2021 Counter Intuitive Learnings

Learning new skills and unlearning old habits

Photo by David Ballew on Unsplash

2021 has been a steep learning curve for us. We had to learn new skills and unlearn old habits. We polled our entire team, from field staff to research assistants to initiative leads, to ask them what they had learned in 2021, that was surprising to them. We got some truly insightful nuggets, which we share here.

  1. Researchers must move from a linear to iterative mindset.

Many of us come from research backgrounds, where the research to policy /practice is viewed as a linear; research is first completed, then a policy brief written and then disseminated to policy makers and practitioners.

When looking for definitive answers from researchers for certain problems, we realised that research has no end point. As a society, we try new approaches, learn and revise our approach. So as solution designers, we had learn to adopt an iterative approach where research and solution design are intertwined. Our role was to mediate between the research and practitioner communities.

Research and practice are thus not dichotomous. We need to take research to the field and take back learnings from the field to research to refine our understanding— it’s important to view them as complementary. Viewed in this way, pilots can be designed from the outset as testing hypotheses; whether they fail or succeed there are lessons learned. (This is in sharp contrast with how most pilot projects are currently approached — as being to showcase a novel idea that emerged from research. If they fail or don’t work as planned, they are nonetheless propped up because failure is viewed poorly.)

2. Field work for problem solving requires “unlearning” traditional research skills

We understand theoretically, in the development sector, that solutions need to emerge from communities. But how to truly listen to communities was not something that came to us naturally.

It took us a very long time to unlearn standard research practices and apply our newly learned design thinking skills to field work. For instance, usually we would go into interviews with guiding questions, but we quickly realised how restrictive it was to stick to those questions. Approaching fieldwork in the traditional way, prevented us from listening carefully.

Instead, being fully present, open to receiving new information, and asking thoughtful follow up questions rather than preparing a questionnaire was more important. This did not mean going to the field unprepared. We did have to do our homework and analyse the secondary data so we had context. But only when we went in with an open mind and followed lines of enquiry that naturally emerged during our conversations, were we able to pay attention to stories of outliers or positive deviants, where solutions could often be found.

3. Going from data to information to insight is hard. It must be planned for, takes skills and time.

We had assumed that our delay in producing outputs was a result of not documenting our work or doing enough field work. But we realised that the real gap was synthesis. We collected tons of information from the field and had many “mini aha moments”. In the end, we used only 10-20% of the collected information in the final output.

We did put in place processes in-house, such as insight activation workshops, specifically to help teams glean insights from field data. But we did not budget enough time for this. We need to have much more time to think through how all those pieces of information fit together so that more of our field data becomes usable.

4. Better access to data alone cannot induce behavior change, the data needs to be relatable.

In our information interventions like Jaltol, we underestimated the effort in moving from making data accessible to inducing behaviour change. For instance, we thought that the biggest challenge in achieving water security at the village scale was the lack of knowledge on how to prepare water budgets. After speaking to CSOs working on water budgets with rural communities, it emerged that actually the challenge lies in the difficulty of making the water budget findings relevant to the cropping decisions of a single village or an individual farmer. Thus, creating tools is only the beginning. Engaging actors to use them to change behaviour is going to be a bigger challenge.

5. Livelihood programs are businesses; market linkages cannot be an afterthought.

When we began both our Lantana and Food Futures Initiatives, we assumed that our job would be to “find a market” for existing livelihoods programs. In other words, market linkages were the last step of a problem that was mostly solved.

We have since realised that market linkages are actually the first step, addressing consumer demand and supply chains must be a part of any strategy for livelihood programs right in the inception phase. Across the board, we observed that in villages, where the younger generation is choosing to stay and work in the farm (as opposed to migrating to cities), it was because there was a robust market for the goods being produced. In contrast, many livelihood programs develop a co-dependency relationship between the implementing NGO and the community, where a permanent and substantial subsidy from the NGO is needed because there is no market.

6. Money is not the only thing communities care about.

We found that communities factored things in their decision making that we had not considered.

