What We're Thinking

Be a solution-seeker, not a problem-solver

Last week, in the opening plenary of the Stanford Nonprofit Management Institute (NPMI), Steve McCormick, co-founder and CEO of the Earth Genome, posed this question: “If a divine being said they will solve the cause you are working on, and you would get none of the credit- a rival colleague would instead- would you take that offer?”

I like to believe that most people would take the offer without hesitation. After all, most of us enter the social sector because we are driven by passion for a cause. But even if we are not seeking individual or organizational glory, other issues can block the path to solutions. Somewhere between the idealistic early days of wanting to make the world a better place and the hours spent in meetings and checking e-mail, the cause can get lost. At some point, it goes from being about the cause to being about the job, or the organization, or even the organization’s mission.

So how do we get back to focusing on the cause, the change we want to see in the world, and get outside of our own organization’s tactical strategies? Again and again, the message at NPMI was that we need to work together, collaborate, work in a network, and align our actions. The world’s wicked problems are so complex that they can’t be solved by one organization or one person’s break-through idea. We need to find who else is tackling the same problem, coordinate our actions, and collaborate at a systems level.

I think we end up doing our work in a bubble, not so much because we don’t want to collaborate, but because it is just easier and more efficient to get through our long to-do list by ourselves. David Sawyer and David Ehrlickman from Converge for Impact said in their session that making “we” work in a network is all about relationships and finding shared motivation — the overlap between what I can offer and what I need to make this network worthwhile. Any networked approach or collaboration has to start with trust– learning from each individual, who are you, what motivates you, what do you care about, and why? The hard part about that is it takes serious time and effort. Trust-building happens through real conversations about real problems, not just a 15-minute ice-breaker at the start of a network meeting.

Ernesto Sirolli, from the Sirolli Institute, shared a powerful story about an NGO bringing the best seeds from Italy to a rural African village in an international aid project, only to have the entire crop run over by hippos. When they asked the local residents if they knew about the hippos, they said yes, but you never asked us! Thinking that we know the way to solve the world’s problems sound foolish on one hand, but in reality can be how we inadvertently operate when we get lost in the busy-ness of just trying to do our jobs. The more we learn about what others are doing, the more we trust their heart, motivation, and intelligence, the better we can work together to be a solution-seeker, not a problem solver


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