Learner Story: Joanne Ng
Director of Global Operations, New Story Charity
Joanne is using design thinking to address global homelessness.
IDEO U COURSE COMPLETED:
“We want every team member to be actively identifying opportunities for innovation and proposing new ideas, but that requires us to create a structure and team culture in which they feel comfortable doing so. I'm trying to help our team build that muscle.”
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am the Director of Global Operations at New Story, a non-profit organization that pioneers solutions for the global affordable housing sector. I lead New Story’s Impact Team to run experiments and test innovative solutions by proactively identifying opportunities for solutions within the housing sector—construction materials and management, incremental housing design, access to housing finance, etc.
What made you interested in IDEO U?
In the first five years of New Story, we identified opportunity areas for innovation organically through our collaboration with multiple local partners and government entities in El Salvador, Haiti, Bolivia, and Mexico. We realized our strength in finding patterns across different projects and investing in research and development in areas that most organizations on the ground are not able to focus on. In New Story’s transition into a new strategy, I knew we had to be much more intentional about how we identify these opportunities.
IDEO U’s Designing Strategy course caught my eye because it was exactly what I was doing at New Story with other team members, but I wanted to learn a proven methodology that could guide me and my team
“If we could create a workplace where each team member saw their work from a lens of opportunities for thinking outside of the box, we would be able to test and learn quicker.”
Why the Designing Strategy course specifically?
Identifying issues, designing solutions, prototyping quickly, and bringing solutions to the field were already part of New Story’s DNA, but what we were lacking was a structure that supported our process to reflect more intentionally. New Story’s mission is to pioneer solutions, and it is our responsibility to figure out how to do it frequently with more sets and reps. We need to find opportunities to fail faster so that we can get to more successful innovations faster. I noticed that some of our team members and partners were used to a more traditional work structure where they didn't feel they had the permission to identify issues, propose solutions, and dream big. If we could create a workplace where each team member saw their work from a lens of opportunities for thinking outside of the box, we would be able to test and learn quicker.
“Identifying issues, designing solutions, prototyping quickly, and bringing solutions to the field were already part of New Story’s DNA, but what we were lacking was a structure that supported our process.”
The pandemic has forced so many industries to rethink their strategies. Have you gained any insight into how New Story’s strategy might evolve?
Designing Strategy has helped us focus while opening space for more creative ideation. Because creating a strategy for a company or organization can be high-risk, it can feel difficult to test because a wrong decision can be harmful. Especially at a time with so much uncertainty during the pandemic, it’s easy to want to wait it out.
I was excited to use the framework from the course with my team, which led to much more clarity and the immediate small and big steps to begin testing. We prototyped quickly, conducted interviews, and had clear metrics to help us define success.
We are now creating a toolbox so that any team member can feel comfortable and excited about strategizing and proactively proposing solutions. Instead of a top-down approach in which team members wait for direction from leaders, they can be empowered to lead experiments at any level of the company.
What’s an example of how you’ve used what you learned?
During the week when we learned to identify problems, I shared it with my team and we immediately used it for a brainstorm session on housing finance access.
Most of the families at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid do not have access to housing loans because many are unbanked, do not have a formal credit history, and are considered high risk lenders by commercial banks. In Mexico, microfinance institutions with “social interest” have turned into a predatory market, taking advantage of low-income families by offering interest rates up to 100%.
With this in mind, how would it be possible for families to access a loan to purchase a safe home? Of course, many factors are also at play—the cost of housing, housing stock availability, access to land title, and more. The Designing Strategy framework helped us break down the issues to identify key opportunities for New Story to design a solution. Using those insights and after a series of rapid prototyping, we have designed a blended finance housing model where we are offering the most competitive housing loan in Mexico.
“During the week when we learned to identify problems, I shared it with my team and we immediately used it for a brainstorm session on housing finance access.”
Housing and homelessness is such a complex issue. What kind of projects do you work on?
Yes, indeed it is complex! There are 1.6 billion people globally who lack adequate shelter, and the factors are complex. Construction is expensive, land is complex, housing finance is not truly accessible to everyone, and governments have not prioritized sustainable solutions. The construction industry is the most traditional sector in the world. Building materials and construction methods have been extremely slow to innovate. One innovation we are very excited about is 3D printing homes, in which we have just completed printing the first 3D printed community in the world. There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution, but we believe that much more innovation will be necessary to bring the sector forward.
Another part of our work that is often overlooked is information gathering. Many other organizations in the social sector often need to collect data from each household in rural areas. Surveys are printed on paper and surveyors collect information by hand, one by one. It's tedious, time consuming, and creates many opportunities for errors. New Story developed an offline survey application, so that surveys could collect data digitally, even in areas without access to the internet. When they return to wifi-connection, the data is immediately aggregated into a database.
We have also launched an impact investment fund, allowing investors to help provide 0-1% interest loans to families to increase access to housing finance. There’s a lot more to be done in the social housing sector. It is a big challenge and we have not chosen an easy one, but we are motivated and energized by the responses to the innovations we have created to continue creating and building more!
“The Designing Strategy framework helped us break down the issues to identify key opportunities for New Story to design a solution. Using those insights and after a series of rapid prototyping, we have designed a blended finance housing model where we are offering the most competitive housing loan in Mexico.”
Did you have any “aha” moments?
There was this quote from the course, “Strategy is not planning. Planning is doing.” It’s easy to get stuck strategizing at our desks wondering which option would lead to the best outcome. I love this quote because it reminds us to default to action. The quicker we can get our hands dirty by bringing tests to the field, the more evident the answer will become.
That’s such a great insight. Going forward, what role do you think strategy will play in the nonprofit sector?
I think the nonprofit and housing sectors desperately need more innovation and training like this to help change the mindset and approach
The sector is operating with very traditional mindsets, and it is just not enough. Some organizations are proud of having done things the same exact way for 20 years. To me, that sounds terrifying because it’s a sign of lack of innovation, because clearly the lack of adequate housing has only grown in the past 20 years. Our goal at New Story is that we don’t do the same thing forever, success looks like running more tests and innovations. We will fail a lot along the way, but I believe that’s the only way to create true innovation. We are not comfortable with the status quo. The problems and limitations we see inspire us to do it differently and do it better.
Unite rigor and creativity to create a successful strategy
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