2018 Training - Participant Reflections
Vice-President Innovation, Mercy Corps
“Getting Uncomfortable in One of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth”
Recently, I found myself rattling around in the back of a sleek black minivan with three strangers winding our way up the hills and along the shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy. Between a few pieces of lost luggage and many more hours of lost sleep, we all seemed a little worse for the wear. We exchanged some pleasantries and then enjoyed the beautiful scenery in companionable silence. Soon the driver pulled up to an ornate gate and ushered us into a different world – one I was entering with equal measures of excitement and unease.
We had arrived at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, with elegant buildings set on a hilly estate. Manicured hedges, fruit trees and lovingly tended vegetable gardens were all set against a beautiful view of the lake. For nearly 60 years this Center has supported cross-cultural and international exchange. While past residents like Mohamed Yunus and Maya Angelou are sources of professional and personal inspiration, I have to confess that, for a moment on arrival, the large espresso machine available at all hours is what excited me the most.
I was lucky to be attending a course designed and led by the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA). A first of its kind, this course was bringing together about 25 innovation managers from around the world to help them and their organizations more efficiently and effectively manage innovation processes, resources and relationships.
What excited me even more than the coffee and beautiful setting was the chance to connect with this group of innovation leaders. Teams in my organization have been working hard on scaling innovative models for greater social impact. But we often grapple with difficult and puzzling questions about how to best proceed. During this course, I was determined to glean from others specific, clear formulas and definitive answers to some of these dilemmas.
But as I sipped the first of many espressos and looked out over the idyllic setting, feelings of unease also returned. In my career as an international development practitioner, I have seen, contributed to, and challenged myself to learn about innovation. But I had been in a specific innovation leadership role for just one year. The pace and nature of the work over that time was different and often difficult. I frequently felt off-kilter struggling with tough, sometimes almost existential questions. Perhaps, I thought, this course was really for people more settled in to the work of innovation, who had already mastered the answers.
I took a quick walk down to the lakeside. I noticed fog on the lake and spied a sign with an arrow that said, “Do not swim past this point. Strong currents.” It seemed that even in this paradise there were complex forces at play.
A few minutes later, our workshop began with all 25 of us sitting in a circle outside. One of the facilitators asked, “How should we begin?” Our group was awkwardly silent. She asked the question again. More silence. As I wracked my brain for the correct answer, I observed a few people who simply dove in to those murky depths! They started throwing out ideas – some got traction, others did not. But one suggestion built on the other and soon our group was off and running – deep in conversation and exchange.
Reflecting on it in the evening, I realized that our facilitator had made the moment intentionally awkward – being in a place of discomfort often means you are in a place of discovery and possibility – states that are essential for innovation.
Over the next four days, thanks to the intimate setting and engaging sessions, I dove in as well. I connected on a personal level with other participants. I found myself amongst a group of intelligent, warm and curious people from around the globe - from Botswana to India, from Australia to the Philippines to Canada - all incredible professionals with their own personalities, passions and experience.
I did come away from the workshop with many helpful tools, tips, examples and guidance from my colleagues and instructors. More interesting, however, was a realization that each of my fellow participants, and even our instructors at times, were in the midst of their own struggles with the same types of questions that our organization’s teams had been confronting.
I slowly realized that discomfort is not only a regular companion in the work of innovation, but that it is essential – whether at early stage or on the pathway to scale.
As the week went on, the guidance from Donella Meadows’ article on Dancing with Systems[i] had new meaning for me. She says, “Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.”
In fact, in the future I probably should start to worry if a feeling of discomfort is wholly absent. Here are a few of the areas where I intend to lean in to feelings of discomfort going forward:
QUESTION ASSUMPTIONS. ACKNOWLEDGE INTANGIBLES.
On the first full day of the workshop we explored the topic of systems change. Our instructor began by having us each draw pictures that represent our beliefs about how the world works. This was an unexpected angle on the topic. And drawing is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, I was describing my awkward stick figures, arrows and squiggles to my partner for the exercise and listening to his views. Suddenly I realized that we were getting into existential topics. We were launching this session with the very same types of questions that my agency’s teams have been repeatedly confronting.
