How product thinking can help solve society’s grand challenges

The grand challenges set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aim to solve some of the world's most complex problems. Through our initiative Mission Beyond, Red Badger has recently been working on two of them: Health and Wellbeing and Reduced Inequality.

Sam_T_productthinking_FB_1-1Society’s grand challenges are far from simple. Their aims and outcomes are global, and politically loaded. Work in this space is complex, not to mention high-profile. When working towards such long-term goals, the question becomes: “How do we know we’re making progress?”

Society’s grand challenges: 3 characteristics

Big challenges may seem monolithic. Of course, in reality, they’re made up of many interconnecting smaller challenges. 

I’ve identified three core characteristics of society’s grand challenges that need to be acknowledged and addressed if all-important progress is to be made:

Complexity
Grand challenges are a progressive agenda. This means making progress is a bit like searching for product-market-fit. There’s no reference solution to build towards. 

While there may be related efforts which you can learn from, the complexity of the problem means you’re in uncharted territory. 

Cross-sector
These challenges demand combined effort from leaders across the public, private and third sectors. Making progress could require governments to change policy, corporations to alter the way they conduct their business, and third-sector organisations to change the way they provide their services. 

Organisations in each of these sectors work in different ways and the people who know how to change them are on the inside. Identifying and connecting the right organisations and individuals is tricky. 

Buy-in
To make progress on society’s grand challenges, getting buy-in is a must. We need to “activate” people inside multiple organisations to work together to solve problems.

The case for action could be based on economics: “Do it because it makes financial sense.” Or it could be values-based: “Do it because it’s the right thing to do”. To safeguard the longevity of the effort, we need to make both cases successfully.

With a challenge so vast and complex it’s easy to write off participation as futile or position the responsibility as someone else’s job.

Product thinking can help us

While the three characteristics I’ve outlined might initially make for bleak reading, there is a way through the maze. Techniques used in digital product development are tuned to work through this kind of uncertainty and complexity, while crossing organisational boundaries to get things done. 

Let’s explore three of those techniques and the difference they can make: 

Research
Effecting cross-sector change is inherently complex. It’s so complex that designing and then building a solution – and getting it right the first time – is near impossible. Part of the solution is to start small and then iterate. Applying the right research techniques helps make sure every iteration is an improvement on the last one.

There are two types of research that are particularly useful in this context. Generative research such as contextual interviews, and evaluative research such as surveys or A/B testing.

As well as being key to enabling incremental improvement through a complex problem space, these research techniques help engage people across different organisations. In doing so, they help achieve the buy-in needed to create action.

Asking people to help with research makes them part of the solution. By being given a voice to speak about a topic, they’re at once engaged and involved. Their participation in generative research happens in an open, “safe space” environment. This helps to foster empathy for the different environments in which other people are working, and establish a holistic view of the people and organisations involved.

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The context and understanding built from generative research can help inform the design of prototype solutions. This is where evaluative research comes in. With a prototype, we can do some evaluative research. Our cross-sector working relationships can help us find the right people to evaluate prototypes with. The idea is to simulate, as closely as possible, a real world trial of your prototype while keeping an open dialogue with the user. This allows us to make observations about the efficacy of our prototype and feed this back into our next iteration.

Lean
One of the ways in which we navigate uncertainty in digital product development is with the application of lean principles. Lean is tuned to avoid waste. It assumes an admission of uncertainty in any proposed solution. As such, it helps us chart a path through complexity’s uncharted territory.

Sam_T_productthinking_FB_2This admission leads to processes that favour small pieces of work, tested in real-world conditions, allowing us to gather information about our design. These small pieces of work build confidence that we’re progressing towards our outcome.

What does lean teach us? Don’t build the whole thing. Build enough of it to find out what you need to know, to gain information and confidence about the next step. Another benefit? Demonstrable progress, even in small steps, helps create buy-in.

Testable hypotheses

The small steps we take to find out more about our problem domain each involve testing a hypothesis. That means a clear definition of the experiment, identification of a minimal way to execute the experiment and, crucially, a measurable result.

Sam_T_productthinking_FB_3This approach gives credibility to progress because data beats opinion. Facts established along the way help build the case for more organisations to be involved. As we know, getting buy-in and facilitating cross-sector collaboration are key. 

Making progress through Mission Beyond

While society’s grand challenges are – as the phrase suggests – hugely challenging, we can begin to tackle them with confidence by drawing on techniques that have been tried and tested in other domains. Like the realm we Badgers know best – digital product development.

We are digital transformation experts who work closely with our clients to innovate and deliver. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, we created Mission Beyond – an initiative that aims to solve the world’s biggest challenges through radical collaboration. Our skills are transferable so we’re putting them into action for social good, applying principles such as research, lean and testable hypotheses in an effort to make the world a better place. Recently, through Mission Beyond, we’ve been applying these principles in the social mobility space. 

Grand challenges, small steps.

It pays to approach grand challenges in small steps. Lean principles guide us to break big problems down into their smaller components.

With the right research and customer feedback we can keep the social outcome in sight and activate people from across organisational divides in an effort to achieve a social outcome. By keeping things lean, we can navigate uncertainty and refine as we go. And, with testable hypotheses, we can rationally evaluate our progress.


Want to discover more about how Red Badger is tackling society’s grand challenges? Take a look at the Mission Beyond site.

For more on our approach to digital product development, read Technical Director Joe Paice’s article on Product Thinking, and Viktor Charypar’s 8 principles to guide your tech choices.

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