Thinking Like a Startup

I took a couple weeks off from writing blog posts.

I wasn’t on vacation.

Quite the opposite. As an old guy with a pre-existing condition, I’m pretty much stuck at home (and chained to my iPad and iMac) pretty much all the time.

Instead, I’ve been working on a few things—probably too many—at once, none of which easily lend themselves to something the length of a blog post. That includes a new book, helping create a reconciliation lab (which I’ll get to here), and helping define what my networks can do around peacebuilding in the United States in the light of the crises facing our country.

One thing does both tie all of these initiatives together and lends itself to something like a blog-post length essay is a form of entrepreneurship known as startup thinking. If I’m right, it should play a much bigger role than it currently does in peacebuilding.

Thanks Manoush

To be honest, I would not have made the connection between startup thinking and peacebuilding without listening to one particular podcast. I only discovered Zig-Zag because I’ve been listening to Manoush Zomorodi since she took over the TED Radio Hour earlier this year and mentioned that she was continuing production of her earlier podcast.

This season’s first episode is built around an interview she did with Eric Ries about his new Long Term Stock Exchange. While that interested me, the show actually prompted me to read Ries’ pathbreaking books on startups. I had been exposed to most of the ideas he raised, but I figured that going back to the source might help me clarify my thoughts on building a reconciliation lab from scratch by thinking like a startup.

So, thanks Manoush for Zig-Zag and now the TED Radio Hour.

Think Big. Start Small. Scale Fast.

When I hear about startups, clichés come to mind about struggling male geeks in garage workshops somehow making zillions of dollars while somehow losing sight of their ethical principles along the way.

But I want to join Manoush and Eric (it is a world in which first names are de rigueur even if you haven’t met) and say that thinking like a startup applies far beyond the greed and excess of the most stereotypically selfish venture capitalist.

I was first exposed to the world of startups when I worked with the Beyond War movement in the 1980s. Many of its founders had led some of the first generation of successful tech firms in Silicon Valley, and they infused everything we did with the kinds of values that became famous (and infamous) with the rise of companies like Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, and Netflix.

They are also responsible for getting me to think about innovation in general and for rekindling my interest in systems and complexity theory which I had begun as an undergraduate. Although I read a lot about startups, I hadn’t really brought insights from that world into peacebuilding until I heard that podcast and finally got around to reading Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, which I’ve reviewed separately.

Those two words are rarely uttered in the same breadth, even by peacebuilders who are starting a new NGO from scratch. For good or ill, most of my peacebuilding friends haven’t been to business school and don’t think like entrepreneurs.

I’m increasingly convinced that we ignore entrepreneurship in general and startup thinking in particular at our peril.

Ries sums the startup mentality well in the three two-word pairs which I’ve borrowed as a title for this section.

The first one is part of our culture, too. Especially those of us who anchor our work in systems and complexity theory do think big. We keep “north stars” or other ways of depicting a game-changing goal on center stage at all time.

We don’t do as well with the other two.

We rarely start by rapidly creating prototypes that we can try at minimal cost and, if they fail, have a minimal impact. Unlike many commercial startups, we do have to be wary of making dreadful mistakes because lives and livelihoods are normally at stake in our projects. However, as you’ll see in the two examples below, we can think of developing rapid prototypes, quickly testing them, and learning from what happens. We probably can’t afford to take the time needed to create the 572 prototypes that James Dyson built before he built the marketable vacuum cleaner that bears his name.

We’ve had even less success in taking our work to scale.

Much of our best work is done at the grass roots level in what we refer to as local peacebuilding. I have no doubt that this is where we have to start, whether we are working in Venezuela or Vanuatu or Virginia, where I live.

However, we haven’t done a very good job of taking those successes to scale either in other communities or on other issues let alone having much of an impact at the national level. My friends Diana Chigas and Peter Woodrow thought through a lot of this just before they moved on from CDA Collaborative in 2018

in their book, Adding Up to Peace, which you can download for free from this link. But even their work was largely theoretical.

Even Diana and Peter had a hard time envisioning a world in which peacebuilding achieves what is often referred to as hockey stick rates of growth. As the figure suggests (and as we all learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s use of the word tipping point twenty years ago), interest in a phenomenon canbuild ever so slowly until it hits and inflection point and suddenly grows exponentially. Zoom is the obvious example these days that went from a little used app that people like me who work remotely loved to a household name in the matter of a few weeks.

