This post is part of a special report on social innovation from What Matters, McKinsey & Company’s journal of ideas, in which innovators from around the world share their strategies.

Addressing major social problems, especially in an era of limited resources, is both daunting and enthralling. Our responses to tackling such problems, however, often serve to undermine the development sector’s impact. We ignore hard-won wisdom and best practices that have been developed by our predecessors. We imagine we can invent a silver bullet, and that our peers in the development world will embrace our novel approach and replicate our success. When that doesn’t happen, we hide behind the vastness of the problem as a way to excuse our mediocre performance and avoid holding ourselves truly accountable.

Without question, innovation has been a hallmark of the social and development spheres. The field has pioneered countless technological and program delivery advances, ranging from the development of vaccines for yellow fever and rotavirus to establishing the “cold chain” we use to transport those and other vaccines to the most remote villages to spearheading the Green Revolution, which has transformed agricultural practices in Latin America, India, and elsewhere.

The next big disruptive force that will take the development sector’s efforts to a new level will be found neither in a lab nor through logistical advances, though no doubt these can still take us further. The biggest wins will come from a shift in mind-set that will refocus our efforts on improving our organizational effectiveness. The rise of a new, more disciplined approach will force us to thoroughly examine the evidence to ensure that we invest our funds where the potential benefit is highest. It will require us to adapt management tools and to build our collective capacity to deliver concrete results. 

We know, for example, that using a sterilized razor to cut the umbilical cord, swaddling the newborn, and ensuring skin-to-skin contact with the mom in the first hours of life can cut neonatal mortality by 20 to 40 percent. There are few technologies on the horizon that will outperform these simple steps. Similarly, we know the enormous value of basic infrastructure, such as roads and electricity, in spurring economic development. Yet an examination of historical resource flows would show a chronic failure to act on this knowledge as a way to optimize bang for buck. Our preoccupation with betting on the newest and shiniest fads of the day repeatedly translates into reduced effectiveness in saving and improving lives.

The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) has developed a “Critical Path” tool, based on data gathered by independent evaluators, to identify the most important strategies for program success. Using this tool, CIFF and our partners in the field are able to track our programs, identify critical shortcomings, and make midcourse corrections to ensure we achieve the highest possible level of success. We know Critical Path works. We can point to multiple investments where we have had dramatic increases in impact within the first year or 18 months of the program. While CIFF has its share of PhDs and former business executives, the truth is, you don’t need an MBA to improve performance. This methodology requires nothing more than the ability to clearly articulate the program assumptions and to apply some simple algebra. We are thrilled that a handful of CIFF partners, having seen the link between this approach and increased impact, are now seeking CIFF’s support in adapting the Critical Path tool to their own independent programming.

Having a clear understanding of your program’s goals is fundamental to Critical Path. There is no doubt the 3 by 5 campaign, which sought to get 3 million people with AIDS on antiretroviral treatment by 2005, galvanized the community into action. Similarly, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals have provided a clear and unified agenda for donors and governments.

Development dollars are increasingly scarce. We all share a desire to make a difference. Let’s stop excusing ourselves for mediocre returns. Let’s pledge to achieve a new round of innovations that change the basic development approach so that we can truly squeeze the most benefit from each dollar spent.

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