Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Which of your five fingers is the best?

Working in China and learning to manage a Chinese team has got to be one of the most challenging thing I have to do so far in my career.  It's challenging because in addition to the issue of lacking good talent I faced in Africa, the organization in China has grown to a size where chaos is much more difficult to get under control.  Moreover, culturally speaking, the Chinese are much more delicate and sensitive than Africans to deal with. Perhaps it's because of years of evolution, I find that the Chinese pay much more attention to the "intention" behind the words rather than taking the words literally.  The danger of this is that these "intention" is derived/speculated based on one individual's experience of another, and there is no way to validate if one's speculation is correct or not; so if one is not careful, he/she can be quickly misunderstood and a rift could be built between 2 people.  Lastly, the one child policy seem to have create a generation of young professionals that (1) believe they are the best and smartest, even though from many perspective, there are still much room for improvement, (2) doesn't take criticism very well since they've been praised by parents and grandparents growing up, and (3) has a very different work ethic, having grown up pampered by 3 sets of adults.  For the good talents, the abundance of job opportunities in China seem to perpetuate these beliefs; and for the not-so-great talents, there seem to be a way to simply refuse to accept the truth.  Case in point, more than one incident have I heard cases in China where employees refused to get fired even though they were dismissed for proper reasons and in accordance to the labor law.  People may still show up at the office to protest in silence, send threats to their supervisors, and sometimes policemen need to be involved.   Sucks being a boss in China, right!?

Although I grew up in Taiwan, from a professional stand point, I am quite blunt and direct with my opinions - in another word, very American.  What's worse is that I have a pretty high standard and require a significant amount of details to be convinced.  This, combined with the cultural reality on the ground, is a lethal combination.  Even though my comments are pointed towards the issue, part of me is pretty sure people are taking my comments quite personally.  Slowly, my days begin to be filled with passive-aggressive conflicts, alignment and realignment, yet despite of my best effort to push things through, not much progress seem to be made.

So, what to do?  How might I make the best out of a sub-optimal workforce and make them 'work'!?  How could I find better people to work with me or make them better?  A wise Taiwanese colleague responded to my challenge with an intriguing question: "which of your five fingers is the best one?"  As he expected, I couldn't answer the question.  "They are all different!" I said.  "That is the point.  Each finger has its purpose, and they cannot substitute the other.  It's the leader's job to figure out when to use the index finger, when to use the thumb, so on and so forth."  So, instead of trying to make everyone perfect, the best thing to do, might be to figure out what each person is good at, and instead of improving their weakness, utilize their strength.  For example, some people are great presenters.  Then make them present, but be sure you check what they're presenting if they are not good thinkers and can't come up with good contents.   Others are great thinkers but cannot put their thoughts down on paper, then give them tasks to think, but coach them on writing skills.  This theory makes perfect sense!  It reminds me of books like Strength Finder, which I have reference in my past for personal development, but in this case, it's also quite applicable for managing people!

In fact, as leaders, it's not possible to be good at everything either.  So we should leverage resources around us to supplement areas we're not good at.  These resources could be our subordinates, but it could also be external agencies, people from other departments...etc., smart leaders get creative about how and where they get their resources and are quite strategic about it.  Also, a good leader doesn't necessarily have all the answers, but he/she is good at mobilizing resources around him/her to maximize results.  And to gain these skills, it requires one to spend time with people, and develop broad experience and "database" of different types of people and when they work best (similar to how many large corporations utilizes Myers-Briggs).  For someone like me who are so accustomed to spending time dealing with "issues", while this is an obvious point, it requires a shift in mindset and focus that is still a work in progress.

Another interesting idea prompted by the "five finger" question is the idea of hiring a team vs. hiring the top talents into the company.  Having a hand with 5 middle finger wouldn't be very helpful even though you've got 5 of the longest fingers.  Perhaps sometimes mindfully hiring a team where each member complement each other would yield better results, especially when there is good dynamic between them.

I suppose at the end of the day, running a team is a bit like playing chess.  Each chess piece has its function, and the player must decide how to use each piece to win the game.  For the most part, a game is not won by a few super star moves, instead, a game is won through a series of moves carefully plotted by the player and executed by a "team" of chess pieces.  It seems to me that having a true understanding of the strengths and weakness of the team and figuring out a way to organize them in an effective manner is half the battle to an organization's success.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Social Enterprise... Better Home Brew or Import?

I met quite a number of friends recently that is leaving the social enterprise space to go to business school, with the aim to go back to private sector.  This is partly because the money is better and more appropriate for where they are in life, and partly because they don't believe in social enterprise to the same degree as they did before.  I even had a long debate with my tax accountant - who used to be an environment advocate and no longer a believer - on whether working at a social enterprise is a good use of my time!

