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Sally Osberg on How We Can Get Beyond Better

Sally-OsbergMy guest today, Sally Osberg. She’s the CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and if you’re in the world of a social entrepreneurship you know that name well. Sally and Roger Martin, a previous guest on this podcast, have written a terrific book, called Getting Beyond Better, How Social Entrepreneurship Works.

In this podcast, Sally and I sit down to discuss:

  • The four different stages of change
  • What works and what doesn’t
  • How you can really scale the impact in the work that you do

And, much much more! So, click that play button below and listen in.

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Full Transcript

Michael: If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s a fair bet that you’re looking to do better at your work. You want to have more impact, you want to find work that has more meaning, you want to make a difference, you want to feel proud and fulfilled when you get home after work to say, “You know, I put in an honest work’s day today and it’s actually making an impact out here.”

Well, for some of us, and it’s not me, I wish it was in some ways, we’re looking not just to do well in our work but we’re actually looking to try and transform our society. There’s something about our society that is driving us crazy, that fills us with, if you like, an abhorrence, a horror, you go, “I can’t tolerate that anymore.” And that’s who we call “social entrepreneurs.” People who are looking to, through direct action, through entrepreneurialness, actually change the systems in which they’re working. And that is a remarkably powerful and a remarkably difficult thing to do.

Plenty have tried. Plenty have struggled. You know, I can’t remember the name of the TED talk but I know there’s a TED talk out there about here’s all the ways we failed when we came in and we tried to fix the thing that was broken. I’m excited to be talking to my guest today, Sally Osberg. She’s the CEO of the Skoll Foundation. If you’re in the world of a social entrepreneurship you know that name well. And she and Roger Martin, a previous guest on this podcast, have written a terrific book. It’s called Getting Beyond Better, How Social Entrepreneurship Works. And I think you’ll find this a useful conversation. \

Even if you’re not in social entrepreneurship and you’re just interested in how change works, you know, in the conversation we uncover—we really go in depth around the four different stages of change. And Sally has some fascinating insights to share about what works, what doesn’t work, and how you can really scale the impact in the work that you do.

So enjoy now my conversation with Sally Osberg, CEO of the Skoll Foundation and author of Getting Beyond Better.

Sally, it is lovely to be talking to you this morning. Thank you for finding the time. And I want to get right into it. You know, the title of the book that you and Roger have written, it’s a great title. It’s Getting Beyond Better, How Social Entrepreneurship Works. And I was really intrigued by the title because getting beyond better, it sort of implies that there’s something beyond better, there’s something better than better. So let me ask you this: Why do we need to get beyond better? Why is better actually not enough?

Sally: Well, Michael, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you as well and thanks for that question. We thought actually long and hard about this because it’s not easy to find the words to talk about transformation without being a little pompous. And we really believe that entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they’re business entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs, strive for what we call equilibrium change. And that is really to reset an entire system and how it works. And so the premise of Getting Beyond Better is that good enough isn’t. Social entrepreneurs actually do try to remake, reshape, reconfigure an entire system. So we wanted to get at that idea, which is seminal to our theory of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship right from the get-go, hence Getting Beyond Better.

Michael: And I love that. And, you know, right at the start of the book you set up these different categories of social engagement, different ways of interacting, you know. And you’ve done the—I think this is probably Roger’s consulting background. You got this classic 2 x 2 matrix. On one side the type of action, either direct or indirect, and the other side the kind of the outcome that’s achieved, whether it’s maintaining the current social status or creating a new equilibrium, a new system. So maybe you could just tease the three different forms of action apart, so people can understand the three differences and then we can focus on getting deeper into social entrepreneurship.

