A series of blogs written by 2016 Emerge Communication Champions.
On the last rainy weekend in Oxford, I was indoors. So far indoors, in fact, that I was in a windowless room. But I had barely noticed. I was dashing about a lecture hall during the Emerge conference, snapping pictures madly.
I was picking my way through a packed room of attendees who were huddled in small groups, leaning over worksheets. There was a buzz of energy in the room, much of which came from the facilitator, Daniela Papi-Thornton.
Daniela is the Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, the organisation that planned and hosted this conference. In some ways, she was a natural leader for this workshop, which was focused on zeroing in on a problem and building the right process to find the right solution. In other ways, it’s surprising to see her here. For one thing, this was the only conference session in which full-time Skoll Centre staff facilitated an event themselves. For another, Daniela was still on maternity leave. She took a break from her leave just to lead this event.
In fact, her baby, Skye, was casually sleeping, strapped to his mother’s shoulders, while she paced rapidly back and forth across the room. She was speaking.
“How many of you want to be social entrepreneurs?” Daniela asked the crowd. A number of hands went up. Daniela looked around the room, consternation on her face. “Stop that!” she said. “Don’t do that!”
People laughed a little and took their hands down tentatively.
“This is backwards,” she said. “My husband used to say it to me this way: ‘We don’t need more toothbrushes in the world; we need cleaner teeth.’ Same thing here: rather than jumping to the conclusion that a social enterprise is the best way to solve a problem, you first need to understand that problem really, really well. Maybe there’s a better way to solve your problem. And maybe a social enterprise is the best way to do that. But we can’t prejudge the outcome.”
Daniela has the rare talent in which everything she says seems both shocking and obvious at the same time. Her comments were simple, rational, self-evident, and yet, subversive. They were reminders that conventional wisdom is conventional partially because it gives us a convenient way to stroke our own egos. Her ideas came like surges of power, making everyone lean forward on their desks and listen more attentively. She called the desire to build new social enterprises, even when they weren’t necessary, as “heropreneurship.”
Daniela Papi-Thornton (center) paces around the lecture hall while attendees watch. Photo by Sagar Doshi
Daniela split the attendees into small groups and had them start analysing a social problem. Instead of jumping to likely solutions, she asked them to think about who they could speak with in the community who could teach them more about the nature of their problem. It was a humble, empathy-led way of thinking of social impact.
As I took pictures of these groups in action, my mind jumped back to a new word I had learned in a class this year. Have you heard of the term gemba? I certainly hadn’t before this year.
It came up first in my Technology & Operations lecture. That course is the most prototypically business one I take. It looks at the world and sees processes. Manufacturing a car? That’s a process. Triaging patients in an emergency room? A process. Responding to customer complaints for your digital product? Another process.
With that lens, you can’t help but want to improve processes. But when you try, your solution will almost always come up short unless you take the time to really, truly understand what’s actually happening. Japanese car manufacturers described this with the term gemba, meaning ‘to go and see what was happening’. Visualisation isn’t good enough. Diagrams, flowcharts, and spreadsheets aren’t sufficient. Under this philosophy, there is no substitute for talking to people, understanding a problem, and observing it in real life.
Could there be a better metaphor for the most important lessons of social impact? Like others at the conference, I had worked on social impact projects before. Most notably, I led one minor army of college students to a tropical village in Nicaragua and another to a desert town in Rajasthan, both times to work on local projects. Each time, my team came in with certain assumptions about how to make an impact. Each time, we worked on whatever let us feel the least bit helpful. And each time, it became clear that we were mostly just helping ourselves learn a little more about life in those communities.
At Emerge, this theme came up over and over. It came up when one of our keynote speakers, Paul Lindley, talked about his unstinting focus on the babies who ate the food that Ella’s Kitchen produced. It came up when another keynote speaker, Lily Lapenna, mentioned that the key inspiration to creating MyBnk arrived after she listened to her confused, indebted peers. It came up when Ola Suliman of Mayday Rescue, herself a political refugee from Syria, cautioned would-be refugee helpers to realise that Syrian refugees often need to feel useful through work more than they need new mobile apps.
Humility—of the actively observant sort that Daniela taught—must be the watchword of any aspiring social shaper. It was certainly the main lesson I took from Emerge. Opportunities to improve the world are typically complex, interlinked design challenges. Like any design challenge, you need to begin by grasping all facets of a problem. That means watching and learning, without making assumptions. This is not the easiest way to try to fix a problem, but it has the virtue of being one of the best.
Sagar is fascinated by future-focused technologies that have the potential to deeply change society through new markets and new products. That same interest previously brought him to Google, where he worked on mobile partnership products, and later to the US Federal Communications Commission, where he helped craft modern public policy rules for the future of the Internet. Sagar can usually be found in the science fiction section of my local bookstore.
Feature image above by www.fisherstudios.co.uk