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Posted by Sarah Brown on 27 Jan '14

Are you solving the right problem?

Successful innovation i.e. innovation that has an impact depends on creating a solution to a problem that people perceive and then ensuring that they know about your solution. For organisations working with people who have a different view of the world this can be a challenge.

I am spending a lot of my time thinking about innovation at the moment as I have got to that chapter in the book I am writing, and I am also running a course for charities and social enterprises on innovation. I have been reading a great book called "Why Innovation Fails" by Carl Franklin, in which he gives some thought provoking examples of innovations which have not succeeded as you would have expected. For example, why isn't the metric system used everywhere even though it seems such a simple system and better than imperial? Our failure to use consistent measuring has lead to expensive mistakes like the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter where some of the project were using imperial measures and others metric - that cost $125 million! He gives other examples such as the cure for scurvy which was known almost 3 centuries before it was taken up and the Roman plumbing and central heating systems that we abandoned in Britain once they left.

A lot is to do with emotion, habit, and culture and sometimes to do with poor selling but the issue that particularly intrigues me on behalf of charities is when the innovative solution is to a problem that people don't perceive that they have.

I have come across this in all sorts of areas. Working with the Somali community where there are abnormally high levels of unemployment which we regard as a problem I asked people in the community why they thought there was such a reliance on benefits and high levels of unemployment. The answer was that the people felt better off than they had been in Somalia and were not aware that they could live even better lives so did not perceive that they had a problem which needed solving.

A charity working in an area of need in Sheffield was describing how they struggled to get people to come on CV and preparation for work courses even though they were free. But if you come from a household where three generations have not worked, why would you see not being prepared for work as a problem?

Another example is research done in South Yorkshire some years ago which identified that many people, particularly from a coal mining background, expected to die young from heart attacks because that was their experience of friends and family. They also were used to having aches and pains from their manual jobs so a pain across the chest was just more of the same - not an indicator of heart problems to seek help for. If you expect to die young then having few savings for your retirement is not a problem to you so why contribute to a pension or do any long term planning? In this case the ambulance service came up with a great innovation - life saving training which helped people to recognise the symptoms of heart attacks and helped change behaviour.

Successful innovation depends on people knowing/feeling that they have a problem that needs solving and knowing about your idea and believing it will be the solution that will really solve it. The hassle of change or adoption needs to be outweighed by the perceived benefits that the person will get from using it. Why do people keep on using Wonga or doorstep lenders when they could use a Credit Union, I suspect because the Credit Union may be harder to get to, requires regular saving and more planning and is perceived as less flexible even though it is cheaper?

For charities and social enterprises or anyone wanting to create a positive social impact the starting point has to be - what problem does your innovative way of working solve and, most importantly, is it perceived as a problem by the people you want to help? What are the advantages that they will perceive rather than what you think it offers and how will you attract them to use your innovation? Will it be by education, marketing, peer pressure and how long will it take/how much will it cost? When I was in new product development we expected it to take 3 years to break even for most new product launches - how long can you afford?

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Tags: innovation charity social enterprise