“You must ask the kind of questions to which you don’t currently know the answer, but if you did, you’d change the way you operate. If you already know the answer, or if you are testing an insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, you’ll just be wasting time and money.” Peter Diamandis, Founder of The XPRIZE and Singularity University
To zero in on the testing you need, you have to balance two perspectives. On the one hand, you want to be aware of and prepare for all key risks/thresholds as you move from where you are now to what you want your social venture to be when it is in its ‘steady state’ (i.e. your model has proven to be a success and growth is predictable and steady. A typical barometer in this regard is what your venture will look like five years after it starts). This will also help make sure you are building towards your goals rather than building a bridge to nowhere (this is a significant risk for start-ups, as discussed below). On the other hand, a lot of your current assumptions will be wrong, so you don’t want to go into too much detail too far down the road.
To get the best of both worlds, we suggest a ‘Zoom Out and Zoom In’ approach.
*Please note that this blog on testing and learning has been designed to help you get into the nitty gritty aspects of creating a specific test for your venture. Should you be looking for an introduction to the concepts and some high level tips, check out our blog on Effective Learning
The “Zoom Out/ Zoom In” Framework
Think of yourself as a mountain climber. You don’t want to run out of rope, or oxygen, or fall to your death on the way to the top. First, you do a zoom out, a high level mapping of the path to get to the top. You keep an eye out for major challenges you will have to get through – say a huge rock formation that you will have to go around (requiring more rope), or a portion where you would have to do some straight up climbing (requiring carabiners; the small, metal clips that allow climbers to attach themselves to the mountain wall). You wouldn’t get too granular, that would be impossible as you would need to know the exact conditions and that is hard to predict at the bottom of the mountain. But you want to make sure there are no huge mystery gaps – if it is a complete mystery how you will get from summit D to summit E, that’s a prescription for disaster. Then, when you actually start up the mountain and reach a given point, say the huge rock formation you knew you would have to get around, you zoom in, examining it in great detail. Does that stretch still look safe to go around? Next, you test the rocks and ice right next to you to see if they are solid and it is safe to proceed. You look for a specific, detailed, safe path, and test each step before you proceed. And yes, the combination of a great mentor; advisory teams; and a friendly, wise skeptic is like having a super Sherpa.
Zoom Out (High Level): Imagine your venture is like climbing Mount Everest. You need to build a high-level, logical trail of key stages/thresholds (‘camps’) between your goal (the top of the mountain) and where you are now (your ‘base camp’)
Reminder: In Steps 1 to 3 described below, you shouldn’t get into granular detail, as chances are many of your assumptions will be wrong.
Step 1:The Path
Staying at a high level
a) Think of your steady state goals– that’s the top of Mount Everest that you want to get to (your goal, your “why”);
b) Describe where you are at right now – that’s your base camp;
c) What are the key stages/ thresholds (additional camps) that will get you from point a (basecamp/ where you are now) to point b (summit/ reaching your steady state goals).
Step 2: The Risks
Again, staying at a high level what makes each key stage/ threshold risky (what do you fear, how can being wrong hurt you?) and how you could eliminate or reduce each risk?
Step 3: Mind the Gap
Identify any major gaps (i.e. where you have no idea how you will get from one key stage to the next) or giant leaps (something that will be crucial but you don’t know how you will get it). What is your plan to get the information you need to safely fill in those gaps or safely make those leaps?
For example, let’s say your steady state goal is to buy a van so you can make 1,000 deliveries: To lower that risk, what if you rented a van before you bought one (renting is cheaper/ safer than buying)? To lower that risk even further, what if you could borrow a van from a friend to do 500 deliveries before you rent one (borrowing is cheaper/ safer than renting)? To lower that risk even further, what if you felt you could do 200 deliveries in the car you have before you borrow a van (using what you have can be cheaper/ safer than borrowing, especially if you haven’t built up the orders to justify a van)?
