Lessons in Good Solutions

Janice was having a hard time entering the public health field. She’s applied for internship after internship only to receive the same responses two weeks later: “Sorry”, “We regret to inform you”, “Thanks for applying!”, “We’ll keep your application in mind…” She’s currently a grad student working on her masters in the subject. What was the hold-up?

“They want projects”, she told me over lunch, “What research have you done? What essays have you written? Have you been published in a journal? Who have you worked with?” Sounded familiar to me. The old “You must have 3–5 years of experience to get this (supposedly) entry-level job” spiel.

We switched subjects to lighter topics and she divulged that she’s thinking of starting a podcast. It would be a fun hobby to showcase her pop-culture expertise. That’s when it hit me, and I, maybe a little too loudly for a crowded restaurant, exclaimed: “Do your podcast but make it about public health!”

A pop culture podcast with a public health twist. Pop culture news would be tied to a grander narrative about how they’re affected or are effects of public health concerns. The story about “Celebrity A cheating on his wife with Celebrity B” will be a microcosm to how HIV is spread in African American women today. Guests would be local heads of the public health field invited to speak on a specific health topic and to get Janice’s name out there. She’ll interview them, but now they’d know her, and may potentially hire her in the future. Her ask would no longer be for a job, it’ll be for a conversation.

The goal would be to broadcast this podcast and publish research in public health, and within a year, she’d have a career in public health.

When I finally exhaled after that long speech, I asked Janice what she thought of the idea. She didn’t think it was for her. A good idea, but not one that met who she was.

“Good ideas are cheap, an idea that works is worth more” — Biomedical Entrepreneur in RTP

Good Solutions manifest who the user is

That was my first lesson in real solutions. I didn’t understand why not chase a unique and fun opportunity. I loved my idea, it sounded like a challenge, something she’d have a story to tell a future mentee, and it combined her two passions: pop culture and public health. What was the problem?

The problem was that the solution worked for me and my extroverted personality. It sounded fun from a distance, but Janice is an introvert. The solution required her to essentially cold-call prominent figures in the field of her dreams. After the call, she’d have to push herself to have a conversation with a stranger. Something that wouldn’t work for an introvert, nor someone who is uncomfortable in new social situations. It also required her to capitalize on something that would’ve just been a fun hobby, an avenue for escapism. Now she’d be working where she intended to have fun, and that’s not valuable to a master’s student looking for a mental break. Though this idea may get someone a job in public health, it wouldn’t work for Janice — therefore, it wasn’t a good solution for her problem. Good solutions are founded on the characteristics of its users, not pushing them out of their comfort zone, but navigating within them.

Good Solutions move in sync with their users

The second lesson came only weeks later. I work with a local elementary school. Just weeks before the summer began, we had a change in roles and parents were not happy with our change management ability. They viewed the decision as sudden and mysterious. Noting that the board didn’t communicate with them enough, they feared what other changes we’d make without their input. During this time, I saw the need for our strategic plan to be revisited. Our mission and vision are integral components of how we conduct ourselves, so I began there. I wanted to get the pulse of stakeholders to understand their perception of what we do and what we’re supposed to do.

After the review of a board committee, I sent a survey to all parents asking for their feedback of the school’s mission and vision. Questions included: “When did you first encounter our mission statement?” and “Do you think we fulfill what we say we hope to?” I thought of the survey as beneficial in two ways: retrieving feedback and signaling to parents that we heard their complaints and will ask for feedback before decisions are made from now on. Though school was out, and it was summer, I figured sending this during the summer allowed parents to complete the survey in their own time. I figured wrong.

Upon the beginning of the school year, at the first PTA meeting, parents voiced concerns that changes were being made during the summer. While they were sleeping, the administration’s cogs were rolling and new changes were the outcome. They felt as though we were trying to slip something past them since parents aren’t as alert to school emails while school is out. It was a well-intentioned, bad idea. If I had taken the time to complete more thorough user research, even an ethnographic field study, before the survey, I would have learned that parents prefer announcements, especially ones on the scale of mission statements, to occur during the school year. This way they can take the time to communicate with the administration in-person, which is a form of communication valued higher by our stakeholders. This, along with other decisions made over the summer, worsened parent’s distrust in the administration. (More on that in a later article)

Yes, the survey did ask for feedback and served as the beginning of a more collaborative era. But it was sent at the wrong time. A good solution moves in sync with its users, it doesn't create a new schedule for them — it aligns itself to theirs.

“Don’t fall in love with your solution, fall in love with your problem” — Ann Mei Chang in Lean Impact

Good Solutions solve problems within their user’s means

Acumen offers Human-Centered Design as a free online course for those who would like to work with a team on a common, social innovation goal. I enrolled in the class together with a group of volunteers for Code for Durham to solve the problem of school lunch debt in Durham Public Schools, last year the debt was up to $200k. In our first reading, we learned about the Sternin’s and the Positive Deviance Initiative's work solving malnutrition in Vietnamese children. To sum, the Sternin’s could have established a nonprofit with large overhead to provide food for children. But, after ethnographic field studies, they learned that adequately nourished children had parents who cooked the worms and shrimps found in rice, instead of throwing them away. They set up cooking classes where these parents taught other parents in the neighborhood how to do the same. A year later 80% of the malnourished children were well fed, and the program expanded to 14 other villages. A complex problem solved by an analog, cost-effective solution that didn’t change stakeholder’s way of life; but utilized it.

I wish I’d read that article before my last lesson. In February 2018, I woke up happy and energized, I had thousands of ideas and I could barely get dressed for writing them down. 7 or 8 different ways the school could digitally market itself effectively and creatively. Unique ideas I hadn’t seen an elementary school do, that would put us on the map of millennial parents in North Carolina. I fine-tuned the details for a week before introducing them to the board. One member politely asked: “These are great, but who’s going to do these?” Knowing we did not have the budget for a Javascript Developer, I offered myself.

I enrolled in SuperHi’s coding classes determined I’d learn how to code the advanced projects I envisioned. In an effort to save the nonprofit school money, I thought we could instead afford the time. I was spending hours learning how to create something that absolutely no one asked for. I still laugh about it to this day. I spent about a month learning how to code before I realized that I’m costing the school more by not fulfilling needs stakeholders actually want. I thought if I finished the project, then everyone would see its value.

Here’s why that was a mistake: first, no one asked for our digital marketing to be innovated, I saw it as an opportunity but didn’t think to capitalize on our opportunities after we minimize our threats; second, I was creating something that only I would have the knowledge to manage. Without anyone else with Advanced Javascript know-how, if I ever left, these projects would leave with me. I should have innovated within our means. Maybe our digital marketing innovation should’ve focused on our engaging Facebook page or Insta-stories that other team members had the knowledge to help delegate. I was creating a solution that had no structure to make it sustainable, nor value to make a real impact.

Mini-lesson: Good Solutions solve problems people actually want solved. Does your user think it’s a problem or do you?

With these lessons, I’ve improved my solution game and minimized the formerly frequent reply of: “Good idea, but…” Hopefully, these lessons will help you to make an impact in your field as well.