The Toolshed

A place for visioning, tinkering, and building around the topics of education reform, technology, and female entrepreneurship.

Month: February, 2014

How Do You Know It’s “The One”?

I have a post-it on the front of my Moleskine notebook that accompanies me everywhere: “What is the ONE metric that matters?”  I keep this visual to remind myself to constantly keep high-level programmatic goals top-of-mind as I navigate our decision-making as a start-up non-profit.  But how do you know what metric matters most in a field that has, to date, been using inadequate proxies for measuring financial literacy?  In our field, most of us measure impact by looking at student-reported data from surveys centered around knowledge gain and attitude change.  Can you define a mortgage?  Are you more likely to set a budget because of this program?  How much money will you earn if you put $500 into a savings account with .05% interest?  (By the way, some measure impact even more imprecisely by simply reporting the number of youth they have reached.)  But none of these accurately tell you whether your student will actually be a more financially responsible adult.

Part of this is because it’s very difficult to identify a financially literate adult.  It’s far easier to point out financial illiteracy than it is the inverse: we know when we see someone spending beyond their means or paying off the minimum on their credit card for years or splurging on a want despite more pressing immediate needs.  But identifying a financially literate adult is far more difficult because it’s often what they’re NOT doing — how do you measure NOT spending?   In short, you can’t know whether someone is making good financial decisions based on a bank account statement.  It may be safe to say that most financially stable adults save regularly, spend less than they make, have positive net worth, and pay off their credit card bills on time — but for many of the students we serve — students living below the poverty line — these metrics may not be possible, despite their best efforts.  The other part is that no one knows what kinds of interventions will put teens on the path to good financial practices in the future.  Is it opening a savings account for a child?  Is it pushing kids to go to college?  Is it teaching kids how to budget?  These are moving targets that we think about — and extensively — on a daily basis.  I have had more conversations than I can count exploring the intricacies of this thinking — and that’s just trying to figure out what the end goal should look like.  The waters get muddier when you think about the early indicators that help us know our kids are on track, and, beyond that, the one metric amongst many that really matters in making that determination.

We’re right in the muck right now, talking through and around a refined impact measurement framework that encompasses a lot of these questions and concerns, but we had a phenomenal conversation with one of our board members, Shayne Evans, Director of both the University of Chicago Charter School and Urban Education Institute, that proved helpful to me and that I in turn wish to share out.  He showed us the framework he uses at his charter high school.  The end goal for him is college graduation for all of his students.  He then backwards designs from that goal by identifying various metrics that help him determine whether his kids are on track while in high school.  He clusters these metrics into high-level categories — High School Success, Student Progress, School Values — and then provides primary and secondary measures for each that he can then report on regularly.  Despite the fact that he tracks a number of different metrics, he advised us to track many, but commit to one — and then really build it out and reflect growth.  You can always move on to another metric once you’ve significantly moved the needle, but focusing on, say, 15 different metrics results in confusion and imprecision.  You can also begin by using imperfect measures — proxies, almost — and continue to iterate until you have the right measure and the right data coming in.  But the end goal is to communicate continuous growth on one important metric and then be able to explain both the importance of that metric and the reasons for its growth in a convincing way.

Returning to my initial question: how do you know your metric is “the one”?  I think part of this is thinking carefully through desired end outcomes.  What do we want our kids to report back to us regarding their financial situations when they are adults?  And then how do we backwards track those goals to what we can realistically accomplish within the classroom?  If we want all of our kids to grow up and budget, what do we need kids doing when they are 17 years old and have no regular income?  What’s realistic?  I think we’re getting close to identifying some leading metrics, but part of it, as one of our other board members said, will be “a big leap of faith.”

Mount Helicon for Entrepreneurs?

In ancient Greek literature, poets in search of inspiration trekked to Mount Helicon, home to the muses of the arts.  This artistic ritual came to mind the other day when a business friend of mine shared that his organization had recently established an innovation department, and was spending a lot of time reading and thinking about inspiration: “Where does innovation come from?  What are the conditions that cultivate it?”

