One problem that constantly recurs in changing organizations is what we might call the last mile dilemma. The term comes from the telecommunications industry, which struggled for many years with how to efficiently extend their networks the "last mile," or into individual homes. In large organizations the analogous challenge is how to make sure that important changes actually reach the most remote stakeholders, whether they be front-line workers or customers.
I first became aware of this issue many years ago as a consultant for GE, where at a particular facility I saw posters, signs, and other branding elements for RCA – a company that GE had acquired over ten years previously. Regardless, many outlying locations still identified themselves with their old company. A more current example is some work we're now doing in a large healthcare firm in which the CEO has been stressing the importance of empowerment – but front-line leaders still wait for instructions from their supervisors.
Recently one of my colleagues, Nadim Matta, was recognized as one of Foreign Policy Magazine's Top 100 Global Thinkers for his efforts to figure out the last-mile problem in the context of health, social, and economic issues in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. As the president the Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit our firm helped to create, Matta found that huge amounts of talent and resources in these regions were being devoted to developing top-down solutions for agricultural productivity, clean water, maternal health, and other areas. The experts and government officials assumed that these solutions would trickle down naturally to the people who would benefit. But in many cases the ultimate "targets" of change (people in villages or cities) had not been engaged, didn't feel real ownership of the solutions, or didn't fully understand what was required.
To overcome the last-mile problem, Matta turned the paradigm of development on its head. Instead of experts and officials shaping solutions and giving them to the recipients, he worked with local leaders to challenge the ultimate recipients to come up with their own solutions in 100 days or less, and to use the experts, government officials, and aid workers as resources. In other words, start with the last mile and do it quickly so that everyone gets a shot of adrenaline, some short-term success, and the reinforcement to expand and scale.
Although it sounds simple, this shift has had a profound impact on development in a number of countries and has been adopted by many groups, including the government of Kenya and several departments in The World Bank. Furthermore it's had an impact on thousands of lives, contributing to the success of HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in Eritrea, increased education of girls in conservative communities in Sudan, and the reduction of soil erosion in Rwanda, just to name a few. This "Rapid Results" approach also is being used by the Veteran Administration, HUD, and other United States federal agencies to accelerate the placement of chronically homeless veterans in permanent housing.
But the reality is that most organizations, not just developing countries, have last-mile problems and might benefit from experimenting with this shift. If that's the case in your organization, here are two questions you might consider:
- Who are the ultimate "targets" of change – those who will need to do something differently in order to achieve the organizational goals?
- To what extent can you get these targets engaged in developing solutions right from the beginning, instead of waiting until the cake is fully baked?
While answering these questions may not always get your change through to the last mile, they may help you accelerate the pace for getting there.