Explore and Experiment

Using new iterative approaches to solve complex societal challenges

Most organizations want to have a significant positive impact in their community, for example, by improving learning conditions for children; reducing isolation among seniors or improving the experience of newcomers. 

Yet, even if the intended impacts are easy to define, the path that leads to the real solutions are often unclear, and for good reason: the societal challenges that lie at the crux of these issues are complex.

What is a complex problem?

A problem is complex when:

  • it is difficult to solve and evolves quickly;
  • it involves multiple stakeholders who may have different values ​​and priorities;
  • it involves causes and effects that are interdependent;
  • it is fraught with uncertainty and uncertainty;
  • it requires the implementation of multiple solutions that are hardly predictable.

To properly tackle a complex problem, organizations must be able to innovate in the research and application of the solutions to be put in place. They need to explore and experiment with new solutions.

There are many different approaches that can take place during initial exploration phases. For instance, you could begin by using new ways of understanding the problem, based on the different perspectives of the parties involved. Using tools like Systems Mapping (or systems research) provides an overview of the different elements that influence the problem (actors, resources, programs, etc.). You can also go deeper into individual users experiences, with tools like Journey Mapping.

When the problem has been understood from many angles, it is then time for organizations to experiment with new solutions. Experimentation involves testing ideas and hypotheses by iterating and learning while doing. Prototyping tools and techniques can be a quick and effective way to test ideas and adapt consequently in this phase. Data analysis approaches can also help organizations refine their scope with a stronger evidence base. 

Throughout the exploration and experimentation process, it is important to always be testing assumptions. It is a good thing to constantly be asking:

  • How do you know that by doing x, y or z you will achieve your intended impact? 
  • What do you know (or not) about the needs and aspirations of your target audiences? 
  • What are the assumptions that underlie your actions? 
  • What are the areas of uncertainty?

These questions, if difficult to address, can make an organisation move from believing that they know what is working well to actually understanding how things work, and how they can make change. This opens the door to a real exploration and experimentation process. Through continuous learning and iteration, exploration and experimentation approaches can advance and organization’s understand the true nature of their complex challenge, and discover means of making real, lasting impact. 

To learn more about the Explore & Experiment module, you can access more background and research on social innovation labs here.

This Innoweave module was developed in partnership with MaRS Solutions Lab.