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?

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