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Create Programs That Work: Common Mistakes (Part I)

This is the worst time; this is the best time. 

As is made ever more clear by the year 2020, our global society is facing a growing list of problems, and government leadership and the capitalist market neglect, ignore or fail to create positive change. 

As is also made ever more clear by the year 2020, organizations, communities, and grassroots groups are playing an indispensable role in empowering communities, creating space for change, and drawing attention to previously overlooked issues. 

As I discussed in my last article, good intentions to create change should be the starting point, not the ending point, of designing programs and services. For every program that promises the potential to solve a problem but does not, it is the diminishing sense of self and hope of that community that is at stake. Badly-designed programs fail both investors and communities.

It is always easier said than done. I know. I do not wish to fall into the same accountability problem that I am trying to bring awareness to. In the remainder of this article and the upcoming one, I discuss some of the most common mistakes that prevent well-intended programs from delivering results. I focus on the first two here.


Mistake 1. Transplanting a solution without testing it for a target population

This is probably the most common problem that undermines performances of programs and services. Let’s admit it, it’s tempting to read a published case study showcasing the potential of a program and want to replicate it for your own local community. However, as we have seen time after time, many programs don’t transplant well. 

There is a myriad of reasons why that might be the case. Maybe your organization does not have the same level of support as the one in the case study; maybe you serve a population of a different scale; maybe the community you’re serving lacks certain infrastructure or network; or maybe times have changed, the solution or even the problem is no longer relevant.

Transplanting a program is like transplanting an organ. If we can’t assume a transplanted organ would work perfectly, why should we ever take for granted that a transplanted program would be effective? As a rule of thumb, always do a compatibility test BEFORE launching a new program. 

Mistake 2. Focusing on an isolated problem without seeing the bigger picture.

Another very common yet much more difficult-to-detect issue that undermines performances of well-intended programs is to focus too much on an isolated cause without seeing the bigger picture. 

Take a look at Graph 1 below. 

Graph 1: Oversimplified cause-outcome relationship

Whenever we think about creating a program to address a social problem, we tend to think of the problem as depicted in Graph 1. It’s streamlined, simple, and, more appealingly, easily actionable. However, in real life, as any sociologists will tell you, the causes (note, plural) of a problem are more likely to be a version of Graph 2.

Graph 2: A more realistic depiction of causes and result

Compared to Graph 1, Graph 2 is messy. Skimming this article unprepared for something this complex, you probably subconsciously did not even want to read the graph closely. But that is the reality of social problems. They are messy; they are complex; they are uncomfortable. 

Two things about Graph 2 you should note. First, there is no single cause to the problem at hand. There are multiple causes all producing the same issue. Second, the causes are intertwined with and feeding into each other. This is probably the more direct explanation why a program targeting ONE cause would not work as expected. Take a look at Graph 3 below.

Graph 3: Tackling an isolated cause without addressing the whole issue will not resolve the problem.

Imagine you remove the cause in the center, what will happen? A, all the remaining causes will continue to fuel the problem. B, all the causes will recreate the cause you just removed. You’re doing everything for nothing. 

Social problems are rarely stand-alone issues that can be addressed with one single, focused solution. More likely, multiple causes are tangled together and fueling each other to create the issue we see. Before you act, take a step back and identify the adjacent problems that could undermine the impact of your effort, and collaborate with other organizations to tackle the issue together.

In this article, I have discussed two of the most common mistakes that prevent well-intended programs from delivering results. In the upcoming article, I will talk about two additional problems relating to time and how we see "problems," respectively.

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