Working out what to work on to have the highest impact is a big task. But before we get stuck into the detailed work, it’s good to stand back and think about what kinds of questions we should be asking.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some things we think you should bear in mind.
What area should I be working in?
Some problems are orders of magnitude more important than others. Technology has given us easy global communication, not just cat gifs. When choosing a problem to work on you should prioritize those that score well on:
- Scope: the size of the benefit from solving the problem
- Tractability: the ease of transforming your resources into progress
- Neglectedness: the more neglected the problem, the higher the value of additional resources and people
High-priority problems are often closely related, or are facets of a larger underlying problem, so you can more efficiently search for problems by looking for high-priority areas or causes. For example, improving health is a cause packed full of tractable, important problems.
How many people do you benefit and how much?
It may sound obvious, but you should aim to help the greatest number of people as much as you can. For this reason it important to think carefully about your target beneficiaries, as some groups will be much larger and easier to help than others.
Furthermore, this means that small is not always beautiful - growing the scale of your business can be great for your impact as well as your profit.
Are your most important beneficiaries your customers?
You might help other people even more than you help your customers. One way your company could improve the world is by innovating, which enables future products and companies.
For example, although Tesla produces vehicles for the wealthy, they’re hastening the widespread uptake of electric cars, leading to reduced emissions and a lowered burden of climate change. In this respect, an important class of Tesla’s beneficiaries are the future people who won’t suffer as much from the effects of climate change.
What is your impact mechanism?
As well as identifying who you’re helping, you should think about the mechanism by which you’re helping them and use impact metrics to guide your decisions.
Here are some examples of mechanisms by which your company might have an impact: - Direct improvements in the welfare of your customers. - Innovation or developments in infrastructure, which enable future products to help people directly. - Other positive spillover effects, such as averting environmental damage.
What will happen if you don’t do this project?
When your goal is to improve the world, you care more that good gets done than that it gets done by you. If someone else creates a product before you, then that’s actually a good thing, because the world becomes better, sooner. This is a reason to concentrate on something that’s less likely to happen. For example, it seems likely that most “machine learning for X” startups are going to be done in the next 5 to 10 years, unless you pick a really unusual X!
One way to find projects that are unlikely to be done by others is by seeing where you have an unusual combination of skills, knowledge, and/or problem domain.