Problems are opportunities, or are they?

The last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic. As well as a (very) busy schedule of classes, we’ve been working hard to clarify some of the less certain aspects of our model (local and global, short and long term), and refine the curriculum ready for our return to the UK. We also have some big news about the KENYAWORKS brand – a few details still need to be confirmed, but an announcement is expected in the New Year (updates will be posted here).

The sessions have been going really well. Participants seem to be enjoying the process (or so they say), and despite some concerns over continuity in groups with irregular patterns of attendance, there’s been enough consistency among core members (the individuals we’ve always wanted to identify and support) to ensure that ideas have moved along without too much disruption.

And I can genuinely say that with each class I’m building in confidence, both with regard to our course, and my own ability in delivering it.

It would, however, be dishonest of me to suggest that I hadn’t had a few momentary lapses in faith. Perhaps the most enduring of these was built around our approach to ideation, or more specifically, how groups were interpreting our suggestion that “in every problem lies a potential business opportunity”.

At the end of our third class, each participant was asked to go away and identify at least twenty problems in Nakuru (from a variety of sources), from which we might be able to start building a better understanding o f the challenges facing local people, and the spaces in the market for new products or services.

Getting groups to do work outside classes has been a real challenge (most have packed schedules, and the time that they already commit to sessions is a big sacrifice), and the vast majority of participants used this task to simply highlight three fairly personal concerns: lack of access to business funds, unemployment, and corruption/dishonesty. Working from these broad problems to identify more focused opportunities, that groups have the capacity and resources to exploit, has been really tough.

At the same time, because of perceived time constraints, we were encouraging quick-fire decisions on questions that should have been considered in much more detail. The result was groups working in areas without enough knowledge and/or passion to support the necessary understanding and/or commitment.

After three sessions in which the same challenges emerged, we realised that something in the process wasn’t quite right. We still had confidence in the problems are opportunities mantra, but our teaching methods hadn’t worked. Fortunately, the solution didn’t require a complete rethink. It just called for more time (and a re-read of the IDEO design thinking toolkit for inspiration).

More time to introduce concepts, more time to speak with a range local people, more time to identify community challenges, more time to research areas of concern, and more time to select problems to solve (based on a thorough interrogation of interests, assets and resources). Our core message had been lost in the sheer volume of information that we were trying to convey (it’s easy to get carried away when you’ve been planning for as long as we have).

Affording this extra time in our second bundle of classes – and using it to ensure that participants had absorbed and understood the key points – has already generated some much more interesting problems that groups are capable of, and passionate about, addressing.

I suppose the simplest of solutions can sometimes prove the most effective.