Lean social means no paving the cowpaths

Years ago, I was asked to join as a speaker in a series of talks on social media for the American Marketing Association. After a few cities, I told the organizer I was going to have to drop out. ‘Why?’, she asked, ‘You’ve got the best reviews of any speaker in the program!’ I responded, ‘I am finding it psychologically difficult to present to groups where the dominant goal is to figure out how to do as little as possible.’

And a great deal of the discussion about social these days in implicitly trying to take that same tack. Vendors in particular seem to be pushing an agenda for the adoption of their tools where companies should drop a thin social veneer on top of the established business processes of the company, without reflecting on how those processes might or should be recast in light of social principles. And built into that argument is a big, top-down adoption premise: you can select a single overarching horizontal technology from a single vendor and roll it out company wide, and this will lead to the biggest return on the investment, principally by decreasing the time that might otherwise go to experimentation in different parts of the company.

I wrote about this a bit in a recent post: Balancing risk and social business innovation, and as I said, I  think business innovation today necessarily translates to innovation in how the business does what it does, and that is not limited to products and services. It includes everything, from hiring and firing to making and creating.

I was sitting in on a workshop today, a Hyper Island Master Class in New York City. Tim Leake recast of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup principles for a group of agency folks. Since he wasn’t tied to the world of software start-ups, his recast list stuck in my head as instructive as how businesses today needs to operate.

The principles:

  • Work fast
  • Minimize waste
  • Expose ideas to real people early and often
  • Test hypothesis
  • Iterate in response to feedback
  • Scale successes

First of all, I think this argues for social software that is naturally and explicitly organized around these lean principles. For example, social tools that explicitly support intuitive and fast techniques for disseminating new ideas and gathering feedback in useful and visual ways. (I selected that as an are where I think that today’s tools fall short.)

Secondly, I think lean social runs in conflict with the default model in most businesses today, the majority of which are still operating around the concept of fixed, well-defined business processes that people are supposed to ‘follow’ to get jobs done. But we’ve switched to a world of rapidly changing work, where work is becoming more collaborative, and solutions have to be contrived following general principles not exact formulas. Yes, the principles define a sort of meta process, but it is simply a general template for a modern sort of lean learning.

Last, moving to a lean mindset — at the corporate, department, project or individual level — means that adoption of social can’t be taking the existing way of doing things and simply gluing some social stuff on top. It can’t. If only because the way we do things is the biggest leverage in innovation, and social has to be about innovation first, and secondly about improving productivity and efficiency of existing ways of doing things.

So, my recommendation, again, is that companies adopt a lean social approach, as opposed to the alternatives that vendors mostly seem to be advocating.