Helping a non-profit embrace an agile mindset and do more with less
Over a time-boxed period of three months, PebbleRoad worked with a multidisciplinary team from a social service non-profit to investigate how it could serve and engage more clients without compromising on quality or losing the personal touch. Through the co-teaming approach, the non-profit’s staff picked up new capabilities and adopted a new mindset that gave them the confidence to rapidly build and test a high-fidelity prototype, which they are continuing to improve upon.
19 May 2021
The social service sector in Singapore is facing intense manpower and resource pressures as the country’s ageing population grows and competition for its shrinking workforce intensifies.
“Business as usual” is no longer tenable for non-profits (NPOs) in this space. Recognising the proverbial burning platform it was on, an NPO approached PebbleRoad to accelerate the change it needed to make.
The NPO’s own change journey began a few years ago had reached a point where additional efforts to "do more with less" were yielding diminishing returns. They now needed a little help from outside to think differently so as to spike productivity and scale operations, without being held back by current and future productivity-based funding models.
Aware that outsourcing for solutions would not support their own development, the NPO agreed to co-team with PebbleRoad. This meant working together on a number of projects with PebbleRoad tiering down its role for each subsequent project as new skills and work practices are embedded within the NPO.
PebbleRoad strongly advocates this approach as it delivers new products and services while helping clients acquire digital and organisational capabilities plus mindset shifts needed to change the way they work.
With this in mind, an intentionally diverse team from the NPO ( e.g. staff from other programmes and supporting departments like youth services, organisational development and data analysis) was formed to work with us over three months.
The first project was to support the parenting of school-going children from low-resource families. Working with schools and specialist partners, the social workers focus heavily on giving parents knowledge and skills so they can be actively involved in their children's education and development. However, the NPO recognised that their current "high touch" model could not scale up, without compromising on quality. Nor was increasing manpower to meet increasing demand sustainable.
The first project’s aim was two-pronged:
- To discover a new way of engaging parents that could scale up without losing personal touch; and
- In the process, arm the NPO’s staff with capabilities and a new mindset so that they could confidently conceptualise, prototype, validate and implement this and future solutions themselves.
PebbleRoad as a practice is outcomes-focused but we needed a clear process to guide the NPO team towards defining a minimum viable product (MVP) - the first step towards a robust, just-in-time and scalable client engagement model for all the NPO client services.
We used the well-established Double Diamond framework for innovation that helps multidisciplinary stakeholders solve complex problems together, especially when specific solutions are not pre-determined from the start. Done well, this ensures we first know if we are designing the right thing (“Have we identified the real problem?”), before determining if we are designing things right.
Co-teaming was maintained at every stage of the framework. The NPO team members learnt how to use design tools and processes to discover opportunities and insight through on the ground research, MVP definition, development and delivery stages.
They saw how defining even a specific problem statement starts with an ecosystem approach, which keeps a clear view of the greater end goal in mind. Also, how going beyond the “usual suspects” of parents and social workers to include school teachers to data management staff was “a must-have”, not “a nice-to-have”, if we wanted a holistic view of the parenting journey of school-going children.
This led the social workers in the team to realise that if they wanted a shared client database in the future, they would have to start to capture client notes differently now.
Through the process, the team determined that a digitally-enabled solution could augment the social workers’ work and provide content on-demand for motivated parents as well as a repository all social workers could draw from and add onto.
The expected outcome of this first exploratory project was a “low-fidelity” proposal of a new engagement model but the Co- team did not stop there.
To gain leadership support, the NPO team members felt they needed a more concrete proof of concept. Their first prototype was a rudimentary client-facing application, which they built using the NPO’s existing internal learning platform. But before its completion, they realised it was too “clunky” and went swiftly back to the drawing board.
Then an idea to use a free off-the-shelf app as a development platform was proposed. The NPO team rolled up their sleeves to build a new prototype within a day and with social workers tested it with an initial group of target profile parents for quick real-world feedback. The user tests were highly positive: parents found it easy to navigate and self-learning relatively easy while it freed time up for the social workers.
The penny dropped when the NPO team realised they had what it took to build their own prototype in an agile manner and that it was okay to experiment and fail (learn, adapt, improve!) along the way.
Moving forward, the NPO team will work on further developing the MVP by building new capabilities, consolidating existing and new content for parents, and determining the metrics they will collect to measure programme effectiveness before deciding if this commercial platform is most suitable or whether the NPO should still invest in a bespoke digital platform as they had originally wanted to.
In three months, the co-teaming approach with the NPO led to:
- An in-depth understanding of the parenting service journey lifecycle.
Nailing down the journey and problems for the programme, partners and clients.
- Validation (and invalidation) of solution ideas.
Ideation to solve specific prioritised problems.
- The beginnings of a foundation for a shared services platform in the NPO.
By taking a "thinking big but starting small" approach, change was made possible through manageable steps for NPO staff. There was also less demand for resources and faster learning cycles to inform the next stage.
In the next stage, PebbleRoad and a new Co-team from the NPO will build on the outcomes and learnings with the care service. The aim is for PebbleRoad to play the coaching role even further and transfer more knowledge to the NPO staff.
Altering the DNA of an organisation takes focus, time, effort and consistency, but it lays a path towards scalable sustainable changes long into the future.
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