Friday, November 11, 2005

Ripples from the Zambisi

"I can't myself raise the winds that might blow us, or this ship, into a better world. But, I can at least put up a sail so that, when the wind comes, I can catch it."
E. F. Schumacher

This was a fun and insightful book to read. Amidst all the discussion about radical, disruptive and breakthrough innovation, this book is a refreshing reminder that small things can make a big difference. It's a reality check for big budget innovation programs and economic development programs that usually end up stealing a company from one community in order to develop the economy of your community (a zero sum game by the way). This book is about dedicated, skilled innovators with a passion for their innovations and facilitators who provided the missing ingredients preventing these passionate innovators from making their ideas a reality. Sometimes, those missing ingredients were connections to the right people. Sometimes they were small sums of money (ridiculously small amounts of money that yielded great returns). And, sometimes it was adding small supportive or enabling innovations that turned an idea into a viable business model. And, always it's about the pattern of product, process and procedure innovation that worked.

Sirolli's journey began as a member of an Italian economic aid organization in Zambia. They noticed that the land along the Zambezi River was incredibly fertile. They thought that if they brought modern farming knowledge and applied it to the land, they would demonstrate to the natives just how much they could benefit. Of course, what did the Italians decide to grow? Tomatoes. The soil and weather were perfect. And, the tomatoes grew - the biggest most beautiful tomatoes the Italians had ever seen. The Italians watched with pride as their crop matured. The natives silently watched and laughed among themselves. One morning, just when the crop was about ready to be harvested, Sirolli reports that they came to the fields to find them totally destroyed. The hippos of the Zambezi had eaten all the tomatoes and laid the fields to waste, and the only tell tale signs were the ripples in the water.

Sirolli quotes Pliny the Elder, "There is always something new out of Africa." Sirolli writes, "Those who have worked in an African country will tell you, if they are honest, that they always learn from the expereince much more than they had bargained for...I am no exception." Later he states, "I became conscious of the fact that we were not doing the right thing - and consciousness is an extraordinary thing."

"Right now, in your community, at this very moment, there is someone who is dreaming about doing something to improve his/her lot. If we could learn how to help that person to transform the dream into meaningful work, we would be halfway to changing the economic fortunes of the entire community," the author comments. This is Sirrolli's credo. It is clear upon reading the book that the author has had a good classical education (formal or informal). His thinking about innovation is colored by Schumacher, Maslow and Rogers.

His advice, based on Schumacher is, "If people don't ask for help, leave them alone. And, there is no good or bad technology to carry out a task - only an appropriate or inappropriate one. Something big, modern and expensive is not necessarily best; it all depends on the circumstances."

"Because of Maslow and Schumacher," he writes, "I came to understand that successful development has to do with the quality, not quantity of life." Human beings are striving creatures. When one level of need is met, people move on to higher levels in an endless cascade. Is it any wonder that this country grew as it did because the founders understood this about people and claimed equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

With this framework, the author was able to explain his experiences in Africa. "They were secure and did love and had self esteem in the same proportions Western people had, maybe even more. Some of them were beautiful, wise, self-actualizing people reaching for the apex of full humanness," Sirolli writes.

The level of what is enough at each stage of development is set by cultural and psychological factors. Some people get stuck in the pursuit of material goods and others have lower levels of satisfaction and move on to the next higher state of development. The natives had enough food, safety and security for them, and they could move on to higher levels of human development.
From Carl Rogers he found that "that it was possible to help people heal themselves by simply being there, listening, facilitating and responding to the client's needs for communication and finding values to live by." "The aim is not to solve one particular problem but to help the individual to grow so that he can cope with the present problem and with later problems in a better, more integrated fashion."

Later, he continues, "Reading about the champions of the human race, I couldn't avoid creating, in my mind, a demonology - that is, a list of the demons oppressing us. Contrary to Dante's Inferno, however, my hell wasn't populated by naked gluttons, greedy merchants, and assorted petty sinners. The torturers had no tails; rather they were well-dressed authoritarian figures who, in the name of an idea, would torture and beat the psychological life out of the people in their power. From unyielding bureaucrats to religious fanatics, from political extremists to avid do-gooders, my demonology started to contain anybody who dreamt up a code of conduct and tried to manipulate or coerce others to follow it."

