Feeling the pebbles under your feet

Jun 20, 2017

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We’ve been evaluating a lot of proposals recently at Ilm Ideas 2. These are written submissions from businesses, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations seeking financial support to scale up their education innovations. Reading them has put me in a reflective mood. How useful is a written proposal anyway? Would a presentation, pitch or video convey just as much (if not more!) than 12 pages of text? Does the requirement of a written proposal put some applicants off applying? Does it favour others?

When I think about the proposals I’ve looked at, I realise the ones that rise to the top are those with lots of potential. They present a solution that sounds compelling, that sounds like it will produce the results we want (more children in school and learning), and there is a great team behind it. I tend not to remember much about the detail of how it will be implemented (apologies to everyone who has ever had to write a proposal by the way!).

At the same time as I was thinking these thoughts, I met the CEO of a company in Pakistan and in a good-natured exchange he challenged the value of detailed plans and proposals. Then he shared a proverb (he said it was from China): ‘To cross the river, you have to feel the pebbles under your feet’. Imagine yourself for a moment standing on a river bank. You know you want to cross the river. You cannot see the bottom of the river but you have a great team behind you to help you get across. Before you start, you don’t know which stones you are going to have to put your feet on. You might put your foot on one and it wobbles so you go back a few steps and try a different route. Perhaps halfway across you discover that if you take smaller steps, you make quicker progress. Maybe you go back to the river bank and decide to build a bridge! Slowly but surely, by feeling the pebbles under your feet, you cross the river.

This proverb really struck a chord and made me think again about the proposals we’ve been reading and about what I’ve learned working in education over many years. Perhaps we ask for too much detail about how something will happen. And by asking for so much detail, we kill promising solutions and ideas before they’ve even had the chance to get off the ground.

Around the same time as my conversation with the CEO, my colleague Shahida Saleem sent me a link to an article from a conference about the Science of Scaling hosted by the Development Impact Lab. DIL is working on new approaches to innovation in the context of global development and one of the top takeaways from the conference was ‘Don’t plan, iterate’. If your goal is to scale, said one of the conference presenters, it’s important to iterate rather than plan. Pilot with the real thing so that early users will give you feedback to improve the product, and fail early and often, they advised. Ship out minimum viable products, which can be scalable but not yet scale ready, and build in tight feedback loops, talking with real users from day one. Then conduct research on your pilot to inform the requirements for the scale up process.
So what’s the connection between proposal writing, a Chinese proverb and a data scientist in Berkeley? It may be a stretch, but I think the Chinese proverb and the data scientist are telling us not to spend too much time planning the perfect course of action. They are saying, get started, be ready to learn quickly from experience (good or bad) and if necessary to take a new direction. I think they are telling us that asking for a written proposal right at the start, with elaborate details about implementation, might not be the best way to identify great solutions that will ensure more children in Pakistan are in school and learning.

At Ilm Ideas 2 we’re thinking about our approach to sourcing great solutions. Maybe it needs to change. We’d love to hear your suggestions! Leave a comment below.

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