Large and lean?

By Harry Harrold

Broadly speaking, Neontribe works with big organisations in the travel industry - alongside the Lola Tech Team - and delivers much smaller projects for social good. What's interesting us at the moment is the lessons we can take between these two sorts of folk.

In the social good world, we've been lucky enough to be right at the heart of the development of the UK's tech-for-good world. For me along with many others it started at 2gether08, an small conference organised by Channel 4, who were customers of ours at the time. That led us to a first engagement with the UK's Comic Relief. We were part of a collaboration to deliver their "Innovation Labs", a series of experiments in how digital tools could help young people with mental health issues.

(As an aside, if anyone has a write-up of 2gether08 I'd love to read it. Someone described it as the "techforgood Woodstock" the other day, which I rather liked..)

The user-centred workshop process we used there came out of earlier work with the BBC. Our mantra then and now is: people, situations, ideas. Take your project objectives, examine the people you have in mind through the lens of the situations they find themselves in, and ideas will emerge. It's fractal too; those ideas can come at all levels from a new business or digital tool to a small enhancement to an existing digital service. We've more experience now, but that process is often still our first touchpoint with a big brand, and still enables us to make rapid progress to something we can build and test some more. Our experience is that the process is welcomed - the accent on people speaks to marketing teams' instinct for a focus there too, and the insights that operations people have gained in daily engagement with customers is invaluable input.

Where Comic Relief went next is also instructive. Having generated a set of ideas, they didn't put all their budget into one of them, they put smaller pots of funding into more than one, in an experimental, exploratory mode. Some of those projects were more successful than others, of course. We proud that Docready still sits on the web, helping thousands of people a year get the most out of a trip to see the GP. It's the lessons they learned there that inform their work now, and we've been pleased to continue that relationship. We're currently in our fourth project with them, again as development partner for a charity with a particular passion to help. That's something we've also seen in the travel industry - small experiments and pilots with the learning informing larger projects later.

There's something from the Lean start-up philosophy which we've seen developing more recently; the use of assumptions. A project we're particularly proud of started as a small experiment funded by the Nominet Trust and is now a global business, named a NESTA digital leader in 2016, one of the UK's civic tech 100 in 2017. Mind Of My Own has always worked on a build, measure, learn cycle; starting with an assumption, and building out an experiment to test it. This approach is championed in the tech-for-good world by organisations like CAST; the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology. Their lessons are really informing our latest projects; and formalising the testing of assumptions is something we're keen to spend more time on in the future. The key advantage of this approach is it drives you to consider the question: "What is that test?". There's often an instinct that the test is an actual service, to be examined by analytics, but there might be cost savings in considering deeper than that. Maybe the test is a prototype, maybe it's an advertisement, or a survey, or a deep dive into existing customer data.

Lean. A lesson from the world of startups, where speed is of the essence, that we've applied to projects for social good, where every project saving is more budget for front-line service, that can have real advantage for larger organisations.

(Written for and first published at