Make Something Lean: Applying Lean Thinking to Community Building

So… it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. February flew by, and March was a time of change. I recently started a new job and I am currently packing for a move at the end of the month. Suffice to say, I’ve been busy. It holds true that Spring is a time of renewal – at least for me.

My new job is with New Venture at NAIT. I’m working with an amazing team of people to promote startup culture and support student entrepreneurship on campus. The position marries my passion for working with students and my love for innovation. Dreams.

Just last week we hosted our Hatch Startup Challenge Reception, where we awarded more than $30,000 in startup funding to student businesses. The diversity of the applications was impressive! Winners included an aboriginal-run morel mushroom distributor (the stuff is like gold) and a device that keeps pipes from bursting when temperatures drop. Students were also awarded space and mentorship in our Hatchery incubator. I can’t wait to start working with them.

The methodology we use in our work to support students is the “Lean Startup” approach. The framework provides a simple and easy way to get business ideas off of the ground. It challenges the notion that businesses need to spend countless hours developing a static business plan.

According to the Lean approach, businesses should be treated more like experiments that test hypotheses. Typically, these hypotheses are based on customer feedback. Entrepreneurs should be out surveying potential customers about their experiences to ensure that the business idea is solving a problem. If it isn’t solving a problem, chances are it won’t gain much traction. An innovative idea doesn’t necessarily translate into good business. This system of acquiring constant feedback allows businesses to be nimble and responsive.

Part of getting customer feedback involves getting some form of product out to market as quickly as possible. This product is referred to as the minimal viable product (MVP). This process allows businesses to understand what or what doesn’t work with their product. It’s like applying Darwinian theory to the product development process. If a product feature doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s got to go. It also helps entrepreneurs develop a business case when they go to investors for financing.

A good example of an MVP is how AirBnB started. The founders didn’t launch their business with a fancy website with all of the features they have today, but rather a simple website that had pictures of their apartment and details on how to rent it. This gave the founders an opportunity to test their product without investing a ton of money initially. Another example of this would be how some restaurants start out by having “pop up shops” before having an official brick and mortar location. Drift Food Truck did this and just recently opened up Dovetail Deli.

This type of thinking really appeals to me. Not only because I feel it is a great way to stay fresh and innovative but also because I have tendency to be impatient. Sometimes it’s better to get out there and just get things done. The Lean approach can extend beyond business development. When I reflected on the methodology, I realized that many Make Something Edmonton projects could be considered MVPs. They typically don’t cost much money to get off the ground and they tend to solve a problem the community is experiencing.

sitnchill

credit: Lexi Saffel (https://www.flickr.com/photos/neondecember/)

Take the Sit N Chill Bench near the High Level Bridge for example. It was evident that there was a need for a place to rest at that particular location. I’m sure there was a process to request a bench from the city, but I assume it would take a lot of time and paperwork. So, someone took initiative and fabricated a bench made of plywood and milk crates. Then, it broke. And someone else followed up by making one out of concrete. Now we have a beautiful and permanent place to… sit n chill.

Last September, I was a part of a group of people who put on the 102 ave Pop Up Bike Lane. In my opinion, the pop up bike lane was an MVP of sorts. It involved pylons and flower planters. I think our budget was roughly around $1000. It didn’t have the bells and whistles of the bike lane that is planned on being built (which I am very excited for), but it had the bare bone features of a separated bike lane which gave people an idea of what the final product could be like to use.

I could go on and on. Edmonton is full of ideas and initiatives that could be considered “lean”. Peruse the project section on the Make Something Edmonton website (which is up for a Webby award. Vote here) to see other examples.

Here’s my condensed step by step guide to lean community building aka “Making Something Lean”:

1) Do you experience a problem that others experience?

2) Can you think of a simple and easy way to address it?

3) Do it and put your project up on the Make Something Edmonton website.

Let me know what you think. I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Also, I was recently interviewed by the Primal Blueprint Podcast to talk about some of the projects I’ve been involved in. Listen here.

Thanks for reading!

Robin

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yegsnowfight: We made something, Edmonton.

Last Sunday, I witnessed something magical. It was perhaps the most “Edmonton” experience I’ve had since moving to this city in 2012.

