutions that work. Outdated models for providing services carry high price tags and limited usability.

3) Work by the Numbers

The Lean Startup method involves a three-step process of build, measure, and learn that’s a never-ending cycle, where the goal is to always outperform previous cycles. Embedding this idea into government projects and culture allows organizations to leverage new and emerging data sources.

For example, a development solution deployed by the UNDP in India might not work in the exact same configuration in another country. Every project must function within the realities of the regional government. The build-measure-learn cycle allows organizations to make sure what they’re creating authentically works for the country they’re working in.

4) Prototype Quickly

Through its Innovation Facility, UNDP follows the Lean Startup strategy of prototyping a solution as rapidly as possible — and then making incremental improvements on that prototype if necessary.

5) Gather Data

Once they have a solution, UNDP deploys it and continues to gather data. A release is not the same as a finished solution, however. In true Lean Startup fashion, they’re prepared to go back to the drawing board to evolve the prototype. And by iterating and reiterating solutions on a quick and consistent basis, UNDP can show incremental improvements with each cycle while still addressing immediate needs for change.

Two UNDP Case Studies: Egypt and China

1) UNDP works with partners in Egypt to combat gender-based violence. When these crimes occur, many women are too afraid or too disheartened by responses from service providers to use existing mechanisms for reporting them.

To address the issue, UNDP, together with the National Council for Women, invited women affected by these issues to a multi-day innovation camp. On day one, the group defined the problem. Women described how discrimination and violence affect them and the people they know. On days two and three, the group brainstormed possible solutions for these problems. UNDP engaged the end-users in creating testable prototypes with the support of the government agency and also a private sector partner.

2) In China, UNDP tackled a different issue: “e-waste,” or specifically overwhelming piles of broken electronics and appliances causing dramatic environmental harm. In 2011 alone, China produced over 3.5 million tons of e-waste. To combat the issue, UNDP worked with private sector partners and the Chinese government to streamline recycling. UNDP launched an Innovation Lab, out of which came the idea that e-waste could have a monetary value for different actors in the value chain. Regular people with broken electronics could then find out the value of their specific e-waste by taking a photo of it with their smart phones. It is a minimal value, the real incentive lies in the comfort of the service: households can schedule a pickup of the item, which is then transported to a proper recycling facility. The end result offered value to all the stakeholders, with consumers receiving a little amount for broken appliances, businesses getting valuable data on which households discard their devices and are in the market for buying new ones, and the government doing its part for the environment. Once UNDP brought the Ministry of Labor into the picture, e-waste recyclers also had formal jobs with the Chinese Government.


If you work for a non-profit or government organization and are trying to institute innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to complex issues, Lean Startup Co. can help. We offer live and virtual training and consulting to help large organizations in all sectors learn to build products and services using the startup mindset. Learn more here or email training@leanstartup.co.


Originally published at leanstartup.co on October 25, 2016.