Since becoming the world’s richest man Bill Gates has slowly distanced himself away from Microsoft and into his charity work. At this point his legacy as a humanitarian is arguably more important than his contributions to technology. Through the Gates Foundation, Bill and his wife Melinda have given away billions working to solve problems from vaccinations in 3rd world countries to education in their very own.
The Gates Foundation is far reaching and they don’t just dole out money to causes they care about. They’re focused on solving problems. Instead of simply funding a vaccination plan, they’re figuring out how to eradicate certain diseases like polio. Aside from being one of the richest people on the planet, Gates is also one of the smarttest.
In an essay published by the Wall Street Journal, Gates says over the last few years he’s really hit a stride in with the problem solving. When people are trying to fix something to solution always seems to be trying harder. If a basketball player is struggling with his free throws then they’re likely to practice more shots. But this doesn’t help identify the true problem. The problem isn’t missing free throws, it’s with form. Shooting more free throws might help but unless you understand the problem you aren’t likely to find the solution.
For the causes Gates supports, finding a solution means working towards a better understanding of the problem. In this case, he’s working to improve the measurement of the problem. With better measurement comes better understanding. For instance, to eradicate polio in the last few countries that still deal with it, health workers needed better mapping tools. They were missing hundreds of communities as they travel around offering vaccinations. GPS is helping to provide better maps and tracking. Likewise, improving education in the US is coming from better systems of measuring teacher performance. This brings in all kinds of elements including student feedback and many peer and mentor evaluations; in addition to testing and student performance.
By improving measurement we improve our understanding of a problem. We can create benchmarks by which to set goals and gauge improvement. This isn’t simply a matter of solving the world’s problems. It can solve ours too.
Step on the scale: Whoever said not to weigh yourself every day was considerably mistaken. That’s exactly what you should do, as long as you understand there will be up and down days. All that matters is tracking a long term trend. These days there are apps that will do it for you.
Put down the donut: Just like weighing yourself, tracking what you eat can help you become much healthier. The missing gap here is some type of simple way to do it. Imagine if the tools were created to automatically track what you’re eating. At the end of the day you could see a summary of where you came up short on nutrients or over on sugar. Gates isn’t likely to help create such a device, but someone will.
Off the gas: In the opinion of this blogger one of the best ways to help people get better gas mileage is to have all cars constantly display a MPG tracker. Observant city drivers will note that people accelerate far harder than is needed. Showing your mileage just like your speed will help you keep it in check. A speedometer itself is an example of a measurement system to help keep drivers and passengers safe.
Keep the wallet in your pocket: We’re seeing the emergence of many systems that track your spending and provide regular feedback. The system is not ubiquitous and not widely adopted either, but it exists. Most people don’t track their spending in any method and would be surprised to learn how much they spend on Panera each month (I try not to look).
Bill Gates is spot on in his approach to solving problems. Measuring a problem is sometimes more difficult than finding the solution. But this is where more work should be focused. We could all stand to improve the measurements in our life and work.