A couple weeks ago a few of us DFA Fellows attended the Impact Engine’s “Choosing the Best Legal Structure for Your Impact Business.” I originally signed up for the event in preparation for a year ahead helping DFA projects continue and implement, positively impacting their intended users and stakeholders. I ended up leaving with my wheels spinning, running to synthesize some big ideas and how they relate to DFA.

Here are a few things I took away from the stimulating panel discussion:

1. Understanding where others fall on the continuum is key to communication and progress.  

From teams that are working for an idea to teams that are working for an outcome or from investors that care deeply about mission to investors that care deeply about financial returns, everything and everyone is on a continuum. It is so important to understand where people and organizations lie. In other words, always know your audience.

It’s funny that this idea is harder said than practiced on things we might not consider part of human-centered design “projects” such as workshops, social media, conversations with prospective partners and even blog posts. Here in the office, we have been trying to approach every task as a design prompt.  Applying the design process and this mentality shouldn’t allow for a misunderstanding of what our audience values. How can we consistently define where our audience lies on the continuums we share?

2. Making all decisions deliberate decisions is hard but crucial when building.

The panel discussed that if entrepreneurs are strategic and foresee how they’d like to attract impact investors, lead a movement, attract talent, or participate in campaigns, they’ll choose the right legal structure for them. Yet only 1 out of the 3 entrepreneurs on the panel stuck with their initial legal structure. Nancy Goldstein, Founder and Chief Strategist of Compass(X)Strategy brought up an insightful point that at the beginning stages of forming her business, she poured over every word yet she didn’t give much thought into what type of legal structure her new business would take.

We can all relate to this. We face thousands of decisions each and everyday. I even recently heard that we have a limited amount of decision-making power in one day and we should try to limit the number of decisions we face before work in the morning. Let’s save up our decisions. In building an idea, or even better, in a journey for desirable outcomes, how can we correctly prioritize what decisions need more time and deliberation? Setting goals and strategizing are a few ways to tackle this question but it’s so easy to get bogged down in “doing” and forget to be see the bigger picture. How can we balance “doing” while still building a strategy? This is a common question discussed in the office and the panel highlighted how important that discussion really is.

3. Including slap stats about the challenge area in presentations and pitches says more than you think.

Coming from a rather holistic human-centered design master’s program, the majority of my final presentations stressed creating empathy for the user and that awe about the potential of the size of the market. When I came to DFA I noticed they emphasized using a statistic directly related to the significance of the problem. It’s somewhere in between or is a mashup of both the human-centered and scalable points but it creates a seamless connection that makes the audience say to themselves “wow, this problem really needs to be solved.” Now, after this panel, I fully understand the business case for including these types of stats.

It doesn’t just help to provide evidence that the team reframed the initial perceived problem correctly, it proves more than that. It proves that the team values data and metrics. It is an indication that the team will continue capturing numbers in a way that encourages people to do something. They will try to measure the right things and articulate outcomes that fuel future strategy. How can we finally get Stacy onboard with capturing data? Take her to this panel!

4. Thinking in terms of soft vs hard impact could be a driving force in determining how to bring designs to market.

The last question to the panel was how can all future accelerators be impact-driven. This spawned a few panelists to not only define the distinction between hard and soft impact but encourage the audience to stop talking about and stressing this soft, fluffy stuff in a business context. Soft seems to be the qualitative, philanthropic view of impact and hard seems to be proof in numbers. Ideas I had in my head but never heard in these terms.

At DFA, we’re constantly seeing a number of different approaches students are taking to create impact with their designs (not all projects will and should go on to become entities) but no matter how students decide to continue positively impacting their intended users and stakeholders, we fully support it! It’s so exciting! But realizing what type of impact they value most might help us better foresee students’ questions and requests when it comes to implementing. How can we develop tools that help teams realize what type of impact they’d like to create and paint a realistic picture of the journey they might take to get there? I can already see the framework!

5. Revisiting things you previously were passionate about is fun.

One of my favorite courses in college at Miami University was a cutting-edge social entrepreneurship course. Towards the end of the year we were challenged to calculate the social return on investment (in dollars) for every dollar put into an organization of our choosing.

I loved math and so I majored in engineering. I loved social impact so I took social entrepreneurship courses. This was the perfect intersection. Since focusing on design solutions that drive this impact, numbers had fallen in the background to user stories, rapid prototyping and getting feedback. Revisiting numbers and hard impact was rejuvenating! How can we re-engage with topics we were once passionate about and apply them to our current endeavors?

Think back to one, five, or ten years ago, what were you into? Go to a panel about it and hear the latest from some inspiring experts!

Reactions from this post? Comment below or contact the author at stacy@designforamerica.com