Lessons in systemic entrepreneurship. The time is now.

Late last fall I had the opportunity to conduct an intensive review of the Vartana initiative on behalf of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.  Vartana was an initiative to create a chartable bank in Canada dedicated to serving the voluntary sector. It held the promise of changing the availability of capital for the sector and as a Schedule I chartered bank, influencing the Canadian financial services industry. While ultimately felled by the financial services collapse of 2008, it holds some valuable lessons in entrepreneurial pursuit of systemic change.

In brief, the key lessons learned were:

  • Systemic interventions amplify strategic vulnerabilities
  • Ideation is the missed opportunity in systemic entrepreneurship
  • Communication is a critical organizing capacity

To put it simply, systemic entrepreneurship is, well, really stinkin’ hard. The path is more ambiguous, the context more complex, and resistance greater. It tests the entrepreneurial process to its fullest. If I look to my own entrepreneurial experiences, communication was always the ultimate core infrastructure. But the more systemic the aims, the riskier the initiative and the longer and more iterative the ideation process. It’s in those areas that entrepreneurial self-destruction most show their face.

From the Vartana experience, I found:

Vartana demonstrates that initiatives seeking systemic change require both adequate investment in up front ideation and strategy formulation and an infrastructure that has the capacity to respond commensurately to systemic resistance and volatility.

More broadly, I pressed the issue of entrepreneurial infrastructure:

…entrepreneurial infrastructure is not to be confused with conventional governance models that focus on executive limitation. Rather it should be designed to enable proactive and focused attention to governance, strategy, and execution. It must enable founding contributions from many; leveraging instead of hampering what are traditionally seen as conflicted roles like founder and funder. It must enable entrepreneurs to do the impossible in an environment that is flexible, yet that has the capacity and rigour to address the scale of the challenge at hand. It must create a space that nurtures meaningful engagement, rapid iteration and routine reflection, and transparent decisionmaking that remains grounded in achieving the intended impact with optimal levels of investment.

It reminds me a lot of what I’ve since read in The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison of Deloitte’s Centre for Edge. Even the sub-line “How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion” echos of systems thinking and social innovation.

Which brings me to my final point. As we pay attention to the systems of our society and find whatever we are working on increasingly influenced by changes in those systems… we elevate ourselves out of traditional sectoral silos. This isn’t an issue isolated to commercial, social, government or civil sectors. It’s an issue about our future and particularly those intent on creating a better future, sooner.

So, whether you buy into the Big Shift, the Great Reset, the Macropocalypse, the Macroshift, the Great Remix, or just think “we’re screwed”, the time is now. It’s about our future. Don’t wait. Try. Reflect. Share. Repeat.

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Inspiring students. What would you tell them?

I’m scheduled to open the Social Innovation @ Ivey Form and have been asked to get the audience of students ‘fired up’ about social entrepreneurship and innovation. What would you tell them?

They are currently deciding on which electives to take and of course what career path to take – a big part of why I love doing these talks. I’ve been asked to tell my story, touch on social entrepreneurship and social finance and have 30 minutes to do it.

Earlier this year I gave the presentation below. It generated some good feedback but I felt like it missed the mark. Any suggestions appreciated. How would you get them moving toward #socent?

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Sparkin’ up our future leaders.

I was invited by Maria Antonakos of Opus Philanthropy to speak to her Philanthropy class in the Commerce program at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. She asked me to talk about social finance and ‘a little bit about how you ended up doing what you do”.

I prepared the short presentation below to give the overview of social finance, social enterprise, and social innovation but somehow ended up getting into some fun rants about making choices to venture toward a just and sustainable society. I learned that they were just beginning to make their career choices and over the conversation I realized what an extraordinary privilege we have in our society to take risks and know that if we fail there is a strong support structure around us. Our main fears of failure relate to ego – not survival. Ironic really because if we don’t take risks and venture forward to create a better future we are playing with the possibility that we actually put our survival at stake. A bit drastic maybe but worth a thought. Bottom line, while some think that now’s a terrible time to start a business, if it’s a social venture I don’t think there’s ever been a better time.

Apparently my rants inspired them as I’ve now been invited to speak at their World Congress in the Student Development track. Based on the amount of fun I had – I can’t wait to do it again!

Social Stuff 101

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: social finance)

Full presentation available here (Keynote format)

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The parallels of Web 2.0 with the Open Source and Social Innovation threads

The recent issue of the Open Source Business Review is all about Social Innovation – what appears to be a an experiment in seeing how these two memes both converge and diverge. (hat tip to Mark Surman for pointing me there).

At the same time, this convergence is not unique to those fields. The quotes below from a recent post by Brad Burnham at Union Square Ventures point to some very strong parallels to the content in some of the pieces in the Open Source Business Review.

