Learning from Gates Foundation

The Economist magazine ( issue dated Feb 16 2019), uses a simple framework to analyse how the $ 50 Billion Gates Foundation approaches big and seemingly intractable problems such as Malaria, Polio , Sanitation and Children’s Education. The analysis has useful lessons for business leaders like you tasked with solving big and seemingly intractable problems.

The article, suggests categorising such problems into three and then deploying resources to solve them.

Category 1: Needs breakthrough innovation – Deploy a small talented group. (e.g. inventing new vaccine)

Category 2: Requires large scale program implementation – Deploy a large team skilled at big rollouts. (e.g. polio immunisation drive)

Cat 3: Needs both; breakthrough innovation and large scale program implementation. (Children’s education)

The same article also alerts to the possibility of a Category 1 problem turning out to be a Category 2 and vice a versa.

  • Malaria was initially thought to be a Category 1 problem, needing a breakthrough vaccine. The problem was actually addressed by a large scale program to distribute mosquito nets.
  • Sanitation was initially believed to be a Category 2 problem needing more toilets and sewer lines. In practice, given the high population densities and acute water shortages in the developing world, the need was found to be a breakthrough in toilet design that would safely treat the waste, then and there.

So, what are the takeaways for business leaders like you? How can you apply these learnings in your context? Three simple tips.

  1. Categorise before deploying resources and solutions.
  2. Be open to shift your approach, when necessary.
  3. Recognise Category 3 problems early, and gearing up for their enormity.

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