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Balance Bold & Believable by Bite-Sizing Social Transformation into “Proof of Concept”

By Diana Peacock

Time and time again in our research and our direct work with efforts tackling social problems at the magnitude they exist, we have seen change agents stuck in a precarious balancing act. Leaders of such efforts must constantly balance the need to inspire stakeholders with bold ambition while also providing reassurance that accomplishing dramatic progress is actually possible.

“Proof of Concept” is a strategic device we have helped our partners employ to hold steady on the balance beam of boldness and believability. Proof of Concept is a clearly articulated framework for how an organization will demonstrate that the combination of its strategies can achieve significant and sustained change.

Employing Proof of Concept empowers organizations to select smaller scale test environments within which to collect proof points, learn from results, refine strategies, and highlight successes to prove change is possible. For instance,

  • A collaborative focused on dramatically improving educational outcomes in a given community might select three particular schools or four specific cohorts of students to serve as its Proof of Concept.
  • An organization committed to transforming healthcare delivery across an entire state might select five urban and rural communities in the state or might choose two specific areas of healthcare to focus on first.

Incorporating Proof of Concept in this way allows organizations and collaboratives to proactively embed experimentation, failure, learning and accountability into their strategic mandate.

Proof of Concept also equips organizations to acknowledge and learn from the diversity that exists in the geographies and/or populations relevant to their bold goal. In many cases, differences in political climate, socioeconomic demographics, urbanity, etc. can call into question whether an organization’s strategies can truly be “replicated” into new environments. Through a Proof of Concept approach, organizations can preemptively temper such future objections by being strategic in selecting which geographies and populations to include as part of their Proof of Concept.

Two concrete examples:

1. Share Our Strength is pursuing disciplined, learning-focused experimentation in a handful of Proof of Concept states. In these states, Share Our Strength and its network of partners seek to demonstrate that it is possible to end childhood hunger by surrounding kids with the food they need through combining a variety of powerful strategies and interventions. These Proof of Concept states will provide models that other states can learn from to eliminate childhood hunger among their constituents. Share Our Strength believes that by 2015 the US will have the set of proven strategies we need to end childhood hunger across the nation.

2. For decades plastic bags were the norm in supermarkets and stores around the country, despite their deleterious environmental effects. In 2007, a small group of innovative individuals, activists, and city-wide leaders in San Francisco came up with an idea to change this norm: ban plastic bags across the city. San Francisco enacted a plastic bag ban just months later. Once San Francisco demonstrated that this change was possible, environmental groups in cities across the United States took up the cause. Today, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and 30 other localities across the country have a tax or ban on plastic bags, with state-level bills pending in 8 states. After Proof of Concept was demonstrated in one city, the idea has spread rapidly, creating the building blocks for national norm change.

As highlighted by these examples, the objective of Proof of Concept is not to rigidly deploy a transplanted model from one community to another; rather, Proof of Concept is focused on building a “pull economyfor the results demonstrated. If the Proof of Concept geographies/locations are appropriately diverse and the results are clear and compelling, influencers in other communities should seek out the organization or collaborative.

Finally, change agents should beware that Proof of Concept is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings accountability for making significant change closer to the here and now: if the effort fails to demonstrate significant change within Proof of Concept locations or populations, then the effort will struggle to expand to meet the magnitude of the problem. On the other hand, demonstrating success in Proof of Concept can create or accelerate demand for the work of the organization or collaborative, propelling the effort closer to its long-term goal.

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Diana Peacock

About Diana Peacock

As a director, Diana Peacock engages in strategic partnerships with leadership teams, provides client engagement oversight and supports the overall growth and development of the firm. Diana has worked with a broad range of nonprofits and foundations, with particular focus on youth-serving, family services, and community development organizations. She has deep experience leading non-profit executives and Boards through strategy design and business planning, helping them pivot their organizations’ focus to meet growing needs and solve bigger social problems. Diana excels at assisting organizations with defining their impact, especially in highly complex environments, and has facilitated a successful merger of two national nonprofits. See Diana's full bio

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