Video: Hopscotch Design 2017 Speaker Spotlight: Jo-Ann Tan
Jo-Ann Tan and the team at +Acumen are on a mission to provide anyone, anywhere with the skills and community to drive social change. They’re breaking down the traditional barriers and systems that have prevented great ideas from being shared with those who could most use them—unlocking great ideas, sharing skills, and transforming worlds for good, and for all. In her talk, Jo-Ann shares with us some of the lessons she’s learned from trying to get people to do things differently.
You should watch if:
- You’re considering ditching your desk job for something more meaningful
- You’re interested how big ideas can be shared across borders and cultures
- You have a passion for using technology to disrupt established systems
3 things you’ll learn:
- Jo-Ann’s five key lessons she’s learned from leading +Acumen’s efforts to get people to do things differently
- How technology has opened doors and spurred social change in the developing world
- Why it’s important for today’s leaders to embrace the uncertainty of “and”
Quote of note:
“Content without community will only get you so far.”
Hi everyone. My education as a social change maker began fairly late in my life, long after I left college. A turning point for me came in about 2009, about six months into a pretty terrible job search. I had a career in finance and business before, and, let’s just say, I got a little bit too close to the dark side of capitalism and was feeling rather burned out, but if you live in New York City, you can’t get by without a job, and I needed one.
The good news is I’m heading to a job interview. It’s the final round with the CEO. It’s a company that trains people for much-needed jobs in the medical profession, being a medical assistant or other support roles in hospitals. It’s a fast-growing company, full of bright, young professionals from great schools. The pay is pretty good, and the CEO is telling me that he wants me for the job.
“What excites you about this company?” I ask.
He says, “Growth, massive growth and profitability. We’re going to make so much money. In fact, I bought a yacht last year, and I’m going to take the team out on it next week. You should come.”
I walk out into the midday sun after that interview, and I’m trying to picture myself on that yacht, and instead of any excitement, I feel this big emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I need a job, but I’m not going to go back there. I’m forever grateful to that CEO for this yacht conversation, because it solidified in my mind that, unless the situation was really dire, I did not want to be in the business of making money just to make money.
I wanted to do something different with my life, something that had more meaning, more of an impact. The problem was I did not know where to start. Fast forward a little bit, and that’s … I find myself at Acumen. Acumen is a nonprofit, a global nonprofit, and we invest in companies and leaders that are disrupting systems that keep people in poverty. These are companies like d.light, a social enterprise that sells solar-powered lanterns and other equipment to low-income communities in the developing world. When Acumen first invested in them, they were just a startup. Today, they provide clean, efficient, cost-effective solar lighting to more than 75 million people around the world.
We also invest in leaders, leaders like Shamim Akhtar in Pakistan. When Shamim was growing up in Pakistan, she had to dress as a boy, just so that she could attend school. This is her. Today, she is on a mission to make sure that every woman and girl in Pakistan has access to education.
Acumen is an amazing place, full of incredible people, and it was an incredible place for me to have my education as a social change leader. What I came to notice is that, over time, there were actually lots of people coming to Acumen, saying, “Hey, I’d like to get involved. I’d like to help, volunteer. How can you use me?” A lot of these people looked a little bit like my old self. They were burned out investment bankers, disillusioned marketers and advertisers, consultants, engineers, and more. They email. They call. Some of them occasionally showed up at our office, just cold-calling.
I said, “What’s going on here? What is it that people are looking for?” Then I started to notice that it wasn’t just people who are working in the private sector. It was actually also people who worked in the social sector, and other nonprofits, and international NGOs coming to us and saying, “Hey, we want to learn.”
I said, “What is going on there?” As I dug into this problem a little bit more, I started to see that social change organizations are so resource-strapped that what suffers most is efficient learning. The problem really struck home when I was judging a social enterprise competition. An energetic group of people were saying, “Hey, we have a water filter, and it is going to change the way that people can access safe drinking water in India.”
I wanted to just throw up my arms in exasperation that such bright people, such good intentions, had clearly spent lots of time on this idea, but it wasn’t going to work. The road to providing safe drinking water in the developing world is littered with water filtration devices that have no distribution or business model. If only they had reached out to an expert to ask or had done some sort of research. They didn’t seem to know that this would be a problem for them.