I had two separate and distinct thoughts.  One was that it might be impossible to identify these conditions.  Having recently read Daily Rituals, a book that presents the varied creative practices of different geniuses, artists, writers, and thinkers in short 1-2 page snippets, it was easy enough for me to say that it takes all kinds of kinds to create, and that all those different kinds have wildly different practices.  There’s no one artistic temperament: some live ascetic, monk-like existences, others indulge freely in drink and drug; some need social engagement, others recede from it; some are methodical about their artwork, “working” on regular schedules, while others might go months without producing anything and then create a lot all at once.  Now, I realize that artistic production and innovation are not necessarily synonymous with one another, and that we shouldn’t let that unexplained metaphor pass us by.  But at the same time, both revolve vigorously around principles of good design and are fueled by creativity and an ability to see the world around us (or some bit of the world around us) in a new and different light.  So, let’s accept, for now, that possibly flimsy logic, and push beyond.  Returning to the book: I instantly thought that perhaps innovation springs from a range of different contexts.  I thought about IDEO’s human centered design process, which truly begins from the ground up.  And then I thought about more the “lean startup” model, which posits that you can hedge your bets on a good idea — so long as you quickly and regularly test it and change tacks accordingly.  In these two models, innovation comes from two rather different processes.  At the same time, I would say that the only unifying tie that bound the miscellany of stories in the Daily Ritual book was that almost all of the creators afforded themselves some amount of “maker’s time” — that is, swathes of time dedicated only to creation, uncluttered by the noise of daily life.

So this led me to my second thought: perhaps there are certain general conditions that enable us to create and innovate and iterate more readily.  I began to think more critically about the times where things have really begun to “gel” or “click” or whatever the right motion is there — where new ideas come to a head, presenting themselves with a dramatic curtsy in that awesome moment where you realize: “YES, that’s what it is!  That just feels right!”  A couple of different useful contexts came to mind:

(1)  Structured time to talk through an idea or a cluster of ideas or a “cloud” of ideas — i.e., some nebulous mix of concerns and concepts that you just know you need to think about — with your smartest, most open-minded colleagues.  Sometimes you just need to sit down with your brain trust to talk through an idea from top to bottom, throwing everything out there.  (Everything.  Let it all hang out.  I recently floated the idea of trying to seek a federal charter for a national youth credit union so that we could create the ideal financial product for our teens, as there’s just nothing out there on the market that is meeting our expectations.  And we are a three-person organization with a fairly massive mentorship machine in place.  So — think big, too.)  You’ll be surprised at what comes out of the jostle and shake of ideas — people emphasizing new aspects of the problem or introducing new ones or going off the deep-end.  I’ve come through a lot of challenging points by talking things through with my wicked smart colleagues when I’ve suggested we block off an hour or two and really slog through something.

(2)  Implicit in the above, but: complete open-mindedness.  If you feel yourself constructing a wall that you won’t let yourself beyond (i.e., “no, we couldn’t offer our kids prepaid cards because schools will resist the idea of product placement and will probably be more comfortable with savings products anyway, which are almost indisputably well-received”), push beyond it and continue to explore.  Having colleagues that share that unbridled will to explore is an incredible gift, so you should seek them out in your organization or encourage this and lead by example.  (At my previous job, we occasionally encouraged one another to use the phrase: “Yes, and…”  — a technique from improvisational comedy that encourages comedians to build off what their cast-mates have just said to keep the story going rather than nipping things in the bud prematurely.)

(3)  To balance the structured brainstorm sessions — big greenswards of “maker’s time.”  Time to just tinker, think, read, reflect.  This was really hard for me to adjust to after living on manager’s time for so long; I felt like I was being unproductive.  But I really needed it in order to fulfill the duties of my role as Chief Innovation Officer.  And I continue to need to remind myself to set this time aside and leave it unencroached by the noise of email, checklists, and the like.  Sometimes I need to do other “things” to occupy myself physically during this time — exercise, or read articles, or jot down notes, or write open-ended Word documents to myself, or, dans la facon d’IDEO (in the IDEO way), write down a lot of post-it notes to capture a lot of different, distinct thoughts — but those mornings where I’ve cleared my schedule until noon or even later to really think through a specific problem or issue are inevitably the most fruitful part of my week.