Sally:  I’m absolutely delighted to do that. And this actually was one of our early efforts to define social entrepreneurship, actually to make the, as I said, the connection to entrepreneurship first and foremost and look at the trajectory of equilibrium change that both business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs go after. And then we thought, okay, well, there are these other actors in what we think of as the social space, the social sector. There’s social service providers, social advocates and social entrepreneurs. So our challenge was to really tease out what they have in common and what differentiates them. So we looked at both the outcomes, and both social advocates and social entrepreneurs are after equilibrium change trying to remake these systems. Social service providers and social entrepreneurs both act directly. Social advocates, actually, are trying to get someone else to do something.

So, in that, we’re actually able to create as you said this 2 x 2 and locate these different actors in the social sector. But within Beyond Better, we actually took that theory and went one step farther, arguing that in fact social entrepreneurs transcend sector; they actually adapt and appropriate principals of business entrepreneurship and principals of government policy in developing their models for change. So, while keeping this idea of differentiation, acting directly and making equilibrium change, we also looked at business entrepreneurship and government policy innovation as the two crucibles, really, of large-scale societal change and how social entrepreneurs negotiate the terms of both.

Michael: Now, my background is actually in the world of organizational change.  So in some ways parallel because you’re trying to create systemic change and trying to get to a new equilibrium, to use the language from the book, but it’s different. You know, it’s a more contained system. It’s probably easier than large-scale social change, and organizational change is really hard. It fails almost all of the time.

So I was really interested to see how your model moves into that kind of large-scale social change. And you actually set out four different transformational stages. There’s understanding the world, envisioning a new future, building a model for change and then scaling the solutions, or, actually scales up to have kind of bold system-wide impact. And I’m keen to untangle some of this. So, if we could start at the very first part of that which is understanding the world, why does that matter so much?

Sally: Oh, I think it’s absolutely key to the success of social entrepreneurs and it’s just as fundamental to the success of entrepreneurs. And there we had this realization that there is no straight shot to a solution, that every equilibrium, every existing status quo really has actors, it has forces, it has incentives and disincentives that actually hold that status quo in place. And if the social entrepreneur doesn’t understand that deeply, his or her intervention is not going to have much change of success.

And there, our example was Molly Melching who worked in Senegal, still works in Senegal, has worked in Senegal for her entire adult life, trying to transform the position of women in Senegalese and actually in West African culture generally. And her insight was that it’s these cultural norms and cultural practices that are so deeply held and rooted in the society that unless you were able to develop in the society itself, the members of the society itself, the ability to actually begin questioning some of those norms, you are never going to create change.

And Molly, like so many social entrepreneurs, sees the effects of really sales development of these technologies and practices that are actually imposed on cultures, on communities, on entire societies, and that fail. Usually very short order. So her insight was that you needed to really sit and work with in a very respectful, appreciative and deep way with communities so that they themselves would come to question some practices, like female genital cutting, for themselves. And once they do that, once they question them and decide to learn about, you know, learn about the benefits and the—you know, what doesn’t serve women very well, then they can be the agents of their own transformation. And this is absolutely key and we see this over and over again with social entrepreneurs.

Michael: You know, I love—in the chapter you talk about the tensions of coming to understand the world, because it’s far more complex than you might think because it’s not just going, “I’m going to come in and get to know this a little bit and then start rolling out my solutions.” You have this tension between an abhorrence, and you know, the story you were just telling the female genital cutting is, you know, an absolute—you know, that creates in many people, like, a deep, deep abhorrence, but you can’t just have an abhorrence because then you’re that external factor trying to impose your solution. You also have to have an appreciation, an empathy for what’s going on as well.

How do you—what have you seen from the people who have been successful entrepreneurs in terms of how they manage this tension between, you know, abhorrence and appreciation and also things like, you know, you come with a degree of expertise, so, like, Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank. He’s got an expertise in banking. But you also have to have a beginner’s mindset as well as you come to understand the system and the subtleties and how that works. How do people balance those tensions?

Sally: Well, they don’t actually balance them. They actually live with that tension. You know, as—who was it? Scott Fitzgerald who says the sign of a first-class mind is the ability to hold, you know, two ideas at the same time.