The key point I want to make here is that we don’t even think of scaling in those terms.

Two Examples

We are beginning to get it. I’m involved with two initiatives that reflect what we can do when we act like a startup, use design thinking, and the other kinds of tools  you find in the entrepreneurial world.

The Hive

The Hive was created by Activate Labs when its founder, Monica Curca, and her team were trying to figure out how to sustain peacebuilders once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Monica has spent the last decade two what she calls peace activations both through Activate Labs and now through +Peace which is trying to build peacebuilding movements.

With essentially no paid staff and the tiniest of operational budgets, Activate Labs decided to launch the on line Hive in April. Since then, it has met weekly. It is designed as a digital gather place for peacebuilders and creatives to talk about their work and support each other during the pandemic. Each week’s session includes performances, focused discussions, and informal gatherings in what is referred to as the honey café (the weekly moderators are worker bees).

Then, of course, George Floyd was murdered and the Hive took on racial issues as well, especially once the Activate Labs team began taking part in protests in Washington and beyond. It still kept the same format, but all of a sudden the weekly sessions were among the most multiracial events that one finds anywhere in the peacebuilding community.

In mid-August, the team decided to pause. Some of the key players needed to take a break; one had to because she got a full time job. More importantly, the Hive team (of which I’m a peripheral part) decided that the time had come to assess the prototype.

What worked (and what didn’t work)? Would this format be effective in a Hive that was designed for an audience of aging boomers like me? Or for a more ideologically diverse group? Or if it had a more international audience?

These are all the kinds of questions any startup has to make when its leaders sense it is at a transition point. How do you pivot? What do you keep and what do you change or drop? How do you reach out to new audiences?

The Hive will be back with answers to some of those questions.

All at a cost of at most a couple thousand dollars and a bunch of sweat equity, all of which we can  afford to lose.

Reconciliation Lab

The second example hasn’t made it off the drawing boards and may never see the light of day in this form. In fact, I raise it only to illustrate the kind of thing we could do if we just adopted a bit of startup thinking and let our imaginations go.

I have been asked to help create a reconciliation lab by my friend Antti Penkitainen. He assumes that we can create some kind of institution that could teach people general reconciliation skills.

One of the ideas that we’re kicking around is to create something like an incubator and/or accelerator in the high tech community. But instead of building prototypes of new tech gadgets that could make their creators millions, we are planning to build a lab in which activists would both learn about reconciliation and create prototypes of videos, games, and other immersive experiences that they could then take back into their communities.

In our current thin king, the lab would have elements of a hackathon, but with tools that could help build reconciliation rather than computer code as its product. We expect to recruit groups of about fifteen activists who would work with a two-person team, one of whom would be a trained reconciler and the other would have experience in the startup world.

The activists would work in small groups during a two or three day workshop and produce some sort of minimum viable product which they would be expected to beta test wherever they live or work. The staff would help them pivot from the kind of angry frustration one sees in the streets today toward proposing more constructive responses that could, in time, bring all sides of the dispute together.

We know that the participants won’t get very far with their prototypes. So, we plan to work with the best projects and improve them to the point that some of them could be marketable nationally and beyond.

Unlike the Hive, the lab isn’t ready to be unveiled. I raise it here simply to suggest the kinds of low-cost in itniiatives that we could try.

The people who have taken startup thinking the farthest, like Eric Ries, have realized that it’s not just about startups. It applies to mature companies, like GE which he featured in his second book. It’s harder there. Or in the US government. It’s even harder there. Or in NGO. Where it may be even harder yet because we don’t think in terms of our own internal cultural norms and practices enough.

We also have to understand that there is a lot of BS in the literature on startups. A lot of lip service or virtue signaling gets paid to the buzzwords of management theory which lead to at best cosmetic change which some refer to as being like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Yes, in fact, if you take it to its logical limits, startup thinking is a metaphor for everything we do. In these times of accelerating change and growing interdependence, we should all think like a startup all of the time. Toward the end of The Startup Way, he argues

Unlike the endless reorg(anization)s of late-twentieth-century management, tomorrow’s organizations will not be able to afford the immense waste, politics, and bureaucracy that result from cavalierly rearranging the deck chairs. We have to pursue a new discipline of rigorous change, always ensuring that the new structure outperforms the old.

I just wish we peacebuilders had at least some of that kind of audacity!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.