Our instructor, Anna Birney, framed this in a compelling way in her session and in her writing[ii]. She points out, “Effective change agents identify the assumptions and worldviews that are underpinning the choices they are making in the interventions and strategies they choose. This requires them to explore their personal perspective and values and … be open to different ways of seeing and acting in the world.”
In fact, throughout the week at Bellagio, topics I thought we would address only from a technical angle were explored from human, moral, and even philosophical angles. When our instructor Ken Chomitz led us in a conversation about measuring impact, our group veered, then stayed in a deep debate about the morals of what we do and do not value. And separately, when discussing how to scale impact through systems change or achieve organizational change, we gave significant time to topics such as power dynamics and agency and individual identity, inspiration, and ambition.
Now, rather than being concerned about the emergence of deep and difficult questions, I see that those questions are an essential part of the work to scale innovations. In the coming months, I will create more time for our teams to explore these topics together with the communities we serve and with our partners.
VALUE LEARNING OVER SUCCESS
The next day, in the course of exploring the topic of scaling for impact, one of our instructors declared, “Expect radical learning, not success!” This statement made me sit up in my chair. Weren’t we all focused on innovation as a way to successfully generate greater social impact?
For people in international development, which is so structured around capturing and reporting on successes, this is a startling concept. But as I thought about this provocative statement and dissected it with others, the answer became clearer. Of course, we are aiming for success; but the work of innovating and scaling can only be successful if we approach it from a true, deep and committed learning perspective. It is a journey not be taken lightly!
As this same instructor, Christian Seelos and his co-author Johanna Mair wrote in a fascinating SSIR article[iii], “The core purpose of an innovation process is the conversion of uncertainty into knowledge. Or to put it another way: Innovation is essentially a matter of learning…Effective organizations approach innovation not with an expectation of success but with an expectation of learning. … The high-impact organizations that we have studied owe much of their success to their wealth of accumulated knowledge—knowledge that often has emerged from failed innovation efforts.”
Going forward, I will work with our teams and partners to lean more radically into the learning process – especially when it means acknowledging errors, flawed assumptions and the need to change course.
GET PERSONAL - REALLY PERSONAL
On the last day of the IDIA workshop, another instructor, Mwihaki Kimura Muraguri, led us through a session on Storytelling. She presented a clear but simple framework by Marshall Ganz, and announced that we would each develop and present a story about how deeply personal experiences had led us to our work in international development. At each step in the process, I felt extremely rushed. It was uncomfortable to write about these topics and even more disconcerting to think about presenting them to others.
The result? When it came time to present, none of our stories was fully polished – but each was deeply moving. We practiced in small groups and then a few people presented to the whole room. During those stories, you could have heard a pin drop. We were riveted listening to each other’s life journeys and struggles.
As the Ganz piece (iv) points out, “Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act.”
Going forward, I will seek to understand personal stories of colleagues, partners and collaborators on a more intimate level and strive to share my own stories – all in service reaching common innovation and scaling goals together.
Between dynamic workshop sessions during the day, intense conversations in the evening, and the unlimited supply of caffeine, my time at the beautiful Bellagio Center flew by. Sooner than I could have imagined we were in our final hours reflecting on the experiences of the past few days.
As a final exercise, the facilitators had us chart our personal level of engagement and comfort across the course of the four days. I drew and re-drew my line – it came out looking like several pieces of spaghetti. Normally I would blame my poor drawing skills. But instead of feeling critical about the tangled mess of lines in front of me I thought, “Wow, what a journey this has been! The downs are as essential as the ups.”
I left the center in another sleek black van. This time chatting with new friends – all of us keen to squeeze out the last few precious minutes of in-person time to exchange views about the ups, downs and complicated dilemmas we were all grappling with. It was these kinds of personal exchanges throughout the week that had allowed me to get comfortable with all that discomfort and I would miss it.
As we wound our way back down the hills and along the lakeside – back to airports, flights, and the exciting work ahead I got ready to be uncomfortable again.
[i] Donella Meadows, “Dancing with Systems” The Donella Meadows Project, Academy for Systems Change
[ii] Anna Birney, “What are the capabilities we need for system change?” Medium, October 25, 2017.
[iv] Marshall Ganz, Kennedy School of Government, “Telling Your Public Story: Self & Us & Now” Worksheet, 2007