Now you can work your way up to 1,000 deliveries in lower risk stages, assuming you satisfy the requirements to move on to the next stage. If you don’t satisfy the requirements to move on to the next stage, you can stop with low risk and limited exposure to your venture and reassess what’s going wrong. For example, if you are consistently doing 200 deliveries in your own car, you can move with confidence to the next stage of borrowing a van. If you aren’t consistently doing 200 deliveries, try to figure out why you aren’t.
Ideally, you can create a chain working backwards from your steady state with smaller and smaller, and therefore less risky, experiments until you get to what will be your initial pilot.
Zoom In (Detailed, Deep Dive): Now imagine you are on Mount Everest, you have your “zoom out” plans to guide you, but you are testing the safety of the ice right in front of you before you take your next step. Look at your immediate next key stage, and dig deep (test the ice) on how to test how you will get there in a way that would warrant (or guide) moving forward
Based on your zooming out, pick your next step and devise a detailed test that will eliminate the risk of that situation:
a) Get as granular on that specific risk as you can, breaking it down even further into a sequence of decreasing risks that ends with either no risk or the smallest risk possible (i.e. you don’t want to test the ice by jumping on it, you want to test the ice carefully);
b) Identify exactly how to remove the remaining uncertainty with the least expensive, easiest and fastest test possible. Make sure you have found your ‘ice tester’ – a test where the results can be used to move on to your next step;
c) Record the numerical results you anticipate from the test and explain how what you will learn from those results will help you move on to the next step (be specific); and
d) Do a quick pre-test check: Imagine the test results are half what you expected and then twice what you expected. In both cases, what specific insights would you gain that you can use to improve your efforts (make sure you won’t just be jumping to conclusions).
You may struggle to decide which issue should fit in the ‘zoom out’ versus the ‘zoom in’ when it comes to your venture. Don’t worry about that. It is more important to make sure that, through both exercises, you have a basic map of where you want to go, identified all the risks, and, when the time is right, further break them down into a series of increasingly granular de-risking tests.
- Always Write Down What You Think Will Happen: make sure you note your understanding and estimations of what will happen, and the views of your key advisors, before you test: “… the failure of the ‘launch it and see what happens ‘ approach should now be evident: you will always succeed – in seeing what happens. Except in rare cases, the early results will be ambiguous, and you won’t know whether to pivot or persevere, whether to change direction or stay the course” (Ries 161).
- Common Assumptions: don’t look at it until you have tried to identify all your key assumptions (otherwise you will be overwhelmed), but here is a list of common assumptions for you to review. Feel free to read it and compare it against the worksheet you have filled out and see if it helps you catch any key assumptions you may have missed.
- Avoid ‘Russian’ Ahead: good testing and monitoring won’t just inform your work, it will drive behaviour. A cautionary tale in this regard relates to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The leadership decided to track a nail factory by focusing on productivity, defining productivity by tonnage of nails produced. Factory leaders responded by switching production to huge railway spikes that weren’t really needed. When the party bosses figured out what was going on, they switched the measure to number of units. The factory leaders switched to tiny nails that were mostly useless (Grenny 23). While the Soviet Union example may be extreme, the law of unintended consequences is everywhere. To stay on course, keep in mind, the most important thing to gauge is “are you improving your targets’ lives?” (Christensen 209), and testing is all about learning how to make your offerings more effective at improving those lives (Moore 222).
- A Chain is Only as Strong as its Weakest First Link: don’t forget, while the most expensive items in your plan may jump out at you as the key areas of risk, your chain of risk should also work its way back to the most basic of assumptions/risks: does the customer actually want your product and are they willing to pay what you want them to?
Aulet, Bill. Disciplined Entrepreneurship. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Christensen, Clayton M., Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David. S. Duncan. Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. HarperCollins, 2016.
Grenny, Joseph, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, & Al Switzler. Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Vital Smarts, 2013.
Gunther McGrath, Rita, and Ian C. MacMillan, Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity. Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.
MacMillan, Ian and James Thompson. The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook. Wharton Digital Press, 2013.
Moore, Geoffrey A. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers. HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
Reis, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation To Create Radically Successful Businesses. The Crown Publishing Group. 2011