Getting Beyond Better

By Roger Martin and Sally Osberg

(Harvard Business Review Press, 248 pages, $37.50)

Societal change often comes from business or government, as they challenge orthodoxies and move us forward. Yet some challenges aren’t well suited to either business or government.

Business-led transformation, after all, is limited to customers or customers-to-be and driven by profit.

By contrast, government-led transformation can be mandatory rather than voluntary, is aimed at citizens, the scope is wide, and the purpose is social benefit. Social entrepreneurship fills in the gaps, Rotman School of Management professor Roger Martin and Skoll Foundation chief executive officer Sally Osberg point out in their book,Getting Beyond Better.

Social entrepreneurs adapt principles and practices from both government and business. Sometimes they are seeking profit, but mostly they are embarking on a social mission. Unlike the many social agencies around us, they are not content with just alleviating the problems of a narrowly defined group of people. They want to reach broadly and transform society.

One of the best known social entrepreneurs is Muhammad Yunus, who worked with villagers in India still mired in poverty despite the many programs aimed at them over the years. By offering them small loans, paltry amounts really, he helped them to create sustainable businesses for themselves. He never expected to be paid back but was, with interest. His effort was not charity – he felt charity was a way for people to shrug off problems – it was voluntary rather than government-mandated, and originally aimed at a small number of people although microcredit is now widespread.

The broad formula that social entrepreneurs follow is not that much different from any successful change. They try to understand the world around them, envision the future, build a model for change, and scale up their solution so that it benefits more and more people. But within those parameters, the authors uncover some useful techniques.

Social entrepreneurs need to intimately understand the status quo they are trying to transform. In doing so, they encounter three powerful tensions:

1. Abhorrence versus appreciation

Usually social entrepreneurs feel that something is horribly wrong. But that abhorrence isn’t sufficient to make a difference and change the equilibrium of forces currently entrenched. Social entrepreneurs must appreciate the system that they wish to change – why it exists, what holds it in place – in order to find the levers of change. “Without a balance between appreciation and abhorrence, they are likely to seek to ameliorate rather than transform a miserable condition, to rush to what seems an obvious but simplistic answer, to overlook some fatal flaw in an appealing idea, or to fixate on a single influential interest or actor rather than the ecosystem – all common actions that fall short of equilibrium change,” they write.

2. Expertise and apprenticeship

Social entrepreneurs often come to the problem they wish to fix as an expert in a specific area – Mr. Yunus, for example, was an economist. But that is only a starting point (and a trap, if the world is interpreted though just one perspective). The book’s stories of social entrepreneurs show how they apprenticed themselves to others who understood the situation better, assuming a position of naivete and learning. Being both expert and apprentice enables the individual to see what others don’t, and devise the path ahead nobody else has glimpsed.

3. Experimentation and commitment

“Social entrepreneurs feel confident in their understanding of the world but also recognize that there is much they don’t know. Rather than being paralyzed by the significant gaps in their knowledge, they design and run experiments to fill in these gaps,” they write.

Many social entrepreneurs fail by not being able to take their impact beyond the first small group of individuals they set out to help.

The most successful think right from the start about how to grow bigger and bigger. That involves designing an economic approach in which unit costs will fall with volume. “It is extremely difficult to scale an enterprise, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, if unit costs stay flat or increase with volume,” they point out.

Training a dog to sniff out land mine explosives, for instance, can cost upward of $40,000 (U.S.). But Apopo, a social action group founded by Bart Weetjens, learned the job can be carried out by trained rats for one-quarter that price tag – and those costs decline yet again when more rats are trained.

Working with others helps, notably choosing to be open source, sharing the approach and allowing others to build upon it. Nandan Nilekani, who co-founded Infosys, set out as a social entrepreneur to develop a unique identification number for everyone in India so that 400 million people would no longer be non-persons, unable to drive, work or vote. He gave away the enrolment platform he developed to about 30,000 partners to help create the massive scale needed for the venture.

The book offers some valuable insights and many fascinating stories for those seeking to understand social entrepreneurs or to join their ranks. But when the authors move from storytelling to theories, it can be slow going, with abstract concepts and academic-consultant language.


In The Global Code (St. Martin’s Press, 290 pages, $31.50) consultant Clotaire Rapaille looks at how a new culture of universal values is reshaping business and marketing.

The Elephant in the Boardroom (Career Press, 224 pages, $31.95) by leadership coach Edgar Papke shows how leaders can manage conflict to attain greater success.

Management Lessons from Taiichi Ohno (McGraw-Hill, 164 pages, $32.00) by former Toyota Taiwan President Takehiko Harada gleans lessons from the founder of the famed Toyota Production System.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 03, 2015 5:00PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 03, 2015 5:00PM EST