Hello Earth, what’s the problem?

Most of us dream to change the world at some stage. Or to change something at some point. For example, there is a growing trend of help-oriented hackathons where people with good tech skills tackle a societal or environmental problem (as if no people with expertise already worked on it but the usefulness of hackathons is another debate).

The reality, however, is not as easily simplified as hackathon-inspired preconceptions. Skills without in-depth understanding and insights don’t automatically translate into solutions to a problem and can miss the mark completely. (I have complained about this before). And while many ideas are probably fine, the difference between the great ones and the throw-away ones lies in the execution.

Nothing new here, so let us deconstruct this a little. What makes a successful execution? Wait. Before we get to that, let us remember that a successful execution can easily be avoided even before it starts by overlooking impact.

Thinking about impact is critical but it is not easy. Impact needs to be planned and measured and that needs to be taken into account before ‘just doing it’. It is much easier to believe in ‘build it and they will come’ but it doesn’t work. So many good ideas achieve next to nothing because, well, impact was not given enough thought.

In the international development & aid community, there are many complex frameworks for project monitoring and evaluation (M&E) — another word for having an impact. Funders understandably demand to know that money donated to aid will achieve something and that’s why this M&E community flourishes. It’s big business. Imagine predicting impact in a highly challenging environment, like one where aid is needed. It’s good though, it makes people think of contingencies and make plans B, C and D for when sh*t hits the fan. But an M&E expert will charge you consultant fees to assist you in your M&E exercise.

It doesn’t neet to be that complicated (or expensive) to get started.

In my years, I’ve hopped between engineering, cosmology, education, development and tech, and this experience has made me build quite a few mental checklists for any new ideas, which help me not waste time or energy on those bound achieve too little. I have also seen many bright-eyed people believe and invest all their youthful energy in ideas that I know will not work. So I have finally taken a couple of hours to put together a very simple little web interface to one of my mental checklists that makes someone with an idea ask themselves some questions to ensure their plan makes sense and has a potential impact. I called it ‘impact-oriented project ideation tool’ but that sounds way more complicated than what it is, so I’ve renamed it ‘Hello Earth, what’s the problem?’

Here it is.

Whatever I embark on, this little exercise is always useful to go through. It often surfaces those fatal oversights that can make the difference between naïve idealism and effective ideation. You can stop reading now and go play with it, it really is that simple; try with the example provided. Or you can keep on reading.

How does it work? It asks a few questions about your idea and then it confronts what you’ve said. It advises you to keep it simple. Often the best ideas are the simplest. Until the end result makes sense, you need to think a bit more. I often iterate a few times at least. Here are the questions I ask:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What change needs to happen?
  3. How do you want to make the change happen?
  4. Why do you want to do that specifically? → 3 questions:
    What is the current situation?
    What will be the effect of your action?
    What will be the situation afterwards?
  5. How are you going to measure what you are doing? → 3 questions on how the current situation, the effect of the actions and the situation afterwards will be measured — with those copied verbatim from the previous 3 questions.
  6. And the final check → 5 yes or no statements checking:
    - whether the proposed mesurements under (5) are really indicative of the situation or effect described under (4) — In other words, are you measuring what you think you are measuring?
    - whether the proposed action (3) really makes the change (2) happen, and finally
    - whether the proposed change (2) really means that the problem (1) is reduced.

If the answer to those 5 questions is yes, then the plan is sound. There’s nothing more to it.

I hope it’s useful — enjoy!

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