Michael: That’s right.

Sally: And I think, you know, there’s so much pressure to make binary choices. Social entrepreneurs really learn to live with these tensions between, as you’ve said, abhorrence and appreciation, this actual, you know, deeply rooted horror at some of these conditions and the acceptance of society that this is just the way it is, that this is their faith, this is their role in society. At the same time, appreciation for how the culture and how those practices and how those norms, how that system has come to be the way it is.

Same thing with expertise and what we’re calling apprenticeship. So many social entrepreneurs, and again, this was a big aha for us, whether it’s, you know, Jordan Kassalow and Vision Spring as an optometrist and seeing just how constrained people’s lives and livelihoods are if they don’t have access to simple reading glasses. He’s an optometrist so he can see that, but he doesn’t really understand the context. Why is that, you know, drugstore reading glasses aren’t available in these communities? Paul Farmer, an expert in public health, again working in developing world environments and just horrified at the lack of public health or any kind of health infrastructure.

So they understand that there is this deficit or this challenge in this society at the same time that they have a lot to learn about how it’s come to be and what they can do about it. So they—the social entrepreneur actually is an asset—brings an asset approach to this. So in the case of Paul Farmer for example, in the work of Partners in Health, they identify the community health worker as the agent of change, and as the critical actor. And so their entire model, Partners in Health, it’s empowering, educating and accompanying that community health worker and, then, their other partners in bringing health infrastructure to these communities.

So, it isn’t a matter of balancing these tensions; it’s actually living with them and accepting them and being able to negotiate the difference between them.

Michael: That’s so interesting. I mean, as human beings we are so wired to want certainty. It’s so much more …

Sally: We are.

Michael: … pleasant to have one or the other. Not to sit with both and go, “That is just the tension and the paradox of the situation.”

Sally: And that’s what yields the creativity, is that tension. You know, it’s a creative tension, it’s not a—you know, it’s not this binary opposition. So it’s living with that that unlocks the creativity of the—and the resourcefulness of the social entrepreneur.

Michael: The second phase of the transformation stage, and just as an aside, I like the way that you visualize this in your book, known as a kind of linear process, but like as expanding ripple on the pond.

Sally: Right. Thank you. I’m glad you like that, Michael.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, I know enough about change to know that if you think is a linear process, you don’t understand change.

Sally: That’s for sure.

Michael: So, you’ve got this kind of ripple. And the second ripple, the second kind of phase, is about envisioning a new future. And the phrase that I love that really kind of jumped out at me from the book is that it has to be compellingly superior. So can you talk about what it means to be able to take that leap that’s compellingly superior? What makes a vision compelling?

Sally: It’s the idea that this is a new future. The status quo is the present. It’s what exists. It’s a systemic injustice that leads to the marginalization, suffering or condition, unacceptable condition, for too many members of the society. That’s what appalls the social entrepreneur: to see people marginalized and suffering. But that’s the status quo. That’s the case with, you know, deforestation and illegal lobbying and the Amazon.

It’s the case with the lack of public health delivery, functional public delivery systems in the developing world, here in Africa in particular. So the compelling future is really what it looks like when it all works, when the system is remade, when there is—actually when the incentives are lined up, as in the case of the Amazon, so that preserving the ecosystem and finding sustainable ways to log and to harvest timber, that that’s in everybody’s ultimate best interest.

Same with health delivery. We talk about Writers for Health in the book. This organization that brings transportation management to health delivery in the developing world. Two motorcycle enthusiasts, you know, Barry and Andrea Coleman. They developed this entire transportation management protocol that actually ensures 100% reliability. You know, people think that science and vaccines and medicines are the key, and they’re essential. Just as essential, however, is getting those medicines and those treatments to people. And that requires a functional delivery system. And that’s the insight of the social entrepreneur. This is what this system could look like if the transportation worked.