In October, I was tweeting back and forth with a (then) stranger about having a snowball fight. I had recently watched the Human Scale documentary, in which they showed a spontaneous snowball fight which erupted in Times Square in New York. It looked like so much fun. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a snowball fight, so I was determined to get one going in Edmonton with some friends.

comic

credit: Sam Hester (https://twitter.com/calgaryhester)

Soon after our twitter conversation, in early November, Jeff Chase and I decided to meet for a drink and talk about having a snowball fight. I remember us talking about how it would be tough to wrangle up 50 people for a snowball fight, so we decided to get our idea up on a Make Something Edmonton page. We wanted to have a spontaneous snowball fight, similar to the one in New York. We decided to collect phone numbers by email, which we would later send a text message to with details of where and when the snowball fight would take place.

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We posted the project on Tuesday, November 4th. By the end of that week, #yegsnowfight was trending on twitter in Edmonton. We had numerous inquiries from all of the media outlets in Edmonton. Emails were STREAMING in. I remember watching our gmail account and seeing new emails fly in by the second. It was unbelievable.

snowfightrobin

It’s safe to say that neither Jeff nor I anticipated the idea getting so much traction. We spent the next week or so speaking to newspaper journalists, television reporters, and radio hosts about #yegsnowfight. We even had coverage in Calgary. We thought that the emails would stop coming in when we reached around 1000 numbers… Nope. Pretty much right up until we announced the event last Saturday, emails were still rolling in. I think our final count was around 3000 numbers. Our Facebook post was seen by about 27 000 people. When we announced the event on Saturday, #yegsnowfight was trending nationally on twitter. I personally think #yegsnowfight demonstrated the positive community building potential of social media – I learned a lot about the application of social media in the process of planning and promoting the event.

The event itself was amazing. People of all backgrounds came out. There were toddlers, teens and adults who showed up with food bank donations in hand and smiles on their faces. We managed to fill a van full of food for the Edmonton Foodbank! Everywhere I looked, people were smiling, laughing and throwing snow. At one point, I got a little tap on my arm. I turned around to be completely covered in snow by a 5 year old girl. The look of mischief on her face made my day. If you want to see some amazing photos of the event, check out Make Something Edmonton’s Facebook photo album here.

foodbank

The beauty of #yegsnowfight is that it became its own movement. Jeff and I just put an idea out there, but it was Edmonton that made it what it was. Edmonton showed the rest of the world that it was a city that likes to have fun; a playful city. This interesting Guardian article talks about the Playable City Movement and states that “cities that play together, stay together”.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the article:

” Cities create problems of living that can only be addressed by collective action. Second, the sense that the well-being of communities cannot be left to local authorities; citizens need to take control of their own surroundings. Third, an optimism that we can do more than just tackle problems one by one. By encouraging public activities that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive urban future.”

Reading that excerpt makes me think about #yegsnowfight. It was the collective action and desire of Edmontonians to engage in a public activity that brought joy. It was more than just a snowball fight. It was an opportunity for strangers to connect and have fun together. #yegsnowfight facilitated a social connection for me too. Prior to #yegsnowfight, I didn’t know Jeff. Working with him on this project showed us that we actually have a lot in common. We’re friends now. He’s an amazing person and I’m grateful for my new friendship.

jeffandrobin

I’m currently working on a project that addresses social inclusion, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how to go about doing it. It’s a complex issue and there is no one way to address the challenge. Interestingly #yegsnowfight accomplished, in an organic fashion, what I’ve been working towards. And I had nothing to do with it. Edmontonians created that inclusive environment themselves. It was awesome.

Following the snowball fight I read an Edmonton Journal article, and one part really warmed my heart. One of the #yegsnowfighters, Clement Sitima, came to Edmonton from Zambia three years ago. He brought his whole family. It was his first snowball fight ever. He was quoted as saying “We have to embrace the winter and this is the best way we can embrace it”. That right there made it all worth it. 

#yegsnowfight made me proud to be an Edmontonian. This is a fun-loving, winter-embracing, community oriented city and I am so happy that I live here.

We made something, Edmonton. Thanks.