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Listening: tips for starting a project the right way

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Listening: tips for starting a project the right way

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We’re taught that there’s power in process. And yet, too often the process skips the most important step: listening. If a process doesn’t have some form of structured listening at the start, it’s set up to fail. I learned this the hard way when I began work on a micro-finance project in rural Tanzania recently.

The project manager passed me a 2-inch binder with all the resources I would need to manage a grants round (a small number of grants given to individuals in a small area). It had “everything I needed to know and use.” It was process after process after process. As though the more steps we took to give the grants, the better the grant outcome would be (more on this in a later post).

But I forged ahead, thinking implementation was the key to success.

The first step, the “needs assessment” was ostensibly all about listening. Except that it was listening for the wrong things. The concept was simple: go and find out a little background information about families in the selected area to determine if they had a sufficient “need” for the grant. Simple, but misguided.

First, every single person we met and encountered had extreme needs. Whether someone had 1 kid or 5, was 20 or 40, each person would dramatically benefit from the opportunity. “Need” was the wrong paradigm.

We would have been much better off learning more about how the families lived and what their struggles were. We should have focused more on what they were already doing to support themselves (more than you can imagine), what the opportunity costs might be of introducing a “small business model”, and what was already working in the community. Furthermore, by starting with the “grant” premise, we weren’t looking at what they wanted or ideas they had, but were peddling our pre-fab solution.

Take the story of Jaclyn. When we first spoke with her, she wasn’t interested in starting a “business.” Her husband had left her, her family wasn’t around to support her, and her toddler had cerebral palsy and couldn’t be away from her for more than a few minutes at a time. But she had drive, perseverance, and spunk and so we invited her to our initial training anyway. Her need was absolute, and yet she was, according to the “model”, was a terrible fit for the program because of the perceived limitations on her ability to manage a business.

When it came down building her business, she took her constraints and made it work. She used the seed capital to purchase two pigs, some seeds, basic baking goods, and building materials. She used the seeds to plant a garden to feed her pigs, used the baking goods to make some basic “mandazi” that she sells every morning door to door on her walk to the bus stand, and now has two healthy pigs that are ready to give birth.

The point of the story is this: we took the time to listen to her story, included her even when the early flags said no, and now she’s living a much better life. It starts with listening.

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