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3 Ways To Turn Social Good Organizations Into Better Problem Solvers

Groups can tackle the world’s toughest problems–with a little more hustle.

We need catalytic solutions when we face off with the world’s most entrenched problems, but too many organizations working for great causes are getting in their own way, with outdated goals, unfocused methods, and outdated cultures. It isn’t enough to do good work. We need to do great work faster than ever.

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This isn’t to take away from the many dedicated people and organizations tackling complex causes like poverty, hunger, and lack of clean water and sanitation. But organizations working on great causes need to think better, faster, and stronger to become true problem-solvers. As a tech catalyst for nonprofits and businesses alike, I’ve realized that each day we settle for less-than-optimum culture and methods is one more day we aren’t helping the almost one billion people without safe drinking water, the one third of the world’s population without adequate sanitation, and the 100,000-plus children in U.S. foster care waiting to be adopted.

Here are three methods, rooted in experience, to solve the world’s toughest problems more quickly.

Method 1: Create culture that sparks innovation

Is your organization’s culture primed for innovation? If not, there’s some work to do before we start talking about all the programs and processes that can drive it. A recent conversation over coffee with a friend made me realize how many organizations are just not structured correctly. He said: “I’m going to have to form a new team separate from the main building, the main company, and all the baggage there, in order to innovate.” Reading between the lines, my friend was actually saying: “I’ve tried this way and that way to change culture here, but it’s not working. I’ve got to form another company within a company to get stuff done.”

It’s a tough situation. The organizations positioned to have the greatest impact often have cultures, structures, and goals least conducive to innovation. In that regard, tech companies provide inspiration for how to move quickly and stay focused, not because they’re better designers and engineers, but because of the flexible and empowering cultures in which they work.

Priming culture for innovation starts with flattening out the org chart and giving everyone the same time and tools to flourish. So let’s advocate for cultures that shift from conventional top-down structures to ground-up collaboration teams.


If you aren’t the CEO or a chief decision maker at your company or organization, you can still advocate from within for a culture that looks more like what you see in the illustration on the right.

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We know an innovation-primed culture speeds impact because it worked for us. One of our employees at CauseLabs came back from a conference with the idea of doing internal Lab Days. Because our culture was flexible and set up to try new things, just one month later we were having our first all-day hackathon. Now, we have Lab Days every two months. We form small teams, and we say: “Choose something you are passionate about. See how much of that you can build in a day. Go crazy. There are no constraints. Just do something, and do it great.” Then, around 4 p.m., we have show and tell.

The gold nuggets we seek during Lab Days are those moments of serendipity, the creative juices that nurture our culture and fuel our innovation
.

Method 2: Solve problems at the human level first

It’s amazing what just a moment in another person’s shoes will do to dispel myths, bust assumptions, and generally ensure you are building solutions that get results.

This happened in Kumasi, Ghana, where we worked with Ideo.org and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) to use mobile technology to curb open defecation and related health hazards. Before traveling to Africa, we brainstormed to create a digital platform that allowed community members to use their mobile phones to text the locations of open defecation sightings.

But after we arrived, we learned residents use their feature phones differently. Rather than texting, they “flashed,” which is dialing a number, letting it ring once, and hanging up to avoid call charges by signaling to the other person to call back. We responded with a workaround by setting up an automated system to receive calls. This allowed us to gather data pinpointing open defecation spots on what we nicknamed the “Crap Map.” The map and data opened communication with the community, increased engagement to educate around the problem, and spurred local leaders to start working on solutions.

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To design the right solutions, we have to first observe the right problems. Ted Gonder of the organization Moneythink, for example, observed that students leaving the weekly face-to-face program were having trouble putting the financial literacy practices into action. This observation led to an opportunity: how might mobile technologies supplement and enhance face-to-face mentoring? Rapid prototyping led to piloting an Android app in just three months.

If solutions don’t start at the human level, they’ll never reach global scale. When your problem-solving process looks like the red side, a year from now you’ll have many more meaningful solutions breeding and growing.


Method 3: Scale through experimentation

Remember Color, the photo-sharing app? Probably not. That’s because Color received $42 million in funding that led to an epic Silicon Valley learning opportunity (and failure). While many folks in the tech startup scene started shouting, “It’s the new bubble!” the bigger story of Color’s failure lies with a lack of prototyping and piloting.

Prototyping urges us to stay focused on the problem, but not one particular solution. Let’s remember that WD-40 is water displacement made perfect on the fortieth try, and social problems require even more testing than viscosity. On the left, you see the old way of product delivery: A big cycle leading to a big release, and big anxiety! On the right is lower risk and higher impact thanks to quicker and more frequent cycles.


One way to embrace this method is to build A/B testing–comparing two versions to see which one performs better–into your releases, whether for a new program, a new website, or a new product. Recently, working in a rural setting in the Philippines, we prototyped two different ways for citizens there to make payments for a new loan product. One way was through SMS, and the other through USSD, a protocol more tightly integrated into regular phones and their carriers (if you’ve ever hit *BAL# to check your balance, you’ve used USSD).

We split up into two teams and quickly found through this A/B approach that the USSD application was the way to go. Without A/B testing we wouldn’t have clearly known in a matter of hours which direction was best. We were going into the field no matter what, and creating two tests instead of one was a matter of an hour or two.

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With methods in place, technology supercharges the cause

Technology is not a solution to the world’s problems, but awesome solutions can be greatly enhanced by technology. What makes or breaks these tools is whether they’re built on a healthy culture, applied to the right problems, and grown sustainably through experimentation.

Leveraged smartly, technology can spark solutions to the world’s biggest problems–and invigorate any organization’s efforts.

About the author

TJ Cook is CEO of CauseLabs.

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