“If you’re someone who wants to learn a new way to solve problems, work with a team of people who are “all-in” and want to make the shift from being a consumer to a contributor, I would urge you to find out more and apply for the Mine Fellowship.”
-James Wagner, Mine Fellow, 2015 – 2016
Chief of Performance Strategy and Innovation, City of Tulsa
Often after a meeting in the community or at City Hall I’m asked a question that goes something like this: “I love what is going on in Tulsa. How can I get more engaged in all the amazing things going on in the city?” Three years ago, I was asking myself the same question, and despite working at INCOG, an organization that supports local governments, felt I could contribute more.
Of course, Tulsa has many avenues for engagement – nonprofit boards, city government authorities, boards and commissions, and countless volunteer opportunities. But none of those seemed like a good fit for me at the time. I wanted something that involved a team effort. While in graduate school, I had a great experience working on a team that was “all in” for achieving a big goal to bring a major conference to Atlanta. I wanted to experience that same level of teamwork and collaboration again. I found it in the Mine Fellowship.
The Mine fundamentally changed the way I think about problem-solving. Here are two lessons (of many) I learned as a Mine Fellow:
1. Stay Married to the Problem, not the Solution
I can’t tell you how many times I heard this phrase during the Mine Fellowship. When we’re trying to solve problems on our own, we approach the problem within our own context. That’s where the Mine really forced me to think differently. Our team would come up with some cool-sounding solution, often technology based (after all, we were all millennials), but we would always have to come back to that fundamental question of whether we were actually solving the problem we had scoped. One of the dangers of today’s tech-crazed world is that we have a lot of solutions looking for problems. The Mine kept us all grounded in problem-solving.
2. Keep the focus on the people you’re solving for
In our case, we were solving for teenagers living in Tulsa. We interviewed, surveyed and conducted focus groups with over 100 teens to really understand the problem fully and develop a solution that worked for them. One key finding is that teenagers had no concept of the use of public transportation. The Mine teaches design thinking, which at its core keeps the focus on the people you’re solving for. That’s an important part of developing solutions that work. You’re always working from the perspective that the team’s solution is a hypothesis. Testing the validity of that hypothesis with the people you’re solving for is essential to success. The Mine holds design thinking and prototyping as a key element of success in the fellowship.
My journey to The Mine: A friend who was on the Mine Board of Directors at the time reached out and recommended I apply. At first, I hesitated. I had a lot of commitments already and didn’t want to stretch myself too thin. But I did some research and learned of The Mine’s focus on social entrepreneurism. For someone working in local government, it seemed like an intriguing new way of thinking that could be applied to some of the problems I was trying to solve at work.
It was a big commitment – nine months – and it was uncertain what project I’d be working on. I had more questions than answers. Was the project interesting enough to keep my focused attention for nine months? Were the people who would comprise my team “all in” on working to solve big problems? Would the recommendations be implemented or just collect dust?
After a couple weeks of deliberation and a long discussion with Rebecca Butcher, the Mine Director at that time, I decided to apply. After an intense interview with the Mine’s Board of Directors, I was asked to be a 2015-16 Mine Fellow. Still I didn’t quite know what to expect, but after the orientation, which the Mine calls boot camp, I knew it was going to be a great experience – and it was.
The Project: My team (one of whom, Hannah Ralston, now leads the Mine) spent nine months deeply understanding the problem of lack of transportation for Tulsa’s teens. There are dozens of agencies doing work to help teens with all kinds of problems, and many of them were sending their licensed social workers out to be taxi drivers for half of the day. We worked to come up with an innovative solution, an organization now called Modus. They work with volunteers to build trust and arrange free rides for teens that need them. They also work to educate teens on how to use Tulsa Transit to increase their independence. Currently, Modus operates under Youth Services of Tulsa.