Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Five effectiveness hacks from Silicon Valley that non-profits should adopt

Recently I wrote an article about what the ultra-high-tech digital health world could learn from looking at low-tech programs about changing people's behaviors.

Yesterday I started thinking about the opposite: what could the low-tech world of global development  learn from looking at very resource-intensive, successful tech companies?

Ok, it might be hard to spring for catered lunches (Mackerel Mondays!), walking desks, and some of the other perks.  But many of the "business-as-normal" activities at Google, Facebook, etc., would not be particularly difficult or expensive for development organizations to adopt, and could have tremendous impact on their effectiveness.

Here are five to start with:

1.  Constantly update.

Doesn't it seem like your laptop and phone apps need to update almost every day? That's a sign that the developers are always on the lookout for opportunities to improve their products. Often these new features are small tweaks, but they reflect a company's attention to perfecting a user's experience and pinpointing specific needs.  Here's what Susan Wojcicki, Google's former Senior Vice President of Advertising, said about how they think about improvement:
....The first version of AdWords, released in 1999, wasn’t very successful – almost no one clicked on the ads. Not many people remember that because we kept iterating and eventually reached the model we have today. And we’re still improving it; every year we run tens of thousands of search and ads quality experiments, and over the past year we’ve launched over a dozen new formats. Some products we update every day.  
Our iterative process often teaches us invaluable lessons. Watching users ‘in the wild’ as they use our products is the best way to find out what works, then we can act on that feedback. It’s much better to learn these things early and be able to respond than to go too far down the wrong path. Iterating has served us well. 
How could you learn more about what your customers need? Where could you make some small, quick improvements?

2.  Experiment.  A/B testing is a no-brainer for Google and Facebook.  Why choose a new design before running pilots with a few different options and seeing how users react to them?  Especially for large development organizations, it's relatively cheap and easy to run side-by-side experiments of various protocols, marketing strategies, and/or incentives to see which version yields the best results. Simply running a side-by-side test with various website designs increased registration for organ donors in the UK by almost 100,000 annually.

What variables in your programs or communications could you test?

3.  Everyone uses data daily.  Every other week there's an article about how Google is using data to reinvent HR, update its algorithms, and so much more.  Data is valued as a critical tool--it's collected with a purpose, reported in timely and relevant ways and put to use, not just "in the field," but by every decision-maker.  To make this possible, an organization needs to create easy access to data for staff across the organization, and treat data as a public good.

How could your data be used more broadly?  Who else could benefit from more access to what you already collect?

4.  Invest in the ecosystem. Tech companies know that they all benefit from a strong digital environment.  In many cases, they are willing to invest in helping build up new talent, infrastructure, and innovation.  For example, IBM launched a $5-million AI X Prize on human-machine collaboration and a Smarter Cities Challenge.   Google partners with universities and initiatives like Girls Who Code and Flatiron Pre-College Academy to help develop and eventually recruit new talent.  While these investments benefit others immensely, they are far from altruistic: the tech companies are actually building the ideal environments for their success.  

Development organizations similarly can look at the big picture: how can we catalyze innovations that facilitate our work? Create and tap into new pools of talent?  Strengthen the ecosystem for social change?

5. Build a excited organizational culture.  This is really a no-brainer!  There is so much research that shows that happy staff with a sense of purpose are more productive, loyal and even healthier than those without.  So you can't necessarily match salaries at Google, but can you help staff see the big picture, feel their impact, and connect more deeply with colleagues?  Much of this comes down to effective organizational communication--developing catch phrases, traditions and rituals, and opportunities for bonding. Mean
ingful improvements can be as simple as retreats or soccer tournaments, and perhaps some new components to the HR orientation, so long as they foster an authentic sense of "tribe."

Google, Facebook and others have written up and publicly published their philosophies in simple guiding phrases for employees and others to follow.  Some of my  favorites are:
"You can be serious without a suit."
"Fast is better than slow."
"Done is better than perfect."
Does your organization have informal catch phrases that you can formalize?  Do you know if your team is happy?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Never got around to your summer reading? Watch this video to make up for it

If you're like me, Labor Day weekend usually means acknowledging some summer goal fails.  My ambitious stack of reading is a usual casualty (meanwhile I'm completely up to date on House of Cards and the Good Wife!).

