Development organizations, NGOs to be specific, are largely slow and cumbersome in nature. Because of the donor-dependent business model, these organizations are rarely capable of thinking long term and sustainability of a project.
Most of these organizations design projects and solutions based on the budget available. They often close a project, no matter how potential it is, as soon as fund dries up.
The good news is that there is a host of new organizations that are approaching things differently. And you can learn a lot from these organizations in building learning organizations, maintaining high growth, and fueling innovation.
Started as a pilot in 2009, mPower Social is one of such organizations. mPower enables development organizations, donors, and governments to become more effective and efficient at what they do by using technology.
mPower Social has been a very innovative company from the start. It has built services that are powerful, innovative and sustainable. It has outgrown many development organizations within a very short period of time.
What is the secret behind this growth and innovation? What other organizations, especially social enterprises, can learn from the experience of mPower Social? What does it take to remain a learning organization and innovate consistently?
We asked these questions to Rubayat Khan, co-founder of mPower Social and currently Chief Dreamer and Team Builder at mDoc LLC [now called Jeeon], a venture of mPower Group, in an interview with Future Startup.
Problem over product
There is a bias for the product in most organizations. We tend to design a product first and then work hard to sell it instead of trying to solve a problem.
Contrarily, organizations that are innovative and design sustainable product approach a problem differently. They take a problem first approach.
Instead of designing a product, they try to understand the problem first and then go for designing a product to address that problem.
“One thing probably is that we are flexible in a sense that we never take a product-centric approach,” said Rubayat, “instead we identify a problem, work hard to understand it, and then try to design solution to solve it.”
When designing a product, instead of looking inward one should look outward, means toward users. Instead of trying to bend users according to your product, you should make something that people want. Taking constant feedback from users is one of the ways to do it.
“We spend a lot of time in understanding a problem and designing a solution,” said Rubayat. “We follow the human-centered approach to problem solving. We also put a huge importance on listening to the users. I always try to preach this with any entrepreneur I meet – if you don’t understand your customer very deeply, it is impossible to build a successful business.”
Understanding the context
While trying to solve a problem, you need to understand the context before designing a solution to that problem. Most development interventions disregard the importance of context and come up solutions that don’t fit in when it comes to application.
We work on the ground”, said Rubayat, “many development organizations tend to be removed from the context of the problem they are trying to solve. For example, there are organizations trying to solve a problem in Africa sitting in Washington DC. I think that approach doesn’t work. Instead, we work closely with the problem we are working on. For example, we have an office in Kishoreganj for Jeeon, which is just 1 hour away from the villages where we work. Even the Dhaka office was too far in our opinion for rapid learning and experimentation.”
Fluid and transparent organizational structure
One of the key advantages startups has over big corporations is that startups can make fast decisions. Companies that are innovate often launch and test faster.
Internal communications and collaboration are naturally better than big corporations in these organizations. They are flexible and transparent as organizations.
“Our organizational structure is also very fluid and transparent, ” said Rubayat, “we promote innovation within the organization. Whoever innovates and performs better rises to the top very fast – we have heads of departments who are only 3 years out of university! I believe very few other organizations in Bangladesh take meritocracy to that level. True to our name, we empower people who are capable and I think that’s the secret if there is any.”
How to build a high growth and innovative organization
At mPower Social, as an organization, they remain flexible. It empowers people who innovate regardless of organizational structure.
This promotes a culture of innovation and people stay motivated to do more. It has also developed a model for designing solution which takes an understanding problem first approach.
To build a high growth and innovative organization you can take help from the experience of mPower Social: understand the problem, take problem over product, understand the context for which you are designing the solution, and reward people who innovate.