I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the philanthropic IBM Health Corps. This may be one of the most intense, most rewarding experiences of my career. The program takes seven IBMers all with different backgrounds hands them a “wicked problem” and gives them three weeks to tackle it. There is no pre-defined work flow or process, the teams self-organize. Our challenge, in collaboration with the Taiwan Center for Disease Control, was to radically reduce Dengue Fever in Taiwan. While there was a sharp decrease this year, 2014 and 2015 saw more cases than the last 100 year combined. In simple terms, how to keep a year like 2015 or 2014 from ever happening again. If ever there was a need for innovation this was it.
The ask from the CDC was a predictive math model. While always good to start with the end in mind, our approach was to first define the desired human outcome (what we call a Hill at IBM). Design Thinking was our mindset to tackle this challenge. Our journey started with meetings and interviews with the various groups and individuals within the CDC, plus the other government agencies (both national, regional, and local) that are involved in controlling Dengue in Taiwan. To experience the front lines of Dengue, we traveled south to Kaohsiung. There we learned first hand about many of the interventions used to control the spread of Dengue. We also conducted a thorough literature review to understand more deeply the current state of Dengue research and interventions.
To help us better understand the people and stakeholders, we held a series of framing workshop activities to identify our user groups as well as re-define the problem and our desired human outcomes. Co-creation is a key component of design thinking and one of the best ways to ensure usage and adoption of our solutions and recommendations. A model no matter how technically superior that doesn’t get used isn’t any better than having no solution at all.
In a short time frame, we knew that the best way to accelerate our understanding of the problem was to start to “making.” We co-located with the Taiwan CDC. We embedded members of the Taiwan CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Center with our team to be a part of the design and making process (Sponsor Users in IBM-speak). To more broadly capture the expertise of the CDC, we held more workshops. Several of these workshops included over 100 people. They were held at CDC Headquarters, but included participants and expertise of the regional offices, especially those in Tainan and Kaohsiung. Our activities were a great opportunity to co-design concepts that address the needs of each specific user group. I have to admit that I have never facilitated a workshop quite so large with both local and remote teams, in Chinese, with only one co-facilitator. A credit to Jennifer Lee, one of the designers in Taiwan, there is no way I could have done it without her expertise and skill. Most especially credit goes to the Taiwan CDC. Design Thinking was new to them. But they embraced this new approach to framing and solving problems with people at the center. This approach brought fresh perspective to Dengue control in Taiwan.
Interestingly, at the end of the three weeks we did deliver a model, but it was part of a much larger ecosystem that included empowering the Taiwan CDC with a people focused mindset, a framework for creating new models for alternative interventions, a road map to increase their analytics maturity, and concepts to more effectively engage everyone from the individual, to the local, regional, and national agencies and departments who are all in this fight against Dengue Fever.
As I reflect on this experience, there are several lessons (re)learned that can benefit any team focused on innovation.
- Focus on human outcomes. Every wicked problem has people at the root, what are their individual human needs? Define your end state from their point of view. Immerse yourself in their world. Have empathy for their challenges.
- The value of diverse, cross functional teams, who respect and encourage each other’s differences and realize that the greater good is more important than each individuals’ ego
- The power of co-design with your partner organization. Be it a grantee, or a client, include them in the journey, also see number 1.
- Have fun, don’t discount your team culture. While our three weeks was intense, we didn’t lock ourselves in a room. We took time to experience Taiwan and many of its cultural wonders, natural beauty, and amazing food. Trust in each other came through both the hard work and hard play. see number 2.