In theory, the idea of social enterprise - an organization or venture that advances its primary social or environmental mission using business approaches - make a lot of sense. In practice, I don't know many social enterprises that have successfully scale.  One could argue that it's still a relatively new concept, so would take time to mature, but part of me wonders sometimes if social enterprise is a bit like Communism, which in its root sooo contradicts basic human nature and how we behave in groups, and consequently, may never maintain its purest, idealistic form in practice.

What I'm about to say may be controversial, cynical, and perhaps even somewhat harsh, but I think it's important to be critical of ourselves in this space rather than repeating the warm & fuzzy to ourselves and each other. The social issues are difficult to solve, and the warm & fuzzy helps no one, only results do!

One question I've been fundamentally contemplating is...Is the term "social enterprise" misleading?  At the end of the day, it's a business, and any business must have a social aspect to it because (a) if it's not adding value to the society, people will not be buying it to begin with (b) if it's harming society, then there would be significant risks to manage and high associated cost (as in the case of big oil companies).  Are we REALLY that different?

One thing I observe is that in the social enterprise sector, there tend to more focus on the founder's vision relative to delivering full understanding of the problems themselves.  The founding stories are powerful and extremely effective in drawing support, monetary and others.  However, sometimes it feels as though the "issue" and "victims" behind the story appear to become more and more of a supporting role, serving to highlight the great things "we're doing to help people" rather than becoming a voice to highlight and drive awareness of the social issue.  Similar stories in variant flavors are repeated by different players, and sometimes, it feels a bit like those ads featuring starving African children, it became hard to tell who is who.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned us about the danger of a single story, and sometimes I worry if the fixation of these stories, usually coming from a single person's experience, risks creating a critical misunderstanding of the place we're trying to improve and the problem we're trying to solve, and if it risks creating an unrealistic hope of solving a systematic, complex problem by promoting the work of a single person or a single resource-poor small social enterprise, when the right thing to do is actually organizing many people of the same vision together and promote collaboration between many smart people.  Something d.light is starting to do.

Case in point, besides d.light, there are at least 30+ Lighting Africa approved medium and small sized social enterprises in the solar lantern space.  All of us have the same mission: to improve the lives of 1.3 billion people in the world still stuck with unsafe, expensive, and unhealthy kerosene lanterns.  Every few months, a new solar lantern design / company pops up.  Their pitch is almost always the same as that of those 30+ social entrepreneurs before them.  It is filled with heart-aching stories of kerosene explosion, data of sizable market opportunities, and the hope of eradicating kerosene with a simple solar device.

I often wonder, does the poor need another solar lantern? or do they just need a way to access these solar lanterns?  Are we taking the western view of consumerism and habit of mind-numbing choices, and taking it to places who has never had options?  When you have not had breakfast for awhile, it really doesn't matter if you can get your favorite brand of corn flake or preferred flavor of Cheerios, what matters is something shows up on the table and quench your hunger, right?  Same thing for lighting for the under-electrified population, there are plenty of good designs out there, the problem is not a lack of choices, the problem is people are not aware of these good options, not convinced by it, and/or could not access it.  In my personal opinion, unless we have a disruptive idea or product, putting in effort to come up with an incrementally better design does not solve the problem...on the contrary, it diverts valuable resources that could be put to use in some other way that gets the society better return.  There are too many focus on coming up with new design, and not enough emphasis on creating distribution / access to these wonderful design.  Wouldn't it be better and more cost-effective to instead of competing for resources, to funnel those money through to someone who's already successful in this space,  someone who has already figured it out, and could use more money to scale? At the end of the day, the design and business model between different solar lantern companies are not wildly different.  I can bet money that those 1.3 billion people will be happier as long as they can access one of the many solar lantern...ANY one of those lanterns (even if it's not d.light)!

So, wouldn't it make more sense to pool our resources and solve the problem together?  Except, starting a new company is sexy and can be done in an air-conditioned room.  But figuring out last mile distribution requires long term investment in remote, uncomfortable places, which is inconvenient and unrealistic once the founding team hit the age of needing to start a family.  Revealing to the world a new design is sexy and Steve Jobs-like.  But supporting something that already exist takes the lime light away (i.e. not so sexy).   We have to admit, while this is not true in all cases, there are plenty of ego involved in the world of social enterprise!

The amount of ego I observed in the sector concerns me.  Somehow, the "knight in shining armor coming to save the world" complex is feeds into this ego. Despite of shared objectives to improve lives, partnerships don't always work because of interpersonal conflicts between leaders of different companies, which begs the question if the objectives are truly about improving lives & altruistic or if the real objective is actually more personal and less externally focused?

Not only does the ego that's involved leads to behaviors that wastes resources, I think it fundamentally hinders organizations from doing their best in helping people because it obstruct one's ability to truly listen and to empathize.  The practice of "human-centered design" (HCD) is wildly popular and even a bit glorified in this space.  HCD has been championed by the Stanford Design School, IDEO, and most FMCG companies.  It emphasizes the need to immerse oneself in user's environment, and takes a very user-centric approach to design the best product from the user's point of view, rather than from the designer's point of view.  Over my 7 years of training in FMCG, I learned that a flawed consumer research design or poor execution can be misleading and dangerous.  Just because you've done consumer research, doesn't mean the conclusion is accurate!  It worries me that so many social entrepreneurs are young, hot-headed, applying HCD in a very inexperienced sort of way without realizing it, and hanging on to possibly flawed conclusions from those field studies as though their lives depend on it.  Nothing is more dangerous than knowing just a little about something and believe that one knows everything.  That's the danger of a single story Adichie talked about.  After all, how can we expect anyone who did not grow up in a mud hut and have to carry water for 3km to ever truly understand what it's like to live that life?  There's a massive difference between observing someone doing it, discussing what it's like with that person, and actually living it yourself.   And even if we live in these environment ourselves for a few months, it wouldn't be the same experience as the local because, we have an "out", we can always go back to where we came from, but they don't, they are stuck, they have no exit plan!  Empathy in its complete form is nearly impossible, but that's OK for practitioners in the space, as long as we recognize that.  Ego, however, prevents us from recognizing and admitting that.

Some successful social enterprise I have seen so far have been mostly led by local entrepreneurs: IVDP from Krishnagiri, India, Kazuri beads in Kenya, Tsu-chi in Taiwan, and I'm sure I am missing many other small, local social enterprises that have not, and will never hit the Western social impact radar.  Although they are small, they are run efficiently and financially sustainable.  I believe they have been successful because the founders grow up living with the problem they are trying to solve, and have an unparalleled commitment to the community to solve that problem, in another word, it's their community, they don't have a "Plan B" if things don't work out.  In fact, the community look up to him/her and create this sense of responsibility / accountability that a foreigner doing the same wouldn't be obliged to in the same way.  The unfortunate thing is that although these organizations' grassroots nature help them figured out the right "business design" easily, it's rare for them to scale because (1) lack of fund, and (2) lack of management skills / know-how for scaling.  They don't know how to access the million dollar grant from USAID because (a) they don't have the same access to information to find out about these funding opportunities (b) grant writing has become an industry that they cannot compete with professional grant writers (c) they are too small and possibly too "unprofessional" by western standard to be taken seriously, and (d) they don't know how to "package" their pitch to fit the western appetite and pull the right heart string that leads to money pouring from wallets.

So here's an interesting dilemma. On one hand, the "imported" social enterprises have the funds and management skills risk but suffer from the danger of ego / savior mentality and lack of ability to truly empathize & come up with the locally appropriate design. On the other hand, the "home brewed" social enterprises has the right design but almost always lack the fund and management skills to scale.

How can we bridge these gaps?  And where shall we go from here?  On one end, I believe it's important for western-based social enterprise to hire as many local staff as possible, and give them management role.  This is easier said than done due to the lack of strong talents in developing countries, but local staff is critical to bring some reality check into the organization as they will always know the end-user better.  Over time, just like companies like P&G and Unilever have integrated themselves into the fibers of the community, social enterprise ought to do the same.  They bring best practice processes, management skills, and fund from the developed world, while local talents can transform these resources into result in a locally relevant fashion, in a way that inspire true local ownership. Just because a company is operating locally doesn't mean it's part of the community.  What I observed in Kenya was mostly a foreign management team with low skill local staff who does not have any decision making power.  That does not work, even if 90% of the staff is local.  Only when local staffs get their share of voice in driving company's strategic direction, can the company be transformed from "the founder's company" to "their company".  When the company becomes one of the people, it begin to speak with the local people's voice, which is light-years better than a foreigner's "representation" or "interpretation" of their voice.  One the other end, capacity building is important for the "home brew" social enterprises.  Their insights are like valuable gems that's currently hidden from the international community. While these local organizations are difficult to find, isn't it time that donors and investors curb the obsessions for scale and for the perfect story, and give these hidden gems a bit more benefit of the doubt, take time to polish them with knowledge and skills they lack and see how they will blossom?  What Acumen is doing with the East African Fellows Program is quite nice in helping this area, it would be really interesting to see how it progresses over time and how it can impact more local entrepreneurs.

After being in the space for nearly 2 years, I've certainly become more critical of it; however, I still firmly believe in its cause and believe it can blossom with time (just like other industries) given SE is in its early stage and somewhat disorganized.  It's reassuring to see more experienced people coming into this space (as in the case with d.light), making improvements in their own way and beginning to put down more standards.