One hundred and seven degree heat. The height of the monsoon season. A country recently ruled by a brutal military dictatorship where US sanctions have just been lifted and foreigners are free to investigate and invest: time, thinking, money. What could be a better location for a design workshop?
Last week, 300 colleagues of mine—fellow members of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders cohort - convened in Myanmar for our annual meeting. About 100 YGLs are selected each year from around the world for their work in the public and private sector to serve a five-year term to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects that create new value on topics such as the circular economy, gender parity, food security, human trafficking, and political reinvention. The mission is to help reinvent our global economy by advancing the concepts of dignity, equality, and fairness in innovative ways.
Before attending the WEF East Asia meeting in the new strangely sci-fi capital of Nay Pyi Taw, eight of us representing six countries went into the field to collaborate with Proximity Designs, a 10-year old social enterprise founded by Skoll Entrepreneurs Jim and Debbie Taylor. Proximity is a Myanmar organization that looks for high-impact opportunities to increase income for the 70% of the Burmese population (of 60 million) who are dependent on agriculture to survive, and they use design methodology to try to lift them out of poverty. Our goal for the daylong workshop was to brainstorm solutions for two important strategic issues with Proximity and to come up with actionable plans.The Proximity Design Lab is a repurposed factory with rudimentary but very effective structures for building, brainstorming, and prototyping. Through a network of 350 people in the field and 50 people in the lab and office, insights are gathered and translated into highly specialized improvements to irrigation pumps, micro-financing loans, and advisory services within the facility. Proximity is a pulsing web of learning and doing, where iteration and insights are the goal, not units and balance sheets.
While our team did pre-reading and met as a group to review methodology ahead of time, we were still surprised by what we learned in the Proximity Lab and saw in the industrial zone outside Yangon. We experienced the raw and unregulated manufacturing processes of Proximity's vendors, listened to the growing pains of employees who were encouraged to question critically in the socially conservative Burmese culture, and experienced first-hand how the lack of infrastructure (namely Wi-Fi and roads) and resources hobble people from carrying out the most basic tasks. Following discussion with the on-the-ground team and field work, we made recommendations around a new business model focusing primarily on curatorial services, explored the possibility of utilizing the network to distribute goods, and experimented with the idea of creating a center of excellence for manufacturing that could elevate the conditions of Proximity vendors. By creating a manufacturing best practice model for Myanmar, Proximity could help reach the 8% growth economists have projected from its current 2%.
We received an appropriate and healthy critique from the Proximity team to our group's ideas. Some things they had thought of before while others felt too abstractly strategic without a clear action plan. In addition, we did not have a full grasp of the culture of the organization and perhaps more importantly, the country.
This situation is understandable. After all, how is it possible to parachute into any situation and assert expertise? For anyone who has run or participated in a workshop, this narrative is familiar. The Myanmar experience—among others—led me to make these three observations about our typical workshop methodology and assumptions:
99% of the work happens after the workshop The seeds of inspiration and change can be planted in collaborative brainstorming sessions, but the real work happens afterwards. While the synthesizing ideas on the fly in these worksessions is an important skill, the benefit of any creative process and the resulting strategic contributions occur within the reality of day-to-day operations. To this end, each of the YGL participants have stated an "offer" to Proximity—ranging from brainstorming microfinancing structures and reviewing business models, to making introductions and offering design resources. This is our beginning of understanding context and establishing the parameters for an ongoing conversation—a continuous, iterative dialogue, is the crux of change.
Language has currency, opinions don't. Reframing the questions we ask is often the most important way we reach good solutions. For all of us who work in the innovation ecosystem, our job is to be precise in our language and use terms and vocabulary that convey meaning simply and clearly. In this way, language becomes a critical design tool—it can shape new thinking and coax novel insight. Language needs to be seen as a shared tool, not as a mechanism to just persuade and influence. In a design workshop, it's easy to slip into dogma and opinion, and it's critically important to recognize that the power of language to open up dialogue can just as easily shut it down.
Design is not the Holy Grail. Design methodology has extraordinary strengths, but the strengths are best discovered when its limits are also recognized. Not every topic should be "workshopped," and sometimes an analyst working through data can provide a more interesting and successful solution than 10 people brainstorming in a room.
For each of us from the YGL group, the relationship with Proximity will continue. Not because we were right, but because being "wrong" sometimes can be so much more productive.
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