Apprenticing With The Problem
I work with a lot of people who are keen to build social enterprises.
They come and see me for a coffee, to talk about their ideas and get some advice as to what to do next.
Sometimes the answer is practical – things to buy, things to build, people to meet, events to attend, etc.
Other times the answer is a little more…philosophical.
In golf, not many people expect to land in the hole on their first shot.
However with social enterprise, we naturally expect that our first idea will be the one we run for the next decade.
That’s an unhelpful mindset.
While you might have become passionate about a particular problem, it’s important to not fall in love with your solution.
Pamela Hartigan famously described the importance of “Apprenticing with the problem”.
Apprentice is a great word – it encapsulates the unglamorous and varied set of tasks that give you a proper understanding of the issue.
An apprentice gets to see how everything works, whilst also doing a lot of the mundane and dirty work.
This gives them a deep understanding of the context and all the players in their field.
They form initial opinions, then learn why those were overly simplistic.
Eventually, after wading through the complexity of the work, they develop a good “gut sense” of the situation that then helps them make good decisions and identify distractions.
This needs to be you.
An apprentice mindset requires a mix of three attitudes – naivety, humility and optimism.
Naivety allows us to start with an open mind, not demoralised by the past problems within the industry.
Humility pushes our ego to the side, to admit we might be wrong and to not let our image cloud our judgement.
Optimism gives us fuel to push for change, and the ability to keep trying new ideas even when they sound absurd.
Apprentices bring energy and open minds – exactly what we need in this industry.
If you can learn from the people and projects that have come before you, you’ll be able to benefit from their insights without getting bogged down in the politics.
That saves you a lot of time in collecting wisdom, without the soul-crushing defeats and setbacks.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to do something new, it’s because it hasn’t been thought of, or previously deemed impossible, or someone tried and failed.
Let that sink in.
Which of those do you think it is?
Have you done any digging?
Who has gone before you?
What can you learn from their successes and failures?
What assumptions are you working with?
“When you only have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”
The temptation is to jump too quickly to a solution.
Our brains envisage a fantastic program/business, and our hearts commit to defending the idea from the naysayers.
The risk here is that some people aren’t naysayers, they actually share your passion for the problem and are here to help.
It’s so important to step outside of your own worldview and gather a deep understanding of the issue.
Perhaps you’re targeting the right problem, but are selling the wrong service – or are selling it to the wrong customer.
Maybe your solution addresses the visible symptom of the problem, but not the underlying cause.
If your vision is to reduce plastic bags in landfill, there’s a lot of angles you can take in solving that problem:
· You could sell reusable bags
· You could improve the designs/styles of existing reusable bags
· You could lend bags to customers (like IKEA yellow bags)
· You could try and change customers’ minds about their choices
· You could change customers’ behaviour with subtle nudges
· You could lobby supermarkets to charge more for plastic bags
· You could lobby supermarkets to remove plastic altogether
· You could create a biodegradable alternative
· You could partner with manufacturers to switch to biodegradable bags
· You could set up an autonomous grocery delivery business (eliminating the need to carry things altogether)
· You could work with office buildings to demand that their suppliers switch to degradable alternatives.
· You could target a whole different segment and go for bin liners instead
See the range of options?
Some of those might be terrible ideas…but some aren’t.
It’s vital that we revisit the problem periodically.
Changes in our Business Model Environment make “impossible” ideas become feasible.
Maybe customers are more aware of the damage caused by plastic bags
Maybe legislation forces large companies to take this seriously.
Maybe there are new partners who could help with manufacturing or distribution
Maybe degradable technology has created new materials that are stronger or cheaper.
Any of these could completely change your idea – for the better.
Here are two factors to think about next:
Firstly, why are you the right person to work on this problem?
What prompted your interest?
What research have you done?
Who have you talked to?
Who have you worked with?
Please don’t take that as a confrontation, but take it as a chance to re-frame your story.
Secondly, make a list of the gaps in your knowledge.
What do you need to work on next?
Maybe it’s industry experience.
Maybe it’s spending time with your beneficiaries.
Maybe you need to work with an existing organisation before starting your own.
Maybe you need to live in a developing country for a few months – to see how life in that context actually works.
Bessi Graham often talks about the benefits of seeing who else is out there solving the same issues – it saves unnecessary costs and useless competition.
Have a think about what you could offer them – as well as what you’d like to learn from them.
Finally, remember that apprenticeships are all about stealing inspiration from multiple sources.
You might like Austin Kleon’s book Steal like an artist, all about the philosophy and practicalities of pinching clever ideas from a wide range of people.
The challenges we’re working on require creativity, and creativity comes from new combinations of existing things.
You don’t have to re-invent everything, you might just need to learn more about the problem.