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Simple Steps to Solving Complex Problems

Today, agencies’ challenges in delivering services are complex, including rampant red tape, out-of-date technology and a set-in-stone way of doing things.

It would seem that commensurately complex solutions are how best to cut through the weeds. That’s not necessarily correct, suggested panelists on GovLoop’s webinar Wednesday.

In the face of complex problems, many innovators in government sign onto a simple-solution idea, and in Rhode Island, that has sparked change.

“Stay married to the problem, not the solution,” said Daniela Fairchild, Director of the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.

Fairchild’s message is that too often, aspiring problem-solvers dig down a rabbit hole, only to create an ingenious app that’s fantastically ineffective at solving the root challenge.

For example, a common response to the pandemic has been taking forms and services online. But expectedly, a spontaneous sprint to digital hasn’t remedied many underlying problems, including inefficient processes and public mistrust.

“A lot of businesses didn’t know where to start,” said Siu-Li Khoe, Vice President of Business Development for the quasi-public Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

SIPOC – a nontechnical tool by nature – is an excellent home base for problem-solving, she said. SIPOC stands for suppliers, input, process, output, customers, and organizations can use it to identify exactly where problems and bottlenecks obstruct their enterprises.

Being able to coordinate across programs and departments is key. With government-focused volunteerism surging during the pandemic, agencies have been able to chisel away at intractable problems.

“We’ve seen the real importance of nonprofit partners,” said Theresa Ward, Client Partner at Unqork, a which specializes in integrated, low-barrier services.

3 Tenets of Problem-Solving

Fairchild and Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation have found those outside of state government to be partners they can rely on. In fact, involving and engaging these partners is the first of three tenets that the office has identified and applied to every project it undertakes.

“We always make sure we have someone in the community who believes in the work and the problem we’re trying to solve as much as we do,” Fairchild said.

The next tenet is to roll out a minimally viable product within six months. Doing so guarantees progress, one way or another, by giving agencies falsifiable tests and subsequent tweaks to apply and improve. The artificial deadline is helpful for projects of all kinds.

For example, a transportation department that wants to examine the impact of bike lanes on a street could begin by coning off part of the road, and over the course of several months, monitor safety, traffic and public use. The project is an example of urban acupuncture, or tactical urbanism, which tests the impact of temporary and minimally invasive changes to space to measure impact and tease out tweaks or next steps.

Looking for these sorts of nontraditional approaches and solutions is the third, and final, tenet for Fairchild’s department. By continuously engaging stakeholders and looking for areas of marginal improvement, agencies can directly solve problems instead of inserting ill-fitting fixes.

“When you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail,” Fairchild said.

Khoe said that when hosting Zoom webinars and Q&As for businesses during the pandemic, she’s been reminded of one last impediment to problem-solving: confidence. Many people, forewarning her that they’re “not a tech person,” rule out easy solutions from the beginning. Breaking down that barrier requires a will to learn and a desire to fish for fixes.

“We’re always trying to teach people how to fish,” she said.

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