Then I thought about it for a little bit more, and I said, “Oh, oh dear. I’m the expert. We, the judging panel at this competition, we are their access to information.” I thought, that’s going to be highly inefficient. There’s so many other people out there like them. They can’t all go to business plan competitions, and they can’t all just talk to people face-to-face, just to get the information they need.
I started talking to more people and found out that a lot of great insights, lessons, learning, approaches that were working in the field of social change, were really locked behind an organization’s closed doors or inside an expert’s head. The reason for that is that, if you’re running a social change organization, you’re already resource-strapped, and you want to be doing the work in the field. It takes time and energy to distill that information and present it out in the world in consumable chunks.
In the meantime, all these great people with their great ideas, they were spinning their wheels or reinventing it. Social enterprises kept making the same mistakes over and over again. There had to be a better way.
I came up with this slightly crazy idea in 2013, and I said there had to be a way to unlock this information, these ideas, this great thinking from behind people’s heads, and give it away and present it and help them actually use that thinking to create change in their own communities, wherever they were in the world. I went to Acumen, and I said, “Hey, we already train our fellows. We have this leadership curriculum. Will you let me take it and give some of it away online?” Amazingly, they said yes. What has since grown from that is +Acumen, a school for social change.
What we do is we offer free or low-cost online courses. They are focused on areas of social entrepreneurship, leadership, social impact measurement. Where Acumen has the expertise, we build the courses on our own, and where we don’t, we partner extensively with other incredible organizations. We have a human-centered design course for social innovation that we have built with ideo.org, another course on systems thinking that we have built with the Omidyar Group, and we also work with other experts, not just experts in the social change field, but beyond, because I believe that there is thinking all around us that could be leveraged for the purpose of social change. We’ve worked with Chris Anderson at TED on a course on public speaking, Dan Ariely of Duke on what he’s learned in behavior change. Most recently, we filmed Dan Pink talking about sales, which is a massive problem that lots of nonprofits face.
More than 300,000 participants from 190 countries have taken our courses, and this is still early days for us. We’ve noticed that a lot of these people do actually come from social change organizations, amazing organizations like Mercy Corps, Greenpeace, USAID, and a lot of people are actually what I call social intrapreneurs. They are in their private sector jobs, and they’re looking to make a difference, and they’re using our courses to do that. Let me give you some examples of the people who are taking our courses and what they’ve done.
Usman was a computer engineer in Pakistan, and he came across +Acumen, because he was trying to figure out what he could do in Pakistan, where he saw a lot of social issues. Usman quickly became a big fan. He’s taken more than, I think, 15 of our online courses, which is a fair amount of work. He first came into our radar, because he had won a social good competition at +Acumen–sorry–a social good competition in Karachi, Pakistan. He was starting to use our network more, actually found a job in Sierra Leone and, bless him, he moved to Sierra Leone, where he became a computer engineer, and he’s now starting code for Sierra Leone.
Sabrina and Afzal, two young professionals in Canada, had been in Nairobi for a while, and then had an idea to revolutionize childcare in the slums of Nairobi, but it was just an idea in their head. They came across our Lean Startup Course, and it helped them to get their idea out of their heads and actually into real life. They raised funding, moved to Nairobi, quit their jobs and actually started Kidogo, which was awarded the Echoing Green Fellowship a few years ago.
Then there’s Elaina. She works at the United Way. Their team used our online courses to figure out how they could provide better prenatal care to expectant mothers in low-income communities in Buffalo. She credits this course for helping them have a successful project and also raise additional funding.
The stories go on and on, but let me tell you. It’s not easy. When you run a school, you’re in the business of changing people, and changing people is really hard. I think there are some of you who are educators here? Great. Changing someone is much more than just giving them a tool and say, “Hey, just go use it.”
Recently, we got a call from a large international organization. Their new CEO really wants to bring lean startup principles to their work. They said that they wanted their organization to be nimbler. They wanted them out in the field, talking to customers more, and experimenting more. Even though they’d read the books, and they had the tools, teams out in the field … When they came back and showed the reports that talked about what they were doing, he said, “It’s clearly not lean startup. What should we do?”
I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the lessons that we’ve learned, trying to get people to do things differently. We definitely haven’t figured everything out yet, but I think here is what we feel is important. Firstly, content without community will only get you so far. Number two, design for friction. Three, zoom in and zoom out. Four, this isn’t a funnel. Five, live with the uncertainty of “and.”