(4)  Talk to a lot of people.  Like, a ton.  Our CEO, Ted, is an absolute networking beast.  He’s connected me with what feels like half of the city of Chicago and I’ve had the most incredible range of conversations as a result.  To be frank, maybe 10% or less of these conversations actually leave me thinking: “Oh, interesting, that helped me solve this problem.”  But they help me situate my thinking in really interesting ways.  For example, learning how for-profits orient themselves prior to an app launch helped me think through the launch of our app as a non-profit in a new and different way.  And learning about the metrics that gaming apps conventionally use to measure their engagement helped me think more critically about our app because I realized many of them did not apply or did not matter to our model.  Talking to a lot of people also helps you nail your pitch — great practice for delivering it to the big guns down the road.

(5)  Related to the above: read a lot.  And from a wide and varied range of sources.  You want to read the obscure blog post from a teacher in Missouri bemoaning the technology issues in her classroom, and the platitudes (or rants) from the CTO of a school district, and the blog written by the product manager of a new ed tech company, and the Washington Post’s op-ed on MOOCs, and the Tech Crunch article on a new Google acquisition, and everything in between.  Read, read, read.  And use Pocket to help with this — I tag all of the articles I read so I can quickly search my tags and call up articles I read that I want to reference down the road.

With this blend of practices and conditions, I’m convinced you can really drive innovation in your own organization.  The issue, I think, is that many organizations are not outfitted to accommodate this due to various institutionalized processes and rituals.  I’m curious to know how, for example, Coke handles their innovation team — does it function differently than most of the other units?  How so?


I recently read the following start-up advice: “Focus is your most scarce resource.”  I promptly jotted it down on a post-it and affixed it to the front of my notebook (which accompanies me everywhere), and it’s been glaring at me ever since.  I can’t recall where I read it, but am thinking it was either from Steve Blank or Alistair Croll, and it’s exceptional advice for any start-up.  It’s ridiculously tempting to jump at the shiny opportunities that you suddenly come across — “Aha!  Someone is noticing us!  Someone sees our potential!  Let’s scurry to jump on that opportunity!”  And, to a certain extent, that nimbleness is necessary to the success of many a start-up.  It can also be really hard to see beyond the goodness of an idea into the amount of work it will entail and the true cost-benefit analysis it reveals.  For example, say a really cool video production company says: “You guys are an amazing non-profit.  We want to profile you and put together a video for you to use for promotional purposes.”  Wow!  What an awesome windfall — great marketing and at a high production value.  Where do we sign up?!  Well — not so fast.  When you think through what this will entail: several conversations worth of planning and sharing about the organization with the production crew; exchanges and negotiations with mentors, school partners, and parents of mentees to get the filming crews into the classrooms on the right days and get release slips signed; the actual filming; edits and feedback; etc. — is it worth the multiple days of effort when you are one of three full-time employees with many moving parts?

It could be — but approaching this and any other opportunity or fork in the road thoughtfully and with a mind toward not only mission alignment but what I’ll call “central problem alignment” is critical.  When I say “central problems alignment,” I mean that at each stage of the organization’s development, we should have some key learnings we are looking for — some cluster of central problems we’re trying to solve.  It might be: “Will this product sell better to teens or college students?”  It might be: “Will our organization work better with an in-house tech team or an awesome subcontractor?”  It might be: “Should we change our business model?”  Recognizing that those are the core problems you’re working on as an organization — maybe even calling them out in scrums or throwing them up on a white board on the wall — will help you evaluate opportunities as they arise, as you can say: “Well, that’s an interesting idea…but will it help us solve X problem right now?  No?  Then let’s punt it down the road.”

The same goes for product — at every stage of the product’s development, I need to ask: “What do we want to learn right now?  Will doing X get us closer to learning that?  No?  OK, put that in the add-later queue.”  I emphasize “what do we want to learn” because I think that’s more important and authentic than “what do we want to prove.”  Every feature we add should be getting us closer to learning more about what makes a product ridiculously successful and well-designed.  Without this constant “come back to center” moment, we run the risk of feature creep or falling into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses or even feeling like we’re roaming aimlessly.

