The tricky business of being ‘one-of-a-kind’

Global Leadership Academy
8 min readSep 12, 2023

‘What we are doing is special’

‘We are going to create something that the world has never seen before’, an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution.

In the impact sector, what does a ‘one-of-a-kind’ solution look like?

A creative and groundbreaking solution that can significantly help others advance their work to improve the lives of their communities — how would it look?

I think about this a lot in the journey to set up the Global Leadership Academy (GLA; working title), a learning program initiated by Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), the social investors’ network in Asia. GLA is new; it’s still in its design phase, so no one knows yet how it will look exactly, and what specific activities it will have. But at the heart of it, it’s trying to amplify unheard and untapped local knowledge and wisdom to the local and global level — and empower impact leaders from the Global South to learn from each other — creatively.

GLA, while being an unborn baby, is already ambitious. It wants to transform and disrupt the conventional learning dynamics in the impact sector, that is, how experts, insights, and knowledge mostly come from the Global North — and do something different. Something new. Something that is different from what’s already out there.

And I often question the very idea of it wanting to be ‘one-of-a-kind’.

Part of it is caused by my inability to pinpoint exactly how special and different it’s going to be (and I shouldn’t pinpoint its value proposition at this stage, really, because local leaders around the world are going to design it through three stages of pilot and experimentation; they’re the one who’s going to decide how unique GLA is going to be) — and the other reason is that I’m not sure I have the visibility of enough learning activities in the sector to be able to say that there’s nothing else like this in the entire world.

  • The learning business is full of noise: many great learning initiatives already exist out there, with more than 260,000 courses available coming only from seven online learning platforms. How would GLA fit — or compete — with these learning scenes?
  • While GLA is meant to disrupt the Northern-Southern unidirectional learning dynamics, it still uses English as its main means of communication. How different is it going to be from the other Northern-led solutions? To what extent can GLA be led by local leaders in the Global South who do not have English as their first language? How new will its users be, how unheard, how underrepresented, the GLA impact leaders will be?

Against the backdrop of my favourite saying, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time,” GLA’s goal to be ‘the one and only’ has to be properly dissected.

Unravelling the myth of being ‘one-of-a-kind’

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

While I’m aware that self-doubt cancels the true spirit of innovation and experimentation, I believe that only by engaging with challenging, critical, and difficult questions about its existence will GLA really grow. The more I think about GLA critically, the more I know why it has to happen, and that is not because it is the ‘one-of-a-kind’ solution that will solve all problems. Being ‘one-of-a-kind’ is very unlikely going to be its sole purpose.

Competitive advantage is indeed important for GLA (or any solutions, really) to gain traction, garner the attention of the right audience, and eventually, scale up. It’s also an important element that needs to be well thought out in order for GLA to not duplicate the effort of other learning initiatives that already exist.

But above all, the key quality of GLA is that it has to be truly, truly useful for leaders on the ground, more than anything else.

Interestingly, though, for GLA, in order for it to work, the initiative has to act, think, and speak differently. Not in the sense that it has to do something that no other living human has ever done before, but it will have to do things that were not comfortable and normal, simply because it’s not possible to reach the goal while being our ‘usual’ selves.

Here’s how the GLA wants to ensure that it works:

Walks hand-in-hand with the impact leaders and deals with a lot of unknowns — patiently, messily

Let’s imagine we were a manufacturer who wanted to create a vehicle to help people living in the hilly mountains commute better and faster from their work in the city. We know the goal: a better commute experience for people in the mountains, and we know for whom we want to create this: the community living in the mountains. But we don’t know how we should design the vehicle. Will it be a car? Will it be a truck? Or an aeroplane? Will it have offroad accessories embedded in it? Should it have the ability to fly? If yes, do we know what kind of flying car would be ideal? And can we even dictate what ‘better commute experience’ means or look like? Are we the right people to do that? Then, say we ask the people in the mountains about how we should design the car. To what extent can the advice, preferred design, and proposal from the potential users really come true? Does the vehicle manufacturer have the resources to see its development to the end?