Let’s start with content without community. When we first started building online courses, we did our research and talked to a lot of people in this space, and I heard a lot about how people are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in building a single online course. Their videos were meticulously scripted and animated. I heard of people hiring professional actors to stand in for professors. People were spending millions and actually building their own course platform, but when you’re a resource-strapped startup, working within a resource-strapped nonprofit, you don’t really have that kind of resources to play with, and so, ladies and gentleman, I want to show you our first online course.
Yep, that’s Google Docs, which has the great benefit of being free and easily accessible from anywhere in the world. Let me tell you. Three thousand people took this course, and they loved it. Clearly our content was not quite there yet, but what is it that we got right? What we knew early on was that we needed to make this a social experience, and not just a social experience online. It needed to be offline, as well.
Our courses actually look like this. We ask that you form a team to take a course, and it can be as simple as pulling a friend in or signing up for the course with your coworkers. I’ve even heard of people taking courses with their family members. Students from all over the world–Japan, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, and the like–those are some of the students that you see here. They consume materials online, but then they come together as a group to talk or to actually work on a project. This is fun. It’s fun. You get to connect with friends, and sometimes you make new friends. It keeps you accountable, like having a workout buddy when you’re going to the gym.
What we found in our data is that if you form a group, the chances that you will complete our courses are higher, but it’s not just that. It’s not just for the fun. When designing our courses, we said, “Hey, we’re talking about issues of social change here, and these aren’t black and white issues.” You know, all those programs that do a one for one, buy one, and we’ll give one away in the developing world … Are those good, or do those actually harm the development of local markets? What is free speech? What are the boundaries? These are tricky issues, and there’s no point just talking to yourself about them. You need to talk to other people. That’s where your thinking might get changed. That’s how we learn.
Rather than … We have a course on Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail … Get together. Discuss it with someone else, and you can be from anywhere in the world. You’ll be surprised at its relevance. Sarab and Mudeep, here, were talking about how the letter had relevance in Sweden and in India, and how those leadership lessons from MLK applied.
The other reason we wanted to have teams was that that’s actually how work occurs in real life, and we wanted our courses to be practical to people who are doing the work. It only makes sense that they would sign up for it with their colleagues. The U.S. Department of Labor has used our human-centered design course to spread HCD to workforce agencies across America. These are people like Team Reboot in Santa Barbara County, who are working with people who are unemployed or underemployed, and they want to do it better. More than 800 people, through that program, have taken the course, and Team Reboot was actually looking for ways in which they could help formerly incarcerated individuals get better connected with jobs. Human-centered design really opened up their eyes, but it’s a lot of work. I think this is midway through the course, where they were just reaffirming that they could actually get through it, and they made it to the end.
Community is so important to us that we are actually doubling down on this. We want to connect people beyond our courses. Our best students at the end of a course are invited to join an online community, where they’re actually helping each other beyond the course, finding jobs, answering questions, and sometimes just saying hey, encouraging people along the way.
Two, design for friction. Rather than having a seamless, frictionless experience, in our courses we actually want you to do some work. Don’t get me wrong. There is unproductive friction, and we should minimize that. We want to make it easy for a person to sign up for a course. You should have no problems navigating our course platform, and we should explain course concepts really easily and clearly to you, but, at the end of the day, it still needs to have some friction, because that’s where the learning happens, and so we design all of our courses to be project based.
Some people were actually surprised when they heard this, but if you take a financial modeling course at +Acumen, you will actually be asked to build a financial model. If you want to learn about measuring social impact, yeah, you have to figure out your theory of change, either for your organization or for an organization that you admire, and we might ask you to go out and meet some customers, collect some data, to understand your social impact. If you want to learn human-centered design, let’s go do it.
Let’s talk about a team. Team Techsource! They were trying to figure out how might we provide access to healthier food options for people in need. In the human-centered design course that we’ve built with ideo.org, there are pre-crafted challenges like this in the course, that you can choose to work on. Over the course of nine weeks, Katherine, Aldo, and Max … They went out and researched this problem in their local community. They synthesized their insights, they ideated, and they actually prototyped.
