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Shift’s development process for social ventures

By: Nick Stanhope and Tori Flower
On: 9th January 2015
Organisation name: Shift
Project name: We Are What We Do Social Innovation

Over the last 10 years, we have set out to change behaviours in positive ways and have a measurable, sustainable impact on complex social problems, such as mental health, obesity and social isolation. We’ve learnt a lot, from what has worked and what hasn’t, and from what looked like it was working and actually wasn’t! As a result, our organisation has been through substantial change, moving from communications to product design and from project delivery to venture incubation.

Over this time, we have sought to record, question, test and refine the process that shapes and structures our work. More recently, as part of our three year partnership with the Nominet Trust, we have intended to codify and share this process more explicitly, both for our own benefit and in the hope that other mission-driven designers and social entrepreneurs find it useful.

This piece is the first in a series of five posts from our CEO and Creative Director. This introduction outlines the overall approach and the stages of the process. We will move on to focus on each of these stages individually, providing details on how they have evolved through trial and error and examples from our own work and other successful ventures.

The four stages that we use to structure this process - problem definition, incubation, acceleration, growth - are quite recognisable and generic, mapping fairly neatly onto conventional phases of investment, but we believe that contained within their detail and the way they fit together, there is a distinct approach to putting scalable, sustainable behaviour change products and social ventures into the world, each consisting of strong strands of social, user and financial value.

1. Problem definition

This phase puts in place the foundations for the development of new products and ventures, establishing a theory of change which provides the success criteria for every concept, prototype and business case that emerges from future phases. At the heart of this theory of change is a simple equation relating to our behavioural and social aims - action + actor = outcome -  which has been draws on Steve Wendell’s excellent Designing for Behaviour Change. The development of these equations rely on identifying strong existing evidence for clear links between specific behaviours, proven outcomes and key audiences.

In order to identify and understand the strongest potential sources of social, user and financial value for future products and ventures, this phase must intertwine activities that traditionally take place in separate organisations, such as an analysis of academic evidence on a particular social issue and market research into patterns of consumer behaviour amongst particular target audiences. Over the last 5 years, it has become clear that the quality and depth of our problem definition phase and the design brief that emerges from it is sharply reflected in the effectiveness of our products, as well as the usefulness of these briefs to other designers and entrepreneurs.

2. Incubation

The evolution of our approach to behaviour change has seen us move from designing one-off projects to creating self-sustaining products and, more recently, from building up a portfolio of consumer products within Shift to spinning out a series of independent social ventures as more effective long-term vehicles for these products. As a result, what we would have previously defined purely as a concept and prototyping stage, we now judge on the quality of the business model and the resulting investment proposition that emerges.

The main activities of this phase, of course, are still focussed on design, through a rigorous process that has been influenced by our own experience over the last ten years and leading practitioners in this area, in particular the Design Council and IDEO.

Using the design brief that emerges from our problem definition phase, we work with a consortium of partners and draw on the energy and expertise of a wide range of designers and social entrepreneurs to develop a series of product concepts, which are refined and narrowed through consultation and further research. Before any prototype development on the strongest concepts, a basic proof of concept is created, normally using existing tools and products. This is tested until we are able to measure early evidence of intended behavioural and social outcomes and we have a clear brief for prototype development. At this stage the core operating and financial model is also sketched out so as to confirm that a profitable and scalable business can be built around the emerging concepts.

With the right partnerships and team members in place, prototype development continues for an extended period, working through several phases of testing and iteration and building up to live tests of increasing scale, generating stronger and stronger evidence of measurable impact and traction amongst the target audience. Alongside this, ongoing market research and consultation feeds the development of the business plan and investment proposition, which represents the main output of the phase.

3. Acceleration

As the design process moves from prototyping to full product development, so the role of the core Shift team changes. An independent venture is established with a dedicated management team, funded by external investment (in a form that best suits the venture and its business model) which has been raised by the Shift team using the business plan developed for the venture at the end of the Incubation phase. Shift takes up three main ongoing functions: a) the measurement and evaluation of the social value of the venture, against the original theory of change b) investment management and ongoing commercial advice that supports the continual refinement of the business model and subsequent fundraising activities c) the role of shareholder guardian of the venture’s social purpose.

With this support and governance structure in place, the venture team works through start-up stages of development and launch, fulfilling the first phase of its business plan. Amongst the creation of a market ready product, brand and the establishment of launch and distribution partnerships, the progress of Shift ventures continue to be measured on the balanced growth of the three stands of essential value: social value, user value and financial value.

4. Growth

The intended trajectory for all our ventures is to become scalable, self-sustaining entities, building core expertise and resource from which a stream of effective, popular products can flow. This intended trajectory provides the criteria for ongoing growth phases.

The development and delivery of further stages of the venture’s business plan draws on learning from the start-up phase to attract subsequent rounds of investment and move towards financial sustainability. As the venture team evolves to meet these needs, Shift’s role remains consistent, across measurement and evaluation, investment management and governance. Ultimately, Shift aims to ensure that its overall aims and objectives are delivered through these growing ventures, with a focus on increasing the scale and depth of social value and generating, eventually, financial returns that provide further investment in new products and ventures.