Insights from Myanmar: 3 key lessons for (social) entrepreneurship

Let me start by introducing myself: I’m Anneleen Vanhoudt. Throughout my professional career, I have repeatedly been asked: Isn’t Design Thinking just common sense? What is it that makes Design Thinking so different from other innovation approaches?

I recently had the privilege to support NGO’s in setting up a social enterprise. Together with the ingenious Pepal team and talented directors from JNJ, I traveled to Yangon (Myanmar) to support the local teams through the startup process by applying Design Thinking.

Our goal for Social Entrepreneurship

The project teams were multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural, which put everyone outside of their comfort zone – thus, an intense learning experience for everyone.

To reply to the questions I opened with, there are 3 elements that are key to Design Thinking and can serve as accelerators to other innovative approaches such as Lean Startup.


1. Look for the right entrepreneurs

Social enterprises can only be successful if you have a talented and dedicated team. Even though you might have the greatest idea, if you don’t have the right team, it will very likely remain just an idea. In contrary, if you have a crappy idea but the right and bright team (who learns fast) behind it, there is a chance that it will grow a successful business.

Look for this kind of buddies when you need to build a kickass innovation team

During the Innovation Week, Kaung Myat (on the right in the picture) was one of the participants who most actively showed entrepreneurship and willingness to steer his team towards a successful business proposition. Look for this kind of personalities when you need to build a kickass innovation team

Also during our Innovation Week in Myanmar, the initial start-up ideas were not well defined and very much challenged by the visitors in terms of financial viability or technological feasibility. So, we sent the teams on field visits to observe the operating context of the local entrepreneurs. During the visit, they derived a common understanding of the needs of the target audience. This made the atmosphere shift from challenging towards empowering the entrepreneurs in their ideas.   

You cannot force a new idea on a person but need to listen to the team and let businesses arise from there, from their passions, from their own ideas. Afterwards, it is the responsibility of the team to create enough awareness from the top. That’s where we meet each other in the middle.


2. Damn critical thinking, preach positive thinking

When developing new products/services/business units, it’s very easy to be tempted by critical thinking. Indeed, often times, initial ideas sound just absurd – and “this can’t work” is the first thing you may have in mind. As we’re talking about something new, there are many uncertainties involved. And of course, you can test your assumptions by breaking things down (as suggested in the Lean Startup methodology) but in the end, it is the holistic experience of a new proposition that makes it a success. When breaking down the new initiative, you’re putting innovation in an engineering process (which is what often happens in corporate environments). 

When the teams came back from the field visits, we used energizers and creativity techniques to stimulate positive and creative thinking. We did a brain writing exercise to stretch their minds and so that teams could collaboratively make the business idea better.

Positive Thinking

I want to encourage everyone to forbid “yes, but” in your workshops, and to say “yes, and” instead. This is an easy mind trick to think positively and build upon shared ideas so that you can make them better. Explore every possibility with a sense of curiosity, rather than probabilities.


3. Design Thinking create common ground, Lean Startup creates action

But as always it isn’t black and white. Design thinking is far from perfect and can likewise learn a lot from other innovation approaches, such as Lean Startup methodologies – see this scheme to learn about the relationship between Design Thinking and Lean Startup.

By going on field trips together with the multi-disciplinary team, people got the same viewpoint which created common ground within the teams. But also during those trips, we gave the social entrepreneurs some initial start-up money to let them try out the business.

The happy faces when Design Thinking and Lean Startup get to work together

This gave many insights, not only about the new product or service (which you also get in a Design Thinking process through prototyping) but also about the pricing model, etc. Furthermore, having tangible outputs gave the team the necessary energy to move forward.

θwɑː dɒ meə (Goodbye)! 


I’m Anneleen Vanhoudt, Innovation Manager @ Hyperion Group. Spreading innovation culture is in Board of Innovation’s DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to their mission by sharing this article.

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