Michael: So there’s something about the compellingness that is twofold. One is a boldness of outcome but the other one it feels that makes it compelling is that it’s a solution that understands the system. That it’s not just a fixing a symptom but actually has a more systemic approach to that.

Sally:  You’re absolutely right and that’s this idea of transformation: that it’s not an incremental improvement where, you know, take health delivery for example. Maybe the solution is okay, we’re going to have operating clinics in every community but when you factor the costs, when you factor in the—what it would take to operate and keep those clinics functioning, you realize how challenging it would be to achieve that. So the other aspect of this compelling solution is that it’s achievable.

The social entrepreneur is unlocking capacity that already exists, whether it’s in the Ministry of Health or it’s in communities or it’s in the actual—a member of the system itself. So empowering that community health worker unlocks the capacity of this system to actually serve its citizens far more efficiently, far more effectively. And you can visualize that, you can see it, and it seems logical, it seems rational, it seems doable. And that’s also a secret of the social entrepreneur’s effectiveness.

Michael: Yeah. My guess is that it’s one of those things that you know that when you see it you go, “Of course. That’s it.” But that’s actually a remarkably elusive piece, to go, “It’s both systemic, it’s bold but it’s also achievable.” To find the tension between those three things I imagine is not as easy as it might sound.

Sally: Not as easy as it might sound and, you know, a word I actually love is “resourcefulness.” So the social entrepreneur sees the potential in the status quo itself. He sees that there are the seeds of his transformation. So unlocking, as I said, the capability of citizens to achieve what’s in their ultimate best interests, as in the Molly Melching example, or with, you know, Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, it’s actually unlocking the capability of these community health workers. It’s, you know—the seeds of transformation are there and that’s this resourcefulness that the social entrepreneur brings to the solution.

Michael: Sally, the third part of transformation is building a model for change and this is when, you know, you’ve seen the vision, you’ve seen the reality, so you see the gap now. How do you bridge the gap? And, you know, as part of the Skoll Foundation, one of the things that you’re well known for is the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship or the—how do you pronounce it? The SASE or the …

Sally: We say “S-A-S-E.”

Michael: S-A-S-E. Perfect.

Sally: Yes, yeah.

Michael: And I know one of the stories you start the book with is going “once we started this award and we started getting applicants for the award, we had to start defining what we were talking about because we need to get clear about that.” I know, because you’ve made many of these awards, you started to see which models work. So I’m wondering, first of all … Talk to us a little bit about what you mean by “model” but then start saying, you know, are there any kind of trends or consistencies that you’re seeing that make for a successful model?

Sally: Yeah, it’s a really important point because the model for change transcends the organizational model or even the business model. So the model for change has to operate at the level of this status quo itself, of this ecosystem, and so that’s a really important distinction right there. And it’s not to say organizations and the structure adventurers and their business models aren’t important; it’s just to say to bring about change you have to work at this ecosystem level. Now, one of the insights we had, and this is in actually in part, in large part, because it’s something Roger realized, there are economics that actually underpin any status quo.

So there’s a cost and a value equation. There are people who are benefiting; there are people who are disadvantaged in this status quo. And so the social entrepreneur and the social entrepreneur’s model for change has to acknowledge and attempt to work with either the cost side or the value side or both in developing the model for change. And there you see that those social entrepreneurs who are able to develop a model where the benefit and the value grows as the costs come down that that’s a real secret to the fourth stage which is scaling the solution. But this model for change has to grapple with this underlying—these underlying economics and find a way to, as I said, either cut the cost significantly, and sometimes those are, you know, operating costs and sometimes those are capital costs.

So in the case of, for example, in Amazon, operating primarily in Brazil but in the Amazon Basin …

Michael: And this is to manage the illegal logging of the rain forest there.

Sally: Yes. And what they figured out how to do was adapt satellite imaging, the modus satellite imaging technology so that it would give the Brazilian government real-time data on illegal incursions into the forest. So you could see actually where the roads were being built, where runways were being built and so on, and therefore, you could get ahead of illegal logging.

