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Pillars of Social Innovation

3 guiding principles from the book “Lean Impact

Originally published in 2018, Ann Mei Chang’s book “Lean Impact” quickly became a reference guide for both newbies and experienced practitioners in the field of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. As a metter of fact, the book builds on the best practices from the “Lean Startup Movement” and discusses how they can be adapted to create radically greater social good. Given the importance of Chang’s volume, we decided to dig into some of its content. In particular, in this article we will analyze what are three main pillars of social innovation. So, without further ado.. let’s begin!

What to consider as “social innovation”?

With more than 20 years of experience across for-profit companies, NGOs and the US government, Ann Mei Chang became an acclaimed leading expert in the field of social innovation. But again, what does “social innovation” precisely mean?

In previous articles, we discussed what social problems are and how design thinking can help tackle them. But now it’s time to focus on social innovation in itself.

As often occurs, several definitions can be found out there. Some authors consider “social innovation” (SI) as the result of socially-oriented interventions, while others consider it as the set of processes and means used to get there. For all, however, SI aims to tackle and solve complex, societal issues.

In “Lean Impact”, Chang repeatedly claims that “social innovation is the path, whereas impact is the destination“. Based on this idea, we can rightfully claim that – at least for the author – SI should be seen as the process needed to create, develop and deploy new, effective solutions able to address systemic problems, rather its specific outputs/outcomes.

From this premise, we can now move on discussing its pillars.

3 Pillars of Social Innovation

According to Chang, in order to be truly effective social innovation must follow three main guiding principles. Let’s break them down.

1. Value

The first pillar builds on the concept of “value“. Regardless of the problem being tackled, social innovation should indeed provide people with real, substantial value at every stage of the process. In other words, nonprofits and social enterprises must offer something that their targets truly want, something truly needed, must-have solutions that people would be happy to use and to talk about with their relatives and friends. That’s what value is all about.

pillars of social innovation

2. Impact

Something considered as valuable or even desirable doesn’t necessary lead to lasting, positive change. For instance, think about most products or services sold today. They really don’t move the needle in consumers lives! And that’s exactly how you get to the second pillar of social innovation: “impact“.

What Chang means with this term is the ability/potential of a given solution to eradicate social problems and to radically improve the living conditions of communities and wider society. Value by itself is not enough to generate change. And again, as said before, impact is “the destination” of any social innovation, thus it should be relentlessly sought throughout the whole journey.

3. Growth

Lastly, social innovation must take growth and scalability into account. Sure, your solution may be highly impactful at an individual level. But can we really talk about “impact” being achieved if only few people are reached? Well, the answer is “no“, as the solution doesn’t succeed reaching out to all the multitudes in need. To avoid this pitfall, social entrepreneurs must understand early on what’s the most appropriate growth engine to implement for their enterprises.


Just like many of today’s buzzwords (“sustainability“, only to name one), “social innovation” is often misused and misinterpreted.

In this article, we analyzed this concept and discussed the three pillars of social innovation, as proposed by Ann Mei Chang: Value, Impact and Growth. As a matter of fact, quite too often organizations and enterprises tend to focus only on one (or maybe two) of these principles. Yet, according to the author, they should be all taken equally – and simultaneously – into consideration. But how to succeed doing it? Well, some answers can be found in Chang’s book “Lean Impact“.

And you? Do you agree with this vision? Or do you some dimension more important than the others? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below! 🙂

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