The common threads among all these areas are systems level work approached with a common emerging values/mindset in the context of pervasive adoption of communication and collaboration technologies. They are also employing a new mode of organization that is increasingly permeable, iterative, and emergent.

In a society that is at its physical limits and where the systems that took it there are breaking down, this type of convergence isn’t surprising but it is encouraging. For those who can navigate it, the transition might not be comfortable, but it is full of opportunity.

clipped from www.unionsquareventures.com
Craigslist. That service is essentially a very lightweight governance system that manages an enormous collection of users who contribute all of the content and much of the oversight that makes the service work. It is because Craig and Jim focus on managing the efforts of their users instead of doing the work of those users that Craigslist is so phenomenally efficient. Many of the most interesting web services are like Craigslist, at their core, lightweight governance systems. Facebook and Twitter come to mind.
It used to be that innovation started with NASA, flowed to the military, then to the enterprise, and finally to the consumer. Today, it is the reverse.
The creators of these services recognize that services like theirs will ultimately disrupt the economics of many, if not most, parts of the global economy in much the same way that Craigslist collapsed the multi-billion dollar classified industry into a fabulously profitable multi-million dollar web service.
blog it
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The Great Remix

Part of my silence over the last few months has been from some deep-digging I was doing in an engagement with the Social Innovation group at MaRS and with the Centre for Social Innovation. One of the great things about the engagement was an opportunity to push deeper into what’s underneath social innovation, social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. What’s come from that is seeping into most everything I’m doing right now – and so it’s about time I get back to posting what I’ve been discovering.

Perhaps the most profound observation during the course of this exploration is that social innovation and social entrepreneurship are not so much intentional movements as they are phenomena of the evolution of civilization.

As civilization reaches an increasing degree of complexity we are being confronted by the limits of the system that created it. This is being experienced as systemic instability and failure in everything from credit markets to climate change to the remix of the music industry. While we don’t know how things will evolve, we can be sure that whether through intentional actions or systemic collapses, we are entering a period of increasing reconfiguration – “the Great Remix”

At the same time numerous fields of study are converging on the realization that “everything is connected” and that connectedness, connectivity, and emergence are fundamentally important areas of understanding. This realization is key to learning how we might successfully steer our civilization toward a just and sustainable state.

The movements of social finance/innovation/entrepreneurship/tech all bring different perspectives and at the same time share a common ground. From this common ground will come the new initiatives and systems that change the trajectory of our evolution.

Common Ground
The frontiers of the evolution of civilization share the common ground of:

Interdependent in a “common goal”
Acknowledging a greater common goal of a just and sustainable balance among people and the planet.

Driven forward by “purpose primacy”
People and initiatives that hold a primary purpose directly related to the common goal are the catalysts of civilization’s evolution toward a just and sustainable state.

Action taken through a “practical approach”
The strategies and actions of these people and initiatives tend towards:

  • Sustainable financial viability;
  • Practical and productive application of techniques and approaches from non-traditional domains; and
  • Distributing increasing control, earnings, and assets into the communities they serve.

The people and initiatives in this domain tend to be increasingly expressive of the following values:

  • Exhibiting the qualities of open, fluid, and dynamic
  • Providing spaces for people as they are and as they want to become
  • Embracing the richness and wisdom in differences
  • Acting with a light spirit, sense of fun, creativity and a perspective of opportunity

I’ll post some more excerpts from this (‘Doing Differently…‘  and ‘Forces at play…‘) and my other recent work over the coming weeks as I get back into the groove.


After much prodding a picked up the book ‘Getting to Maybe‘ and started reading it on the weekend. I have been pushing deeper into ‘the entrepreneurial approach’ and working with the idea that it is more about the creating/holding the space for things to emerge. This morning I read the chapter called ‘Let It Find You’ which is all about emergence. I am more convinced that in this element of entrepreneurship/social innovation is the ‘magic’ that can be amplified and applied to restoring balance among people and the planet.

Traditional incubators have often focused on either a single accomplished entrepreneur or a support services which can be helpful but don’t get at the core of entrepreneurship/innovation. The growing celebrity of social entrepreneurs has put a focus on the individuals again as a source of entrepreneurship but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The space that allows things to emerge can be held/created within an individual, a session/conversation, a group, or a network/community. ‘Getting to Maybe’ does a great job of presenting the importance of having things emerge. I’m hoping now to dig deeper in the ways that happens and how it can be intentionally created and held for maximum benefit. Certainly there is much to build from here, especially from people/places like the Institute of Cultural Affairs (here, here, and here) where they have spent lifetimes living, observing, and understanding how things emerge from the ground up. If you have some other great resources I should be looking at please let me know.