I finally got round to reading Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s excellent book about how the very poor make decisions about their lives. Based on the nearest we have to hard evidence, ‘Poor Economics‘ makes riveting reading and should be on every new development worker’s book list. Although there is little that will be truly revelatory to people who have been working on these issues for some time, the accessible writing style, revealing case studies, and lack of polemic all combine to make a really valuable contribution to our understanding of the challenges of hunger, education, health, micro-finance, savings, and entrepreneurship facing the poorest people on the planet. At the end of the book I was left feeling humbled and yet optimistic. The Poor Economics website is a great resource, providing up-to-date figures and useful links to relevant research documents an there is a revealing interview with Banerjee by Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian newspaper.
Learning questions – what makes them special? That’s a question I am asking myself as I work on a learning and sharing toolkit for WWF Nepal. Last year, together with Shailendra Thakali an independent conservation specialist, I helped WWF Nepal develop a learning framework to guide and focus their priorities for learning from implementing its portfolio of programme activities. Fundamental to the learning framework are learning questions. Shailendra and I have been asked to develop some practical tools to help the busy staff of WWF Nepal devise their learning questions and integrate the pursuit of answers into the day-to-day work of implementing their projects and programmes.
The task is proving to be a great opportunity to draw together ideas I have been interested in for some years. I have been re-visiting the Barefoot Guide, material on The Art of Powerful Questions, and Asking Effective Questions.
As Vogt and his colleagues make clear in The Art of Powerful Questions, “The usefulness of the knowledge we acquire and the effectiveness of the actions we take depend on the quality of the questions we ask.” This sets the bar inspiringly high for our toolkit!
From time to time a piece of work comes along that allows me to pull together my thinking on a subject that really interests me. I’m fortunate to have that experience right now. Oxfam Novib have commissioned me to develop a training module on Innovation as part of their Potential Program. Innovation is a very ‘hot’ issues in civil society organisations these days. We like to consider innovation as a particular strength of development organisations. Indeed, the idea of social innovation has become so mainstream that we have institutions such as the Stanford Center for Social Innovation devoted to help us understand innovation more deeply. There are countless books and articles on innovation and related subjects such as creativity as this pile from my own bookshelves illustrates!
The challenge that Oxfam Novib have given me is to distil, in a one day workshop, the essence of innovation and its relationship to leadership in the context of Oxfam Novib’s work as an international development organisation.
Right now I am working on a self-assessment questionnaire that, I hope, will help the workshop participants to focus on the mindset, skillset and toolset that they need to more effectively inspire and contribute to innovation in their organisation. Underpinning this, of course, will be my view of what innovation means (hence the pile of books and dozens of articles that I am reading at the moment). I intend to make an adapted version of the questionnaire available through this blog and the Framework website. In the meantime, I would welcome any thoughts about those three headings: the mindset, skillset and toolset for innovation.
There’s a great series of animations available on the Royal Society of the Arts website that show how powerful cartooning can be in getting messages across. Here’s one example on intrinsic motivation but there are many more.
You what? OK, its an unusual combination and perhaps the term ‘paper engineering’ needs an introduction. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by ‘pop-up’ books and cards. In fact I have a big collection of them. Pop up books began as a way of animating stories but pretty soon people began to see their potential for explaining complex ideas. The technical term for pop-ups and similar types of paper objects is ‘paper engineering’. For me, the most wonderful examples of paper engineering are made by Ingrid Siliakus (actually Ingrid is a paper architect, making three dimesional objects out of a single cut and folded sheet). Robert Sabuda has also made some amazing pop-up books (his trilogy of books on dinosaurs, sharks and mega-beasts are, in my opinion, the best ever produced), and his cards for the Museum of Modern Art in New York are works of art in their own right.
I got into paper engineering a few years ago and I have been fascinated with the truly ingenious ways in which paper engineers use such a simple medium to make complex objects. Sometimes the objects are the message and sometimes the objects carry the message.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a three day retreat with my consultant colleagues in Framework. Framework has been holding retreats twice a year for 25 years and I have been to the most recent 24 events. We try to surprise each other with the sessions we organise and one of the most popular opportunities to do this is the ‘check in’ session held at the beginning of the retreat. This time, Catherine used the theme of ‘creativity’ to get us started. She asked us to come along prepared to talk about (and show) something creative that we did outside of work. We were encouraged to tell each other about how long we have been doing our creative activity, why we started it, what it means to us and where we want to take it in the future. Then we were asked to discuss how we think the creative activity relates to and influences our capacity for creativity in our work. I chose paper engineering and it was Catherine’s final question that got me thinking hard. How could I relate paper engineering to my organisational development consultancy work? The result of that thinking are the two objects in these photos.
The first object is a simple pyramid that sits on my desk as an aide-memoire. This one is a reminder of a conceptual model I developed a few years back concerning organisational learning. The model is abbreviated as MMO – motive, means and opportunity – and provides a way of thinking about what we all need in order to learn effectively in organisations. Each is represented on one side of the pyramid. In the photo you can see the opportunity and motive sides.
The second paper engineering object I took to the retreat was inspired by the model that Donald Rumsfeld (George Bush’s Secretary of State) famously quoted at a press conference during the Iraq war that had the journalists present hooting with laughter. However funny his attempt at an explanation, the model he was trying to describe not only makes sense – it is a useful way of thinking about knowledge management in organisations. The model is rather like the JoHari window so I decided to represent it as a four-box matrix that opens to provide some little insights within each box.
My colleagues really liked the models and I enjoyed making them so now I am thinking about other ways to link two of my passions – paper engineering and organisational learning. My next challenge is to work out a way of creating a paper engineering object that represents my ‘eight function model‘ for organisational learning.
I have just finished reading ‘What’s Mine Is Yours‘ and it has helped to strengthen my faith in human nature. Using examples from the UK and US (its a pity there are not many international examples) it shows how some people have harnessed the power of the internet to build trust, create communities around shared needs, and generate social capital. The book was full of revelations for me about the ingenuity behind web phenomena such as Zopa (the social lending community) and Landshare (the garden use website) that focus on shared use rather than individual ownership. Last week in Oslo I had some time to sight-see and joined the city-wide bicycle rental scheme so that I could visit the sculpture park, the Nobel Peace Centre, the new opera house and get a feel for the city in just a few hours. ‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ explains how schemes such as Oslo’s bike rental scheme works and how riding the bike is only part of the benefit that helps users to connect with one another and feel part of something meaningful. When you know that the electric drill you’re about to buy in the hardware shop is only likely to be used for 12 minutes in its whole lifetime, you begin to wonder whether there’s a better way to buy ‘holes’! What’s Mine Is Yours provides plenty of practical ideas for an alternative to ownership of more stuff – namely, Collaborative Consumption.