From Doing to Thinking and Back Again

I would say that in general life, I’m a doer. I prefer taking the stance ‘just giv’r and see what happens’. Sometimes it works out well, other times it doesn’t – I can think of more than a few fried circuit components that were victim to my methodology. Maybe that’s why I like programming so much, you try and do and there is hardly anything that can’t be undone; there are few consequences to just doing and not thinking.

In development, in Ghana, and in EWB, much of the emphasis is on thinking. I was worried that it would be a huge challenge for me; “being more comfortable in the ‘thinking-space'” is number one on my personal development plan (things I want to work on) that I made before I came to Ghana. I was worried that the thinking would be overwhelming. But, to my amaze, and against all odds, I’ve loved it. Freaking LOVED it.

Two weeks ago we had an EWB West Africa Retreat (WAR) where all the EWB staff from Ghana and Burkina Faso get together for a long weekend and share sessions about what all the different teams are doing, presenting individual interests, encouraging inter-team learning, discussing organisational topics and issues, getting caught up on news from EWB Canada’s operations etc.

An entire weekend of thinking, non-stop thinking. I loved it.

One of the more fascinating discussions centred around how EWB will be allocating funds moving forward. The organisation is trying out a new venture model: each of the teams will be seen separate ventures and we have to prove that they are worthy for investment of EWB funds. We are being pushed to be more rigorous and intentional in how we test, evaluate and define success. I don’t know if I’m onboard with this new model – it is certainly a shift in thinking and operations, but I was thrilled with the discussion around it. What criteria do you use for investment, in lieu of a financial bottom line? How do you measure successful impact in development? Over what time frame? How do you evaluate teams working in public and private sector fairly with the same criteria, given that the pace of change is somehow different? How do you incentivize long term decision making when your evaluation and investment decision time period is relatively short? Are you investing in the people or the theory of change? I was stunned as my entrepreneurial-centric-Waterloo education came racing back through my head, as I found my entrepreneurship classes and discussions with entrepreneur classmates  driving  my questioning (who knew school might be useful?).

You know that feeling when you know everyone around you is smarter than you, but instead of that intimidating you into silence, all you can do is ask questions, and appreciate the wise answers? You know that feeling when wise answers only lead to ever more questions? I was loving it.

The G&RI team followed that meeting with our monthly team meeting. We were trying to figure out what this new venture model meant for our team. How would that change our strategy, our approach and even what each of us would be doing one month from then. How were we going to make our team the most intentional, rigorous, change-making team out there? Plans were hatched, strategies were prioritized and narrowed, new models for impact discussed, flow charts of approaches presented, hypotheses to test brainstormed, and momentum built.

Twenty-three, two and a half months-in and helping to drive strategy and direction of my team? I was loving it.

G&RI Team at the team meeting in October

Now – the part I REALLY love – the doing, right? …. Right?

I have found the transition from thinking to doing extremely hard. Doing in development is nothing like programming. At ttaaalll. There are no obvious quick tests, seemingly no variables you can control, outputs are immeasurable or completely unknown, the system is, optimistically, 10% understood, there are no control groups, and nothing is binary or predictable. And oh ya, I have negligible experience in it. And oh ya, probably most importantly, we work with local government counterparts – their buy-in, ownership and contribution to the planning and doing is, at the end of the day, more important than ours. In a small team (we have four long-term staff plus a team lead), most of what you plan is what you’ll end up doing. I started to regret all my ‘great’ ideas in the planning and thinking stage, if I had just kept my mouth shut…  I am NOT loving it.

Design and implementation in the realm of development is hard! You can try all you like to design in failure, or acceptance of it anyway; you can try to break down steps into small, manageable ones; you can try to predict potential break points or evaluation methods; you can but it somehow doesn’t it make it any less hard. There is a huge part of me that knows our beautiful flowcharts are unbelievably idealistic. What I am excited about is that us designers are implementers, and us implementers are designers. Our team has been working for years at the district level of government, we know the challenges that exist to making change at this level.

So my next step in this journey is to become that implementer, that doer. I will be moving soon to the Regional level of government, working with the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit to consult with districts in implementing  database tools, processes and behaviour change to encourage District technocrats make better, evidence-based decisions and priorities. The end goal is that constituents will be better served by their local government. I’ll be travelling to different districts often, working with leaders at those districts and at the Region, I’ll be presenting and mentoring, I’ll be trouble-shooting and influencing. I hope I’ll love it.

I have to embrace being a doer again. I have to dive into learning the skills that will allow me to be a doer in this field. I will have to embrace plans made in inspiring meetings of thought going oh so completely wrong. I have to realize though, that plans without doing aren’t going to help any Ghanaian at all. I have to go from thinking to doing. I’m sure, and I just have to, love it.

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5 thoughts on “From Doing to Thinking and Back Again

  1. Hey!

    That sounds like a pretty intense overhaul on the thinking for APS programs. What are some of the aspects that are going into the G&RI model? Is this going to be a complete change from the direction the team has already been working towards, or is it more of a revision/better strategizing of the current work you guys are doing?

    I definitely agree with the love of getting things done, but you’re very right that doing in complex situations or implementing complex ideas is really hard. Let me know how that goes, because I would love some tips 😛

    Thanks for the post, talk to you soon!

  2. Sounds like some pretty intense changes going around overseas.
    What are some of the points that were brought up about the differences in public and private enterprises? I find that a struggle here in terms of career paths and placements here with simple things as co-op terms, it is definitely more intense with how the new venture models are being implemented.

    Also, I find it pretty difficult to go from thinking to doing. Its something I’ve learned I’m really weak at as well. I can either do do do, or I can think big and crazy thoughts. But the correlation between the two are extremely difficult for me.

    Best of luck Alex!

  3. oooh this remodeling idea sounds pretty useful! … and challenging. Nice to hear about all the brain-ache….kinda makes my brain kinda ache. In a good way. Miss you!!

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