Gates' Thoughts on Complexity as a barrier to solving social problems

Bill Gates recently gave the commencement speech at Harvard. On Philanthropy did a great summary of this. Gates made an interesting point about complexity that I think is very applicable to our work at Foundations.

The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity…Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers any time an organization or individual asks “How can I help?” than we can get action – and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares – and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.

He went on to recommend a four-point plan for addressing a complex problem: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and, until that discovery, make the smartest application of the technology you do have. He used the AIDS epidemic as an example, the goal being, of course, to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention, the ideal technology a single dose vaccine that gives lifetime immunity. Until that vaccine is discovered, however, the best prevention approach is to get people to avoid risky behavior.

The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.

How often does the big idea get lost in the details of the work that we do with nonprofits?