What we have in GLA is a lot more complicated than this example, even, because AVPN is not even the ‘manufacturer’. The context too, isn’t as straightforward. We don’t fully own GLA, and GLA is not a market research project. We don’t want to do FGDs to its ‘potential users’, hear some ideas, and then take all the inputs and only do what makes sense for us. We want impact leaders in the Global South, who will design GLA — and for whom this is designed — to co-own this with us. To ‘manufacture’ this with us. To decide what GLA should look like — a car? A flying truck? An aeroplane? They need to dictate the process so that at the later stage, it truly, truly works on the ground.

But it is easier said than done. How does co-ownership even look? What about resources? How participatory will it be? And — back to our first question at the beginning of this text — will it be disruptive? Will it be unique? How different is it going to be from other learning initiatives that the impact leaders have experienced?

How comfortable we are with answering ‘I don’t know’ the whole time and not taking full control of the whole process as long as we can is the key.

But it is so difficult — and patience is not the virtue in our sector right now. Fast-paced, rapid experimentation, quick results. These are what’s valued. Participatory often means coming up with a pre-designed concept, ideating, FGD, FGD, more FGD, and then reporting. Because it is easier, and it is less uncomfortable. One doesn’t have to be uncertain all the time, and they don’t have to answer clarifying questions from many people who — naturally — will want answers.

That’s what’s normal, but normal won’t guarantee that the initiative will truly work and be owned by the Global South leaders, so — it’s that difficult way or the highway.

Constantly challenges internal biases

‘Extreme learning and unlearning,’ is how someone involved in the GLA development process explains what happened constantly in this initiative. We critically reflect and often challenge the biases embedded in our decisions, in order to make sure we don’t perpetuate the cycle of ‘a manufacturer dictating what vehicle the users should have’, and again, and make sure it really works.

The constant learning and experimenting happens in almost every element of the GLA development process. I’ll share one example: GLA wanted to have its first pilot and workshop with a handful of impact leaders in the Global South — 20, only, somewhere ‘in the middle’ geographically, to jointly think, shape, and design this initiative. Twenty leaders. From the Global South. The corners of the world where arguably 85 per cent of the world’s population lives. How do we even select twenty local leaders from these areas? Where should we start?

The answer is, this time, we chose to leave it to chance. We use serendipity as our guide, asking for recommendations from people we met at conferences, people we know from our past work, people we know personally, our network at the office, a friend of friends, and anyone that the news can reach. There are no definite criteria as to what kind of impact leaders we hope to engage in the first pilot (and the following pilots, hopefully), and we did not have any selection process. Much to our surprise, this chaotic process did bring us to excellent, wonderful, brilliant local leaders who not only do great things with their community but are also keenly passionate about learning and are just as comfortable (potentially!) with the unknowns as us, plus, are willing to get their hands dirty in this design process amidst the uncertainties.

It’s easy to share this as the process of inviting leaders to the first pilot has been over by the time this piece is being written, but four or five weeks ago, the team was constantly challenging each other as to why this direction and not the regular, conventional ‘call for application’ type of search. Some even argue that leaving the search up to chance, albeit intentional and careful, did exclude those who could have wanted to take part in the journey but weren’t on the radar of our network (or our serendipity). Arguably, according to this argument, for that reason alone, our process wasn’t inclusive at all.

And there’s no right or wrong answer to this. The point is that challenging what we’re doing — and why we’re doing it — is paramount in the process, again, not for the sake of simply being special, but so that what we’re doing could be truly useful.

Photo by Victor on Unsplash

Process-wise, developing GLA forces everyone involved in it to do things differently, not for the sake of being different as it is, but to make sure we make things work. It does not, and should not, try to be one of a kind in comparison to other initiatives. It does, however, should try to be the best version of itself, and be critical in assessing whether what comes out of it really, truly, meaningfully supports local leaders on the ground in learning what they need to know to make their lives easier.

These are the reflections of Nadya S Pryana, Assistant Manager, Knowledge and Insights at Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN)

--

--

Global Leadership Academy

The Global Leadership Academy aims to transform current learning and power dynamics within the impact space in the Global South