How Do You Uncover Unseen Problems?

How Do You Uncover Unseen Problems?
By: Rob Hoehn

Anyone who works in the problem definition space knows the pitfalls of hidden issues. Solving a problem is sometimes dependent on who is articulating the problem, the lens with which they view the world, and the space that they have at the table…

…Which means that although many of us were aware of the myriad problems caused by the pandemic – there were also many issues that we didn’t see because they fell outside the scope of our experience. The United Way decided to solve this problem bias in an interesting way.

Stories and information about the coronavirus pandemic were all over the news, in our social media feeds, newspapers, and TV; businesses closed and laid off workers, families were grappling with how to take care of and educate, hospitals ran low on beds and equipment to treat the sick. All of this happened while many people – nonprofit staff, healthcare workers, grocery and pharmacy staff, and farm workers – were still working on the front lines to keep our communities running.

The United Way is a mission-based organization that knew that they wanted to respond in a pandemic, but also knew that they had to do some on-the-ground problem sourcing so that they wouldn’t be solving the problems that they thought were most important, but were instead most important to their communities, so United Way Worldwide’s (UWW) Innovation Team launched the Invisible Problems crowdsourcing campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to ask people what problems caused by the pandemic they were seeing on the ground that weren’t being talked about yet.

To get the word out about the crowdsourcing campaign, UWW ran targeted paid social media ads on Facebook and Instagram, encouraging individuals to share how they were impacted by COVID-19. Within a month, the Innovation Team received over 200 submissions from Americans across the country who were voicing problems – many of which were beyond what was being covered by the media.

To help communities respond and recover from some of these pandemic-generated invisible problems, UWW’s Innovation Team partnered with a Big 4 consulting firm to run a social innovation challenge. The challenge crowdsourced solutions from the firm’s volunteers for some of the difficulties surfaced by the Invisible Problems campaign. The firm’s volunteers designed solutions for minimally viable prototypes that UWW’s Innovation Team could test for no more than $5000 and within a three-month period. Three teams of the firm’s volunteers pitched their solutions to a panel of judges at a live, virtual “Designathon.” The result was three exciting solutions addressing the impact of distance learning on children’s mental health, people without computers ordering food online, and the winner – a solution to educational disparities exacerbated by the pandemic. United Way is testing the viability of the winning solution throughout 2021.

Want to learn more? Find out how the United Way solved problems during the pandemic in this September 14th webinar. 

About the Author

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale: the largest open innovation software platform in the world. Hoehn launched crowdsourcing software as part of the open government initiative and IdeaScale’s robust portfolio now includes many other industry notables, such as EA Sports, NBC, NASA, Xerox and many others. Prior to IdeaScale, Hoehn was Vice President of Client Services at Survey Analytics.

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