So for all my fellow slackers, I'm offering a short list for autumn suggestions, starting with a 15-minute video (NOT a TED talk).

VIDEO: "The greatest medical invention of the 21st century"
You probably would never guess that it's Oral Rehydration Therapy, which has saved millions from dying of diarrheal disease.  In a commencement address at the University of California San Francisco, Professor Richard Cash tells his personal version of the story of how the scientific discovery translated into a very human-centered public health campaign with national success.  My favorite part?  When he talks about how their early failures ultimately led them to a better strategy.

LONG BOOK: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This is a sociological masterpiece.  It has the beautiful prose and story-telling of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” except it follows people living in trailer parks and inner-city neighborhoods of Milwaukee instead of a slum in Mumbai.  But be prepared: the author just paints a picture; he leaves it up to you to draw the conclusions. 

I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s work for many years, and love his ability to make complex medical issues approachable.  All of his books are good, but this one really got under my skin.  His own stories about conversations with patients, friends, and even family members as they are dying keep the issues vividly personal, despite the fact that they are embedded in a larger philosophical backdrop about end-of-life care and what people really consider important as they approach death.
This book had me crying on an airplane though, so careful where you read it.

FICTION ON DEVELOPMENTWizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'O
To me, Wizard of the Crow is kind of the fictional telling of the ideas in Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts.  The underlying theses about human rights, governance, and responsibility aid have a lot of parallels, but Thiongo'O uses a mystical story that involves love and drama to make his points, rather than the scholarly economist approach.  The plot is so intriguing that you won’t notice the political commentary until the end, when you realize that the ridiculous part is how closely so many of the many ideas and actors map to reality.
NYT review

AMERICAN FICTION: Some Sing, Some Cry: a Novel by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza
There is a genre of books that seems to defy categorization, like “In light of what we know” and this one.  It’s essentially a multi-generational story of America, showing how life evolved over several decades.  One theme I found particularly interesting was how mobile people were; a family from South Carolina ended up in New York and then Europe—part of modernization was the fact that people had more power to move, and this had powerful consequences.  Another great story, well told, with beautiful language and deep characters.

Life is short! Don’t bother with…

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This made the list of recommendations from Stanford MBAs, but I would only recommend it if you are looking for something to put you to sleep.  I admit, the premise is fascinating and the guy’s a Nobel Prize winner.  But I’ve picked this up a dozen times and never get through more than 10 very dense pages before flipping over to something else.  I’m waiting for Malcolm Gladwell’s summary that will give me the main points and some fun stories to keep things interesting.

I’m not one to hate on success, but it’s hard to read books when authors are clearly obsessed with how awesome they are.  This one suffers from the same complex of Tim Ferriss in “4-hour work week”—Ben Horowitz comes across as ridiculously self-involved, narcissistic, and arrogant.  By the second chapter, I’m tired of him.  Sure, there are some really great insights and lessons on leadership in there, but whether they are worth suffering the author’s ego throughout, I’m not sure.  Stanford MBAs could stomach it and recommend it as a summer read, but maybe they have built up some immunity to hubris that I haven't yet.

I really wanted to like this—the reviews make it out to be a book I should like.  And yet, the stories don’t reach me.  Maybe I just don’t understand the concept of short stories, but I found that the short vignettes never climax—they start with interesting people in interesting places—but they are teasers.

Another one that sounds like it should be wonderful—what’s not to love about a book translated from Italian, written by an author whose identity no one knows?  That’s mysterious enough to get anyone interested! And yet, here the story just takes too long in the telling, like a song that won’t end.  The characters are interesting, learning about Italy from the eyes of a young woman is fun, but there’s just not enough action to keep my attention.

What’s next on my list

Public commitment is a powerful motivator :) Counting on you to keep me honest.

 Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shaffir