Here’s what they did. They found out that the south side of Richmond, Virginia was a food desert, and what did that actually look like? They went out to the neighborhoods. They talked to grocers, to community members. They visited shops. They experienced shopping for themselves. They learned that there’s actually a ton of groceries in the neighborhood, but they just weren’t really well stocked with healthy, fresh food options. There were groceries that did carry them. They were the larger supermarkets, but you needed to travel out to those grocery stores. For most people, they didn’t have access to great transportation. They were often really busy, working multiple jobs, so making that extra trip is a hassle.
Because people were so used to consuming prepackaged foods, they actually didn’t fully have the confidence in cooking fresh foods and feeling like it would taste good. The team synthesized all these insights, and then they ideated and decided that they would prototype a take and cook popup shop at a bus stop for about $5. They spent a couple of evenings chopping up some vegetables and deciding how exactly they would run this prototype, and then they got out there at a bus stop, talking to customers. They found out that it would be really important to offer a bus transfer, so that if you got off the bus to pick up a meal, and you needed to get on again, it wouldn’t cost you anything.
People told them, “You say you’re selling us fresh food. How can I tell? I can’t see through that package,” so they went out and they did it again. Ultimately, Katherine, Aldo, and Max decided that this wasn’t necessarily a business that they could get into, but one they had learned a lot about the community in which they lived. They came to more greatly appreciate the challenges that people face on a day-to-day basis, and they clearly learned something about human-centered design, and that was the point.
When you have a project-based course, one other nice benefit is that, occasionally, teams actually go out there and create incredible social impact. Two professionals in New Zealand had taken the human-centered design course and found out that dental hygiene was a big problem in low-income communities in New Zealand, and so they actually came to the lean startup course next and said, “Hey, we want to start a social enterprise that provides dental care.”
They worked through the idea, and, with the help of some mentors, they eventually pivoted and said, “You know what? This is not a social enterprise, but it could be a great CSR program.” To their credit, Julie and Rosaline went out and talked to a lot of companies, and they got a program launched; 1500 people in New Zealand got access to free dental care through that one program.
Design for friction has great outcomes, but let me tell you. It’s a conscious decision. When we first started, the number one complaint about our courses was that it was too much work, right? This has to be a deliberate choice. We take feedback very seriously, and so we looked at assignments. We reviewed our course descriptions, to make sure that we were setting expectations appropriately for people. We lengthened the duration of our courses. We made all these changes, and then the feedback kept coming and coming. Finally, I said, “Hang on. We want these courses to actually be work, because we want people to learn something.” By the way, if you do the work, it actually says something about you. That clarity has been freeing, right? Because you’re going to get the complaints, but now we know what we exist to do, and so we’ve doubled down on actually making parts of our courses harder, because that part is important, and we pay more attention to the best students. It’s so easy to pick them out now. They’re the ones who are doing the work.
I’ve talked a bit about how we think about designing our course experience, and I want to talk a bit about how we think about our course content. One of the benefits of being within a larger nonprofit is that we are experiencing the problems of social change makers firsthand. We see how our social entrepreneurs are struggling with sales and marketing, with recruiting and maintaining talent, and we see how our fellows, the leaders that we’re training in the field, the types of leadership skills that they really need to do the work that they are doing.
Let’s not kid. Acumen is a nonprofit, with its own problems internally, and we get to experience that. When we build courses, we’re building them to actually help ourselves. We don’t want to build anything that we won’t use.
When I look at the problems across the Acumen ecosystem and the people that we’ve encountered, I think we see them coming in three levels. There’s problems of self, problems of self in the world, and problems of the world. Now, what we do at +Acumen, and I think what a lot of schools do, is we worry about that middle layer. We’re very good with that middle layer, problems of self in the world. What I mean by that is that’s the place where we give you a tool, like lean startup, like human-centered design, and we put it in your hands, and we say, “Hey, go out into the world and fix it.”
We love that, as human beings. It’s action oriented. It makes us feel useful, like we’re in control, but there are two other layers of problems that we’re not addressing, and we need to, because the more I look at some of the things that we are facing in this world, we need some methods to deal with ourselves a little bit more, and we need some better ways of understanding the big, broad world that is out there.
Let’s start a little bit with problems of the world. Our friends at the Omidyar Group told me a story about the Island of Turbaz (sp). They had a problem, because fish stocks were declining, and fishing was a major industry for them, and so an international development organization came in, and they took a look at it, and they said, “You know what? Coconut farming could also be a great viable economic activity.” They designed, with the government, an incentive program to transition people from fishing into coconut farming. They did a great job, beautifully designed program, very well implemented. Lots of fisherman became coconut farmers, and the fish stocks continued to decline.
