Learning through experience

March 26th, 2018

“ All genuine learning comes through experience “John Dewey

I earned two degrees while working in Practical Action. I often boast it as one of my biggest achievements in Practical Action. My colleagues sometimes quip “when did you work, then? “ – implying how did I balance the work and study. The fact is I never had to study. The learning I gathered in my work was enough to earn me the degrees. I went to universities just for accreditation (balancing the field visit schedules and the exam routines was tough though!!)

As I am preparing to leave Practical Action after 11 years of service, I wish to keep some of the key learning on record. Let me start with the professional ones,

Too much focus on delivery kills innovation
Timely delivery of the project targets including the financial target is important and binding. However, too much focus on delivery limit innovation. Innovation is an iterative process. An idea or technology has to go through several rounds of refinements before it is ready for uptake. If we become too impatient about the delivery from the onset, we may end up promoting the crude ideas and unproven technologies which may not work in long run. Hence, if we expect our projects to be innovative, we should be careful to consider the fact right from the project design and negotiate with donors accordingly.

We were able to do that in the Strengthening the supply chain  of construction materials project, which I have been managing since last 2 years. As a result, we have been successful to demonstrate various new technologies like CSEB, Stone Cutting machine and innovative idea like Demand aggregation. The project had 4 months of inception period fully dedicated to understanding the context and testing the new technologies /ideas. The inception period was extended by 2 months to allow the ideas to mature further. Actual uptake of the ideas / technologies started only after 9th month. However, it didn’t take long to catch up the financial and physical targets as the ideas were mature and strategy was clear by then.

Successful demonstration of technology alone doesn’t automatically lead to uptake
I spent major part of my tenure in Practical Action promoting Gravity Goods Ropeway. I genuinely believe it is a great technology. It holds enormous promise to help 100 of thousands (if not millions) of people living in the isolated hills of Nepal and other mountainous countries in the developing world. However, the technology didn’t tip beyond some isolated success cases and sporadic uptake by few organizations. On retrospection, I feel that our implicit assumption that the successful demonstration of the technology will automatically lead to replication didn’t work. We focused our efforts on demonstrating the technology, which we did really well. However, we missed to demonstrate the incentive that the uptake of the technology will entail to different market actors (government and private sector), except for the poor farmers. The farmers, however, lack resources to uptake the technology on their own.
The hard learnt lesson, however, came in handy in the Supply chain project, in which we consciously demonstrated both , the technologies and the incentives they entails to different actors. As a result, the market actors (private firms) are scaling up the technologies /ideas in the project districts with light touch support from the project. The firms are spreading the ideas and technologies beyond the project districts on their own.

Resource poor not the knowledge

It may sound like a cliché but over the time I have truly started believing that the people we are working for may be poor in resources but are rich in knowledge. They may not present their ideas in the development jargons that we are used to hearing but they always offer the most plausible insight and most practical solution to any problem. Hence, when you feel you are running out of ideas ok  stuck in problems, go to them. If you have patience and right ears to hear them, you will always be rewarded with the most innovative yet Practical ideas.

Attitude is more important than intelligence
In last 11years, I got opportunity to work with several people – people with different level of intelligence (IQ) and different attitudes (EI). Just to paraphrase them in the terminology we use in Practical Action for performance evaluation – people with different level of technical competency and behavioral competency. Though, I eventually, learnt to enjoy working with all of them, my experience boils down to the following 2 conclusions,
• People with right attitude are more important than with higher intelligence for success of any project. Hence, if you have opportunity to choose between the people with right attitude and higher intelligence, go for former.
• When people are given which is often the case, work through their attitude rather than trying to change them. Attitudes are difficult to change if they can be changed at all.
I feel vindicated after reading this article. It argues the importance of attitude over intelligence for personal success. But, same hold true of success of any project.

2 responses to “Learning through experience”

  1. Gopal Prasad Ghimire Says:

    Nice to read your experience and insights. I also believe that good people are those who have good attitude.

  2. Eko Prasetyo Says:

    Thanks for sharing Rabindra. Your blogpost (point 1 and 2) resonates the discussion I joined last week. Many ICT4D/tech projects have been limited by funding mechanism. First, The hype around tech (e.g. blockchains, apps and drones) attract more interest/attention from donors and organisations. Second, there is not much space to change/revise the design of the project once started – even though circumstances and needs change from time to time. Third, project is expected to generate “quick tangible” results while we realise that social change may take years or decades. I think, more open and honest discussions between donors and organisations are needed.

    Best wishes for the adventures!

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