Social Innovation, McKinsey & Democracy Gone Daffy

I get it: Create a competition to draw attention to the most innovative social businesses, leveraging social media to spread the word. Encourage people to vote for their favorites. Fun for everybody!

Well, no. There is something just plain off about pitting social enterprises against one another in what amounts to a popularity contest. Which is exactly what consulting powerhouse McKinsey has done with a competition to find the “most innovative and impactful!” one-minute video created by a social enterprise.

The focus is not on the intrinsic value of an idea or approach, or even its effectiveness. The spotlight is squarely on the quality of the messaging.

Nearly 150 companies submitted entries, lured by the chance to connect with the rich and powerful through McKinsey’s vast network (there is no cash award). Even companies that didn’t make the preliminary cut had videos posted on the McKinsey site. 

And yet, as I browsed the “final 11,” I was struck by the sheer absurdity of voting. So what if the sOcket video is slicker than the HeroRATS teaser? Comparing a soccer ball battery—literally charged by play—and a rat-based TB diagnostic scheme is beyond the folly of apple versus orange.

According to the fine print of the “official rules,” the objective is actually slightly different than the pitch on the website: One is supposed to  ”…vote for the entry which you think shows the most social innovation.” The most social innovation? By what metrics? 

Even with ventures more closely conceptually aligned—the Embrace infant warmer for low birthweight babies and Edesia’s fortified peanut paste to fight malnutrition in young chidren—the correct answer is both, please. There is no “most” about it. 

Voting for a “fan favorite” presents its own set of complications. To be completely fair means sifting through a couple of hours worth of videos. How many people will simply cut to the chase and vote for friends?

Indeed, how big is the voting pool? Who’s voting? How many are repeat voters? (daily voting is allowed) What’s the geographic spread?

What’s the point? 

And yet, for all the annoying faux democratic mishegas, it is still well worth a trip around the McKinsey site for the serendipity of discovery. Although the collection of social enterprises a bit quirky, with a heavy skew towards projects in Asia and Africa, there is richness in the mix and loads of ideas worth gleaning. 

McKinsey has such broad reach and deep pockets, its work really can help move the dial. Let’s just hope that next time around, its approach is a bit more thoughtful.

The focus on messaging is fine. Innovation is an insight developed as a product or service, which is then marketed. Selling counts. Packaging counts. 

Perhaps in addition to lauding the marketing “haves,” there could also be a component designed to help organizations that may do great work, but produce mediocre videos. For example, the Tips for Shooting a Video article could developed into a tool kit, complete with storyboard templates and analyses of good and bad videos. 

I vote for that. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @tTackerNews