This is all much easier said than done.  And I also feel that some projects can be worth the strain if they earn you a big name affiliation that might set off a cascading effect of sorts, so perhaps the example above is imperfect.  But focus, I think, is truly a start-up’s scarcest resource when there are 3000 and 1 things calling your name.


The Big Pivot.

At Moneythink, we are working to develop a technology that will supplement and enhance our face-to-face mentorship program.  But we have a hunch (based on early success with a prototype, the incredible thoughtfulness and intelligence of our partners, and — likely — our own chutzpah) that this technology may fundamentally change the way we operate.  It may flip the curriculum, or lead us to modify its orientation or its delivery.  It may change the mentorship model in a meaningful way, and lead us to want even smaller mentor: mentee ratios (or, conversely, it may mean that the technology makes a larger ratio possible).  It may generate new sources of earned income.  It may unveil new and previously unthought-of partnerships and collaborations.  These are all programmatic and financial changes that we’ve been thinking through and around.  But what does it mean for us as an organization?  How can we remain nimble enough to accommodate this big pivot?

I use that word carefully, as I’ve just been digesting an incredible article that Steve Blank wrote about pivots that the so-called “Unicorn Club” (i.e., U.S.-based tech companies established in the last ten years that are currently valued at $1B or more) have made in their journey to the very top.   So my question is: how do we prepare ourselves for what could represent a huge pivot that will likely impact almost all of the nine different “business model” components he’s identified?  What organizational preparations need to be made?  How do we accommodate when we are a lean, mean, 3-person team?

For context: I used to work for a non-profit focused on increasing access to education through free, open, online courseware.  (We began to build this program well before the year of the MOOC — in fact, three years before — so we didn’t know the hailstorm we were about to fly into.  But that’s a story for another day.)  The main learning I want to focus on here is the role that technology played in the non-profit structure there, because it’s led me to think very critically about how we approach this tech pivot at Moneythink.  At my previous employer, we were using technology to achieve our mission of “driving the cost of education down to zero.”  But the org structure was not set up to accommodate or reflect our tech-heavy approach — we outsourced all development and were frankly impeded substantially because of this arrangement.  It would take weeks to implement modest front-end changes — not to mention larger scale hopes to change platforms and add new features, much-wanted plans that became increasingly pressing and stress-inducing given the rapidity with which our peers out in Silicon Valley were moving.  We also lacked a CTO or the equivalent — meaning that smart, well-intentioned staffers with no experience in technology were making key tech decisions based on the best of their research abilities and their seniority in the organization.  How could we possibly have kept up with our peers at Udacity and Coursera, staffed as they were with dozens of engineers working full-time to improve the UX and overall learning experience?  When pressed as to why we weren’t able to keep up with the Joneses, the best explanation I could muster was: “We are an education non-profit using technology to achieve a goal; these guys are uber-financed tech companies selling an educational experience.”

I say this lovingly and without severity because I believe that this scenario is consistent with that of many non-profits, which tend to be heavy on programmatic depth, knowledge, and rigor, but understandably light on tech and business savvy.  This is largely because non-profits are staffed by incredibly sharp, dedicated, heart-in-the-right-place experts in a given field — not business generalists and certainly not technologists.  In my lit studies, we liberally used and abused the phrase “othering,” especially in post-colonial and feminist analyses of various works.  That’s sort of the framing I’d use here: even the best, sharpest of program folks tend to “other” (FYI: using “other” as a verb here — classic lit nerd move) tech efforts, rendering them appendages to their offerings rather than a core organ.  (Kind of gross analogy there — apologies.)

But I don’t think this needs to be the case, and I think there are ways to thoughtfully pivot into a new type of non-profit org structure with tech at its core rather than its periphery (and from all angles — from a mission standpoint, an organizational structure standpoint, a resource standpoint, etc.)  This is why Ted and I have been talking more recently about how to prepare for success and accommodate a more intensive move into the tech space, thinking critically about our staffing needs and overall org structure, our resource allocations, and our impact measurement framework.  We want to make room for technology to become a core Moneythink offering, and to snugly situate ourselves around that offering however we can.  Looking forward to sharing what we learn along the way…