Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What's preventing us from learning from each other

A missed learning opportunity

I've just come back from a day-long experience sharing workshop amongst social enterprises, citizen initiatives and NGOs which had the aim of facilitating the sharing and transfer of experiences and socially innovative solutions between different national and local contexts in Europe.

This took the form of lots of people sitting around the table, presenting their projects and asking questions about other projects. If course it all ended on an enthusiastic wave of commitments to stay in touch and look at working together and transferring solutions from one project to another. Most probably 80% of these commitments will be forgotten, and at our next meeting most people will look sheepish and bemoan that if only they hadn't been so busy they could have really made the experience transfer happen. Sounds familiar?

How to unblock the learning pipes 

I've been in too many of these inconsequential meetings so I started wondering what's the missing ingredient that would turn them into actually useful learning experiences for everyone. So here's a number of suggestions:

Tough love for social innovation ideas

1. We need to stop assuming that just because an idea sounds good it actually works. By definition many NGO and social innovation people tend to be idealists - they focus on their normative vision about how the world should be and easily discard much of objective reality. Social innovation however, doesn't consist of just ideas - it's about developing tried and tested methods to make that idea work in a sustained way. Our questions about new projects therefore need to focus less on the ideas and more on the technical stuff - how how they're financed, how they're sustained, how the service is designed, how customers are found, how volunteers are motivated, who the volunteers are etc etc. This might not sound like the stuff social change dreams are made of but it's actually where the real magic happens. Ideas are cheap but actually making an idea happen is bloody hard work and that's what's really worth sharing and transferring.

Essential ingredient for tough love: trust

2. To enable the first step we need enough trust and openness in these meetings to allow everyone to share their experiences 'warts and all' as well as critiquing each others' ideas and thoughts openly and productively. Trust comes from knowing each other and establishing some relationships. Once that's achieved, making the "Top 5 Mistakes you've made and what you've learned from them" an agenda point can help with that. If people are too shy to open up about their own project you can try analysing a third-party example project and talk about the challenges they faced and how they could be solved.

Startup bootcamps for social innovation

I've seen tech startup bootcamps really put the teams and their ideas through some tough tests to prove their worth - social entrepreneurs need to adopt more of that attitude because social innovation is too important to remain at the stage of fluffy ideas talk and squeezed thumbs hoping that it will somehow work out.

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