Exploring the Problem Solving Methods for Social Innovators

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Taylor Research Fellow, Joshua Schoop, has been working on developing an Innovation Toolkit for government and as a lead investigator exploring the potential for behavioral economics as an innovation in family planning. This post is drawn from these experiences and recent fieldwork working with organizations in Senegal and Nepal, and from teaching and research at the Taylor Center over the past few years.

Recognizing the way the world works in the 21st century has not come easily to problem solvers. Classic approaches have traditionally restricted our thinking about solutions. They aim to minimize risk and control for fluctuations, reducing change to simple cause and effect models where “if we do x, we can expect to achieve y.” In the fast-paced, ever-changing environments in which institutions operate in today’s complex global system, these models are demonstrating to be less relevant for solving problems. By the time a business’ strategic plan is implemented, or the outcomes in a logic model are tested after a program intervention, the underlying fundamentals have shifted. Institutions and problem solvers are operating within dynamic systems that are continuously impacted by new information.

Our approaches and tools are evolving. Social innovators, entrepreneurs and designers have pioneered novel strategies for tackling complex, wicked problems. There is still a role for quantitative, multivariate analysis and formative program evaluation, but these new strategies recognize that social change is dynamic and requires dynamic approaches.

Context matters. Exploring a place and space, like Nepal, allows innovators to gain a sense of how people engage with each other and develop a sense of empathy for their situation

Context matters. Exploring a place and space, like Nepal, allows innovators to gain a sense of how people engage with each other and develop a sense of empathy for their situation

Across the innovation/social innovation domain, buzzwords and a litany of innovative methods to solve problems have emerged. Lean Startup, Lean Launchpad, Business Model Canvas, Innovation Corps, Human Centered Design, User-Centered Design and Behavioral Design are some of the novel but distinct approaches to developing solutions that emphasize continuous iteration, rapid prototyping, direct interaction with users, and continuous testing. For the past several years working as a professor teaching social innovation, as a scholar studying the ideas, and as a researcher interacting with global development organizations, nonprofits and the donor community, I questioned what this is all about. Is it all just old wine in new bottles – a repackaging of old ideas using clever branding and colorful post-it notes? Or are we really on to something here, and if so, what are the key components that changemakers should be focusing on?

Over the past several months, I have been involved in two projects leading to deeper experiences and observations about innovative problem solving methodologies for 21st century issues. One project allowed me to learn more about how the Federal government under the Obama administration has implemented various innovation-driven initiatives over the past eight years. In another, I have worked as an evaluator with the Hewlett Foundation, assessing the potential value of behavioral economics for tackling intractable family planning issues in developing settings. In both of these engagements, I observed common principles that scholars, practitioners, and students in social innovation should concentrate on acquiring and building into their problem solving toolkit. Some approaches are informed by an underpinning theory of how people, organizations, and systems function, such as behavioral economics. These approaches aim to delve deeper using problem definition frameworks (see here an example from behavioral economics) and applying conceptual models (and here for an example from implementation science), while others use models of continuous iteration and learning through feedback loops.

“Fail, fast, forward”, “design-pilot-test”, “define-diagnose-design-test”: When it comes to 21st century problem solving methodologies across the scope of social innovation and entrepreneurship, the universal core concepts are what we should concentrate on mastering and communicating to future problem solvers. Underlying each methodology, there are five common key principles:

Principle 1: Empathize with the end user of the product or service:

Gather evidence by interacting directly with the person or group that is affected by the problem. This is often performed in multiple interactions. Some methods are more rigorous about acquiring information (e.g. behavioral economics).

Principle 2: Generate lots of ideas through creative approaches:

Approaches here follow an unimpeded process where previous knowledge or expertise about the problem is unnecessary (i.e. design thinking) or where an applied framework is followed with an underpinning theory (e.g. behavioral economics). In either case, the goal is to generate as many solutions as possible based on knowledge gained during the empathy stage. Various processes are infused to help generate, organize and clarify ideas.

Principle 3: Synthesize good ideas through rapid and continuous testing with the end user: Rapidly test, test again, and retest the product, service or intervention being developed with the end-user until the right solution emerges to build a prototype. This continues to follow the empathy process, where interaction with the user and understanding how they interact with the solution is key.

Principle 4: Build a prototype and pilot the approach:

Continue to test the approach that has been developed through a pilot. Aim to receive early and continuous feedback throughout the process, to tweak the design based on learning.

Principle 5: Pivot based on learning:

Feedback loops are critical – iteration depends on continuous learning. Pivoting based on what you are learning allows the organization to act on the information it receives about the impact of the design. Continuing to pivot allows for further tailoring of the design to the particular problem, following an uninterrupted cycle of iteration.


User testing behavioral designs with women in Senegal further clarifies the need for continuous empathy and cycles of iteration when building solutions for social change.

In some approaches, the principles occur sequentially, and the most impactful adopt the learning and empathy mindset continuously. The projects with the greatest success continue to infuse feedback loops into the product, service, or intervention well after launch and implementation. This includes the approach to evaluating the impact of the innovation, and considering appropriate methods for scale.

In global development, organizations are starving for new ideas and tools to solve problems. A recent conversation with a major health service provider in Senegal who is exploring how to develop and infuse “innovative” interventions into family planning demonstrated that global institutions and the donor community are still wrestling with how to adopt and adapt their approaches to 21st century problems. The new ways of working in the world focus on collaborative, co-creation mindsets. Adopting the key principles from the spectrum of problem solving methodologies can help organizations yield new insights, design more impactful solutions, and continue to respond to the dynamic systems we are operating in. Adapting the approach through a cycle of iteration allows the solution to be sustainable over time, potentially scale, and continue to adjust to the context where impact is desired.