Sirolli's encourages his facilitators to support clients who have a marriage of both passion and skill. "But becoming what we are is invariably difficult," he writes. "We have to commit ourselves to a course that may prove to be unpopular with our peers, unfashionable among our friends, and unbecoming in the eyes of our parents. Striving for individuality is always a lonely business. Passion is what propels us during our solitary journey." Commenting on skill he writes, "Our generation is a generation without masters. We are still under the impression, and like to think, that The Beatles didn't have to learn how to play music; that Jimi Hendrix picked up a guitar one morning, put a big joint in his mouth, and started to play like a god. Does the next, younger generation, understand that there cannot possibly be art without skill?"

"Facilitation," he writes, "is based on the belief that it is human to dream and desire. Faith in human nature is what makes it work." "The skill of the facilitator is to become available to those who have the dream and to help them acquire the skills to transform it into meaningful and rewarding work. The skill of facilitation is therefore a communication skill with a twist. It isn't so much that facilitators have to communicate to their client; rather they have to be the kind of person one likes to talk to." Their role is to simple remove the obstacles that stifle a client's growth.

He identifies the characteristics of facilitators:

  • Facilitators are passive
  • Facilitators are visible
  • Facilitators provide just-in-time help
  • Facilitators work in confidence
  • Facilitators act like swans
  • Facilitators love action
  • Facilitators are a loaded spring
  • Facilitators assess the person and the motivation behind the idea.
  • Facilitators understand that ideas are cheap, passionate individuals are rare
  • Facilitators establish true communications and build trust
  • Facilitators don't play power games

Facilitators are non-threatening, unassuming friendly listeners who make people want to talk to them.

The book is full of examples and case histories, and is divided into 14 chapters:

  1. Out of Africa
  2. The Technology Fix
  3. Homo Cupeins - The Desiring Man
  4. Out of the Mountain Cave Back to School
  5. The Art of Shoemaking
  6. The Esperance Expereince
  7. The Esperance Model Applied
  8. On Facilitation
  9. Training Facilitators
  10. A Word of Caution
  11. Facilitation and Economic Development
  12. A Quiet Revolution
  13. The Politics of Personal Growth
  14. Epilogue - Civic Society, Social Capital, and the Creation of Wealth

As you can see from the outline, the discussion covers a good deal of territory and Sirolli has meaningingful insights in all the topics. For example, "The shift by governments away from resource driven economies to valued-added ones cannot take place without recognizing that our greatest assets are not the ones that lie underground. Our greatest assets must be our energy, imagination, and skill - our commitment to good work and to the pursuit of excellence and the courage to fulfill our ambitions. Every single person is important in the creation of a better, wealthier, smarter society. Whether employed are not, engaged in export service industries, in the arts, sports or tourism, the quality, both of personal and professional, of every single person is what will make a country prosperous."

And, "Thus the freedom to become is the key to unlocking civic society and long term economic prosperity. Wealth can be generated in the short term in exploiting natural resources, but 1,000 years of prosperity can only be created intelligently by working together, exchanging ideas, sharing technology and resources, and helping each other do well in the understanding that a myriad of wealthy self-employed people produce an economic system immensely more resilient than any alternative."

And, "The beauty of Maslow's theory is that it explains that helping each other is not done out of charity, but out of our need to be appreciated, loved and respected."

Michelangelo, who believed his role as a sculptor was to release the images that were already in the stone, wrote:

"The best of artists hath no thought to show which the rough stone in its superfluous shell doth not include; to break the marble spell is all the hand that serves the brain can do. "
To make his point, he carved a series of "unfinished" works depicting humans emerging from the rock (The Prisoners).

Metaphorically, the facilitator's role is the same.

And, if the facilitator is blessed with double insightful vision and can not only see the beauty inside the innovator, but can see the community that could emerge as a result, then a community transformation can occur.

You just have to read this book. And, when you do, write something about it. Better yet, use it.

Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship and the Rebirth of Local Economies
Ernesto Sirolli
New Society Publishers, 2003, 151 pages, paperback

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