Now, before Amazon figured out how to do this, to adapt this satellite technology, the government didn’t have real-time data. It only had it once a year and by then it was a retrospective, “Oh. Well, we’ve lost this much more forest.” And so it was essentially useless.

But the point here is that Amazon went after the capital cost element in building their model for change in adapting technology that already existed.

Michael: Nice.

Sally: Yes. And then they also figured out how to engage media and so media began publishing essentially black lists, which they’ve had the worst rate of deforestation because, again, Amazon made this information acceptable and all of a sudden the incentive shifts. Nobody wants to be on the black list anymore. They want to actually, you know, be accredited with a greener profile. So, you know, the government is empowered. It can use its regulatory fleet more efficiently and effectively.

Media has a role here and Amazon has figured out how to reduce the cost of developing this product that unlocks everybody’s capability and starts to shift this equilibrium. So deforestation in the last, you know, 20 years has come down more than 70% in the Amazon. In part, in part, because of Amazon’s work. Not entirely. But, there, that model for change, which went after, you know, diminishing the cost side and increasing the value side, that actually is a model that is far more significant than, actually, Amazon’s business model itself.

Michael:  I’m wondering, for the very final transformation stage, which is scaling the solution, have you noticed in the examples and the stories that you’ve seen and heard where do people stumble on that scaling piece? Because scalability is remarkably difficult. I mean, there’s a great book by Bob—oh, I’ve forgotten his surname—but it’s called Scaling for Excellence and it’s about scalability of smart solutions within an organizational context. And his general point is we solve this problem and then we fail to scale it.

Sally: Yes.

Michael: So what have you learned about what’s get in the way of successful scalability?

Sally: Well, one thing we discovered and it goes right to the point we were just discussing about the model for change is that the relationship between cost and value is critical. So if a unit of cost and a unit of value remain the same, it’s very difficult to scale a solution. So if your—it’s like an Andrew Youn who started his one acre fund in Kenya in 2006 with, you know, a handful of families bundling seeds, fertilizers, and a methodology for cultivation that’s designed to help rural farm families, increase their yield. He does this successfully first with a dozen families and three years later he’s up to 12,000 families at a cost of $350 per acre under cultivation. Five years later he’s, liked, 12 X—serving 12 X more families in Kenya at half the cost per acre under cultivation. So there you can see this trajectory that there’s greater value unlocked at a lower and lower price point. And that’s actually very—that accelerates the scaling process.

You know, donors, ministries of agriculture and the farm families themselves, the demand increases. The benefits, of course, accrues directly to the farm families but the model, the model and its increased value at a lower and lower price point actually has all the hallmarks of a great investment. And that is incredibly helpful.

And now part of our challenge, though, as the Skoll Foundation and as part of Roger’s and my motivation for writing this book is to help folks see this because we think social entrepreneurs offer this incredible opportunity to get a whole lot more bang for your development investment. And this is, in part, how they do what they do.

Michael: Sally, this has been a fantastic conversation. We’ve, in some ways, only just touched on the books that you and Roger Martin have written together, Getting Beyond Better, How Social Entrepreneurship Works, but you’ve given everybody listening a real hint as to kind of the insights and the value within the book, so thank you very much for that.

Sally: Oh, Michael, you’re welcome. Thank you.

Michael: For people who want to get the book of course they can go to a bookstore online or offline and pick it up but if people want to find out more information about the Skoll Foundation where would they go?

Sally: Well, they can go to our website which you can reach at and there you’ll get a picture into our learnings and our community of social entrepreneurs over the almost 15 years. And you’ll also be able to learn more about our founder, Jeff Skoll, who himself is a remarkable entrepreneur and a really, really incredible social entrepreneur.

Michael: Sally Osberg, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.

Sally: Thank you, Michael. I enjoyed it very much. Take care.

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