First, certainty of an income stream was more important than short-term gains. People make investments in switching livelihoods if they believe there will be a long-term stream of income associated with it; but offering a 3–5 year income guarantee is not always possible.

Second, communities that valued their traditional agrarian way of life, would engage in a certain livelihoods (e.g. crafts) as “gig workers” in the dry season, but were unwilling to switch to those livelihoods full-time. Even when we were able to secure them stable, full-time jobs, they preferred the seasonal hardships of quarry work because it was time-bound. So businesses and supply chains would have to be designed taking this into consideration.

Third, remote communities with collectivised assets, sometimes had low levels of trust. We came across cooperatives that were falling apart because there was no trust within the community as office bearers had stolen money from the common pool in the past. We were surprised to find people who preferred autonomy over their livelihoods instead of having to rely on the collective in these places, something we had not considered.

7. We should not romanticise the community; institutional design matters.

In many cases, we saw that livelihood programmes failed because they relied too much on good behaviour by “the community”. Obviously, people don’t automatically behave altruistically because they are poor. Yet, this seemed to be the assumption underpinning many programmes.

In some cases, entitlements with no checks and balances created perverse incentives. In parts of Telangana, free electricity is given to farmers for 18–20 hours a day; in villages where water is abundant, farmers don’t bother to switch off the motors, which results in massive waste of water. In other cases, we came across livelihood initiatives with no provision for working capital. It was simply assumed that people would set aside savings to make it happen.

We were somewhat surprised to find that across the sector, there was little thought to proactive, culturally sensitive institutional design that would put in place the right set of incentives for inclusive and sustainable livelihoods.

8. Partnering with government involves finding champions within the system and establishing trust.

We had assumed that we would have to work hard to convince government agencies to do certain things. Having never done it before, we were intimidated by the very idea. Instead, much to our relief, agency staff often shared our vision and impact goals and were, in fact, equally frustrated at their own inability to move the agenda forward. Once we recognised the constraints under which they were operating and aligned ourselves, we were able to move forward quickly.

The most important factor in working with government was establishment of trust. We had assumed that it would require grey hair or eminent people in our team to establish trust. However, most members of our team were equally able to do this, just by constantly knocking doors to find the right champions within the system, being empathetic to their challenges and responding quickly (sometimes within 24 hours) with documents and proposals when asked.

9. Collaborative teams have high group intelligence.

A very pleasant surprise to all of us, was how collaborative our teamwork has been both within and outside CSEI. People have been willing to share their knowledge and years of experience. So far we have been able to operate very democratically. A key contributor to this has been that team members have been willing to ask uncomfortable questions. Interestingly, sometimes the hardest, most fundamental questions are asked by the youngest members of the team — perhaps because they have less to “unlearn”.

If the questioning was constructive and curiosity-driven it was invariably received positively. And when “failure” was openly acknowledged and embraced as an opportunity for course correction to achieve our common impact goals, it removed the stigma against asking hard questions. As a result, even with a relatively inexperienced young team, we believe we have achieved a high level of group intelligence. The challenge for us will be to sustain this culture in the years to come as we grow, get entrenched and make claims of success.

10. Strategic communication in-house is possible.

We initially considered the need for a PR agency to manage our media relations. But conversations with communication teams in other nonprofits suggest that most have been unable to get meaningful engagement out of PR agencies. Instead, we have realised, that to drive authentic communication, there is no substitute for our own team learning to write on topical conversations with a clear line to thought leadership and long-term strategy.

The good news is every single team member at CSEI has written a piece or contributed to a video in the last 6 months. Our communications team had assumed (from earlier experience) that it would be really hard to get the team to write. The willingness to write has been pleasantly surprising. Repeated emphasis on developing a “growth mindset” along with in-house capacity building has shown us that even people who believed they could not write, have in fact been able to write effortlessly.

There were a few learnings here:

A. Writing throughout the course of the project and not waiting till the end is important. This means maintaining notes and setting time to write every week if not everyday.

B. Focusing on “messaging” — getting people to think about what they want to say before beginning to write has been useful to avoid rambling pieces.

C. When reaching out to younger audiences, visual aids are much more effective than written text, so working with graphic designers has been key.

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