Community Is The Most Powerful Unit Of Change

We are less pessimistic about our own lives than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.

– Matt Ridley

Sometimes, the best way to get traction behind an idea or initiative is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change. For instance, solving homelessness across the UK is a wicked problem that seems unsolvable. However, making sure no-one on your street is at risk of homelessness seems eminently achievable.

Some of this is just that our brains can’t easily comprehend how to solve massive problems. Counter-intuitively, the bigger the problem the less inclined we may be to help out.

That’s why charity appeals often feature a single distressed child (or animal) rather than featuring thousands. In one study to explore this the psychologist Paul Slovic told volunteers about a young girl suffering from starvation. He then measured how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her. He presented another group of volunteers with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others suffering from starvation.

On a rational level, the volunteers in this second group should be just as likely to help the little girl, or even more likely because the statistics clearly established the seriousness of the problem. “What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

In my last post I outlined three reasons we fail to solve problems, but there’s an important fourth one: sometimes we simply try and approach them in ways that are too hard to comprehend. We go way too big when we might be better off starting really small.

As Matt Ridley explains in this conversation with Jordan Peterson, optimism plays a hugely important role in innovation. And we are most optimistic about our own community – making it fertile ground for solving local problems.

One of the reasons that frugal – or jugaad – innovation thrives in parts of Asia is because it concentrates on local solutions, solved using simple means, with a spirit of eternal optimism.

Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

Anyone who has been to India or other parts of Asia will have seen examples of jugaad on a daily basis.

In case you’re new to the word I’ll give you four pictures, two of which I took myself in Cambodia.

Building a house with discarded cola bottles:

Making tea using an iron:

Tea-making-iron-jugaad

Attaching an extra seat onto mopeds (or attaching literally ANYTHING onto mopeds):

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Bike + Tuk Tuk + Wifi:

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Partly this is a result of austerity. In an era of abundance there isn’t much desire for the simple fix. Scarcity drives creativity in ways abundance cannot.

Frugal innovations are extremely context sensitive and it’s understood that local people are the ones best placed to understand their needs and address them – almost the opposite of how large scale change is managed in organisations.

Most organisational approaches to change or transformation are carefully structured. Agile or lean are process frameworks, whereas jugaad is void of process altogether. 

My personal belief is the best way western organisations can adopt jugaad thinking is by directly channelling it into communities themselves. Any frugal revolution needs to be driven by people – not from your boardroom.

As an ex-colleague of mine William Lilley said a few years ago: Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we choose to ignore because we think we could do it better as professionals.

It could be that a lot of our problems are sitting there waiting to be solved by our colleagues and communities.

We just need to give them permission, and get out of the way.

We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you. – William Lilley

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Everywhere you look at the beginning of 2015 you will see a crisis.

In case you missed it there is currently a crisis in Accident and Emergency Units which is part of the wider health crisis. There’s a housing crisis as well. And a crisis in social care , unemployment , education and policing. Not forgetting the welfare crisis which is wreaking havoc on millions.

There’s crisis everywhere.

The current trend in mainstream politics , and on social media , is to talk of Britain as broken.  And then we act all surprised and outraged when people turn to parties like UKIP who hark back to a golden age that never truly existed.

People are so sick of hearing about crisis they lose faith and begin searching for someone who appears to offer a more compelling vision. Who can blame them?

Except if you scratch the service on any of those things you’ll find the crisis label to be untrue, or misleading at the very least.

What we have is an excess of demand over supply and deeply dysfunctional systems.

Most of our public services were designed pre-decimal never mind pre-digital.

We really shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t fit for purpose.

The problem lies with the people who created those systems and who work within them. Us.

Over new year I had a break at one of the Red Sea resorts seeking a bit of winter sun along with scores of pasty faced Europeans.

One of the benefits of being locked into an all-inclusive euro-mashup is you have some very random conversations with people we are told are hugely different to us , but are of course not.

The best conversation I had was with an Italian guy and one of our Egyptian hosts.

We were talking about the various crises our countries are experiencing and the role of communities.

Sal was telling us of the boom in the ‘suspended coffee’ movement in Italy.  The concept is pretty simple: You walk into a coffee shop, and instead of buying just one cup of coffee you also buy one (or more) for someone in need. Your get yours and the second coffee is “suspended”. It can be claimed or given out by the barista to people they think deserving. I always believed that the movement was a modern viral phenomenon but Sal told us it was a Neapolitan tradition that originated in World War II. The principle is that in a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but not coffee!

Ahmad told us about the rise of the “Town Helper” in parts of Cairo and Alexandria. Because of the huge drain of young men to work in the Red Sea resorts many of the families left behind face a significant skills gap. These guys work incredibly long hours with hardly anytime off. When they do  get a few days off – every few weeks – they return to their families for precious time with loved ones. To make sure they spend the maximum time with their families they fund , largely through tips from tourists , a number of people to do tasks whilst they are away from home. Each Helper , is shared between a number of families , to plug the gaps that have been left in communities.

I talked of the growth of Food Banks in the UK which we largely view as a sign of failure but actually speak of tremendous generosity – of communities looking after their own. I don’t pretend to give lots, I just throw a few things in the collection on every visit to the supermarket – to the extent that I’ve actually stopped thinking about it. It’s just a little pay it forward gesture that millions of us are doing without prompting. I also told them of the Bromford Deal and how we are embarking on a huge cultural shift to unlock potential in people rather than seeing ourselves as professional rescuers.

I talked of how the Deal is – at its essence – a belief that people don’t exist in a state of need and can do amazing things if we empower them and step out of the way.

Due to excess brandy the conversation veered off in all sorts of directions: but the important thing is we all agreed that some of the best initiatives don’t come from Government. None of the above did.

For many years we’ve built infrastructure and services that people neither need or want. We make interventions without outcomes. We produce reports that have no readers. 

We must ask ourselves how we became so removed from the people we were set up to serve. 

Our communities are not in crisis.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we chose to ignore because we thought we could do it better as professionals.

We couldn’t.

Let’s put it right.

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