Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

by Dan Woychick

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.

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