6 INSIGHTS ON IMPROVING BUSINESS TO DO GOOD
INSIGHT 1: DON'T JUST OFFER PRODUCTS, RESPOND TO CLIENT NEEDS
As service providers, it is all too easy to lead with those services; simply to supply what we as organizations believe to be the best response to a given problem, or to fall prey to an easy ‘off-the-shelf’ product. Commercial businesses thrive by selling products that customers want, and are sufficiently satisfied with to buy again.
As organizations seeking to create social value, however, we need to go beyond what clients want orlike. Rather we should ask: what do they actually need in order to face the unique vulnerabilities present in their lives? What do they need to grasp the opportunities in front of them? To a large extent, this means shedding our assumptions about our clients: starting with their needs (expressed and unexpressed), and working backwards from there to develop our product solutions.
INSIGHT 2: ASK GOOD QUESTIONS, HAVE GOOD CONVERSATIONS
In terms of smart product and service design, getting to grips with the realities of clients’ lives is an essential first step, but it’s not the whole picture. As social purpose organizations, we need to keep in mind certain key questions: ‘what is working?’; and ‘what is working for whom?’ Not only this, but we need to use these insights to make better decisions about how to adjust our products and services as we develop. This requires a fundamental shift in ongoing conversations around what ‘good organizational performance’ means, and putting in place the structures to ensure this happens.
INSIGHT 3: DO WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN
Why is it that the best laid plans go awry? Too often we see a disjunction between what an organizationsays it does (offering products that look great on paper), and what actually happens in practice (when those products are put into the hands of staff). Thoughtfully-designed products and services are of course essential — but when it comes to ensuring positive outcomes for clients, the devil is in the detail about how they are delivered, and whether the value proposition is being lost by a lack of understanding on the ground. Sometimes too, good intentions become distorted by our own operational infrastructure, particularly when we’re training staff do one thing, but pushing them to do the opposite (through misaligned incentives, for example). Quality delivery is not automatic, especially when what we’re asking our staff to do is difficult.
INSIGHT 4: MOTIVATE STAFF TO DO DIFFICULT WORK IN AN EXCELLENT WAY
When it comes to ensuring that staff are equipped to manage the tension between our commercial and social objectives, it’s not just the so-called ‘hard systems’ (such as incentives) that count. In the context of difficult work, there’s only so far that we can automate quality, and we need staff who can critically reflect on their work when ‘reality gaps’ arise between theory and practice. Hard systems can shape staff understanding of what they need to do — but we also need staff who understand why it is important, and who engage in an organization-wide dialogue around how to do their work better. We don’t always get the model right the first time, and listening to ideas around innovation from the frontlines is particularly important, because design flaws and inconsistencies will be clearest to those working directly with our clients. This means having the right people with the right outlook, and fostering an organizational culture that supports, rather than undermines, our social value proposition.
INSIGHT 5: OWN THE DIRT ROAD
When it comes to tackling pressing and widespread social problems, great optimism can often be clouded by voices of doubt whispering in our collective ear: ‘It just can’t be done. You’ll never make it sustainable.’ These are the ‘dirt roads’ that we are told are too difficult to travel along. But the whole point about a social enterprise is to reject ‘business as usual’ and find a way to make business work for those who are marginalized.
Our challenge, then, is to start with the goal and work backwards from there: to design a business model that really works in challenging environments. This means thinking through questions around where to grow, how to grow, and what trade-offs to accept in terms of efficiency and quality – all from the perspective of delivering social value. It also means striking the right balance between simple and complex services, and thinking through what we mean by ‘going for scale’: is it meeting many needs of a few people, or a few needs of many people? The message here is: find your own dirt road – the one you’re told you can’t possibly navigate – and make the journey work for what you want to achieve.
INSIGHT 6: ADAPT TO THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Just because we have a full picture of what challenges clients face, and what services they need, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll be able to meet all of those needs at a given time. What we decide to do today (and in five years’ time) depends on a number of internal and external variables that are constantly in motion. In some instances, we’ll recognize not only a client need, but also the limits of what our organization is best placed to deliver in the context of the many needs that clients face. Down the line, we may re-think what we do in light of evolution in our organizational capacity, technology, client capacity or external factors such as regulation and competition.