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Four Daily Habits of Game-changing Social Innovators

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March 12, 2013

This article originally appeared in Forbes on March 13, 2013.

By Liz Gerber

When we think about social innovation, we tend to focus on the outcomes—assistive technology for the blind, work for the underemployed, housing for the homeless. But it’s people who work day after day to come up with new ideas and realize better solutions to social challenges. What are these changemakers doing on a day-to-day basis, when not receiving MacArthur Genius Grants for their work? And could you be doing the same?

Over the last four years, my colleagues at Design for America and I have worked with more than 2,000 social innovators of all ages—health workers tackling obesity, educators confronting illiteracy, and much more. We found that no matter what the domain, social innovators have similar habits. Despite being busy people and often earning little money for their important work, they always make time to…

1) Read
Social innovators read the news—local, national and global. They are informed. Yes, some sit down with their coffee in the morning to read the New York Times cover to cover. Most don’t have the time to do that, but they still skim the articles, follow the Times on Twitter, and check the RSS feed in email on their morning commute.

Consider the habits of Jeff Bigham, who designed VizWiz, a tool that lets blind people take a picture of anything and get a real-time answer for what is in front of them. Jeff checks Twitter every hour. Why? He follows 731 people—some are blind Twitter users who write about their daily experiences, some are computer scientists who write about the latest technology, and others are journalists covering new technology. Reading Twitter allows Jeff to quickly identify problems and imagine potential solutions. To be effective, Jeff needs to know what’s going on in the world.

Jeff’s approach is consistent with Stanford’s management researcher Bob Sutton’s work on innovation. People who stay informed about the world are more likely to innovate because they bring information to bear from one domain to another—they’re able to connect the dots. Jeff used social computing technology to assist blind people, but to do so, he had to know about both domains.

2) Reflect
Social innovators reflect daily on what this new information means to them and their world. They pay attention to the little moments that give them goose bumps and think about how that information can affect their mission or business model. For instance, while living in the Bay Area, Jeff Chapin, a design engineer, borrowed his company’s Segway to commute to work. One day, the Segway battery died right next to a homeless man’s bench. The man remarked to Jeff, “It’s a bummer when the basics don’t work.” This made Jeff ask himself, what basics did he take for granted—transportation, shelter? But it was potential answers to sanitation issues that prompted Jeff to move to Cambodia to design latrines for the rural poor. His Easy Latrine project has led to the sale of 70,000-plus latrines and the start of more than 50 new businesses in rural Cambodia.

Jeff’s reaction to his interaction with a homeless man in San Francisco is consistent with what innovators do when unexpected things happen—they reflect on the situation. Over her 20-year research career, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson finds that innovators don’t turn away when things don’t go as planned, they ask what they could do differently the next time.

3) Reframe
Social innovators regularly reframe massive social issues as a series of small, solvable problems. For example, Rebecca Onie was a college sophomore when she realized the connection between poverty and poor health: low-income patients lack basic resources such as food and housing, and the lack of such resources often leads to worse health outcomes. She could have been overwhelmed by the problem’s scale. Instead, as a critical thinker, she asked herself what ways she could make even the slightest difference as a college student. Rebecca reached out to Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chief of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. She talked to her classmates about how college students could help. Putting this all together, she asked, “What if doctors could prescribe food, housing and heat in the winter, and students could help the patients find these resources?” She built Health Leads, an elite team of volunteer college students who help patients fill their “prescriptions.” The first team started in Boston where Rebecca lived. They now have teams in six cities, including New York City.

Rebecca’s reframing habit is consistent with University of Michigan’s social theorist Karl Weick’s theory of small wins. He posits that the massive scale of social problems precludes people from taking action because people feel overwhelmed. Reformulating large problems as small problems in a flawed system makes action appear manageable. That framework allows people to see concrete and complete outcomes, and build a track record of success. This track record encourages continued action, attracts supporters, and even deters opponents.

Simply looking at a problem in a different way makes it possible for social innovators to do the work they want to do.

4) Reach out
Social innovators reach out to mentors and friends to test their nascent ideas. They don’t hide until they have perfected the solution; they get feedback and refine as they go. Many social innovators set up shop in the community in which they are working so that they can immerse themselves in the problem and regularly test their hunches to see if their solutions will work.

Anand Kulkarni is the CEO of MobileWorks, a company that connects underemployed people throughout the world to do short-term jobs for Fortune 500 companies. They are paid above market wage and many jobs are able to be completed on mobile phones from anywhere in the world. Anand connects with workers worldwide to test new ideas to make the working experience at MobileWorks better. On a recent call, he asked a MobileWorker from the Philippines if the worker would like the company to help the worker find health care. The worker responded enthusiastically. Now, upon request, MobileWorks helps to deduct health care costs for workers who make their primary living through MobileWorks.

Anand’s approach is consistent with my own research on the quick testing of ideas. An 18-month ethnographic study I conducted of an innovation team for software engineers found that testing ideas allows people to learn and feel a sense of progress in what can sometimes seem like a never-ending stream of failures.

So what does this all mean?

If we truly want to change the world in which we live, we must change our daily habits. We need to be mindful of how our everyday actions can sets the stage for invention and, hopefully, lasting change. Take up the four R’s and you can become a better social innovator every single day.

- Liz Geber is an assistant professor of engineering at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion