Re-framing how we design the projects we implement – starting with one simple question

We are complex human beings

We are human. No shock there. We are all complicated individuals who have a unique set of experiences and thoughts. Our challenge in making change happen, is that we are not always sure what the people we seek to serve want or need. Because it’s really hard to find this out when we are under pressure to get results.

Our second problem is that we probably don’t admit the first problem.

Would you agree?

We, with privilege  – let’s call privilege in this case, anyone who has money or buying power (we recognise this is a super simple definition) – make decisions based on a set of conditions and circumstances we want or think we need.

Those without that privilege – do they think differently to us?

Do the communities we wish to serve have some privilege?

Do the processes we use in designing or evaluating projects go deep enough to truly understand the communities we wish to serve?

Sometimes, when we are curious and intentional, the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. But it’s really hard to achieve this when we’re under donor pressure and projects become really big or are implemented in different contexts.

Understanding wants and needs

In the aid sector, we all share mutual values – ethics and integrity will most likely feature on everyone’s list.

We need to focus energy on understanding exact wants and needs – and then ‘localise’ our work. However, thoughts of localising solutions often come too far down the track. We start with the right intentions – but with the pressures we’re under and our focus on value for money, our intentions become biased (both consciously and unconsciously).

We then sometimes get stuck on the ideas. Which is completely normal. The solutions we use may draw from previous projects – and those solutions are based on ever further back projects.

Making patterns

We then risk turning up to communities with pre-manufactured solutions and run focus groups/interviews drawing on biased patterns that match our solutions.

We too, like the people we wish to serve, have a complex set of thoughts. And when we don’t completely understand a situation, we may bring in our bias.

Robert Burton, neurologist, explains that the brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognise patterns. Which means we are predisposed to shutting down uncertainty and being vulnerable, and will jump to developing a pattern (and solutions) quickly.   

Sometimes we absolutely design projects correctly – but this is difficult without focus and intention, and a recognition of our vulnerability, bias and privilege.

Internal and external pressures

We are also pressured to reduce costs – which we mask as value for money. This is the point where innovation goes to die. Maybe we are being unfair in this blog post – but our own experience of measuring value for money, is that projects focus hugely on cost efficiency and cost effectiveness. Has value for money ever focused on equity first?

As change makers, we might have been promoted quickly, without the necessary tools or support. What we might crave is respect and reassurance. And that might mean becoming more of a follower and not speaking up for change. 

Perhaps there is a sense of fear of perceived failure?

Unfortunately, our project approach can be pressured from ‘above’ (not God – donors and perhaps senior leadership). These aren’t the people we should be serving.

We want similar things – safety, belonging, health, power, play, laughter, tension, revenge (sometimes), sympathy… the list goes on. It’s really difficult to fully understand the wants and needs of the communities we wish to serve, when we are far removed from the implementation locations.

Asking the right question

Sometimes we get stuck with questions like:

  • What will my boss [or insert donor name] think?
  • How can we reduce the costs?
  • How can we ‘engage’ the community?

Maybe if we all start with the simple question as a curious and intentional change maker, to the people we serve, and then deeply listen – we would make more aligned projects.

This question would be:

What’s the real challenge for you?

And then listen.

So what next?

If you are wanting to:

  • Refresh or gain some assurance of your approach to change making,
  • Learn about some key human tools (as Simon Sinek calls them),
  • Meet some empathetic change makers,
  • Dig into some of your own challenges.

Come join us for Unleashing your inner leader in May.  It is a four week programme to nourish yourself, learn from outside our sector and gain insights from peers through group coaching (coaching not advice).

Or if you are facing challenges that you want to work through – why not reach out to us for a chat?