What they hadn’t accounted for were the other invisible forces within the system. What was actually happening was that people were doing coconut farming, and they were doing really well. They were earning lots of money, so they didn’t have to work as much and had more free time. In that free time, they went fishing. Because they had more money, they bought better fishing equipment, and so they caught more fish, and that’s why the fishing stocks declined.
All around us, there are actually these invisible forces at play, and they’re all interrelated and connected to each other. The problems we face with climate change, with peace in the Middle East or with North Korea, and all the problems of poverty are mired in these complex systems, all right? Homelessness is not just a problem of getting people into a home. It’s more complicated than that. At +Acumen, we’ve started thinking about this, and we’ve made a start. We need to do more, but we have a systems practice course that helps people navigate those invisible forces in the world and understand them through the systems practice course. We need to do more.
Then there’s problems of self. Here, lots needs to get done, because, face it, when you work in the field of social change, you bring your baggage to the table, and other people are bringing their baggage to the table, and we need to find a way to work together. Often, not everybody shares the same point of view. How do we work with people, when they’re so different? How do we handle our emotions? These are really strong emotions. Emotions like anger, like fear, like disgust, right? What does it mean? How do we think about our own power and our own privilege? What about our identifies are important? Each of us, every single one of us, comes with our own inherently biased world views, just because of a product of where we’ve come from. Those are difficult forces to navigate, and there are actually lots of people who are doing great work there, but the insights and the approaches to deal with those issues have not been unlocked.
In our courses, we definitely insist on a lot of self-reflection throughout. Self-awareness is a really important skill for a social change maker. Again, here, we need to do more. Problems of self, problems of self in the world, and problems of the world … If any of you ever feel like you’re stuck in the middle layer, I suggest that you either go up a level and think about the systems that you’re in or maybe dig down a little and figure out how you might be able to show up differently.
Fourth, our funnel isn’t broken. This isn’t a funnel. Not all schools behave this way, but many schools I think, or actually the education system in general is thought up as a little bit of a funnel, right? You put a young child in, and then you hope they make it through 16 or 17 years, come out with a college degree, as a fully formed human being, and you put them out into the world. We’re sort of obsessed with the levels, of moving from one level to the next level to the next level, and with graduation rates, right?
Not everybody’s going to make it through that funnel, right? We’re obsessed with graduation rates, with completion rates. Naturally, at +Acumen, we get asked that question. What is your completion rate? Boy, do we track our completion rates. We track our completion rates for all of our courses, and we have more than 30 of them, and we track our completion rates across different runs of the same course, right? We do pretty well, better than the industry benchmarks.
What we’ve learned is that the longer and actually more difficult courses have a better completion rate. Fancy that, but completion rates don’t tell the whole story, because this isn’t a funnel, right? People aren’t … This isn’t a school where people are learning in straight lines. Life doesn’t work like that, right? Instead, thanks to Bailey and Kevin of People and Company, I like to think of our school as more of an orbit, where people can pop in and out, because life happens. We get emails and notes about this all the time.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t complete your course. Work just got too busy.” That’s fine.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t complete the course. The electricity in Haiti ran out again.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t complete your course. My son had a baby early, so now I’m a grandmother.”
Life happens, and we need to allow for that, right? You need to be able to come in and out of the experience. Secondly, there’s no one size fits all. People are coming to us with different levels of experience, different skillsets. You can’t expect everybody to start at point A and work all the way through to Z. If you … Depending on where you are in your organization, maybe you don’t need to actually know how to do human-centered design, right? All you need to do is understand that human-centered design is important. If that’s all you need, then module one will do, of our human-centered design course. You don’t have to go all the way.
If what you need is maybe to understand how human-centered design is applied in other social impact context, then maybe just make it to module two and stop there. That’s fine. Completion rates do not account for the learning that happens along a course, even if you haven’t completed it. I think of our model as a school as more of this, where people are coming in and out, but that has design implications for us. One is, you have to be there for a long time, right? You have to be in this work for a while. You can’t have people pop out, come back in; you’re not there. Two, instead of thinking of a funnel, where you’re trying to push people through to the very end, every interaction counts, and every interaction counts, because it’s a people to people interaction.
When someone comes to +Acumen, my mindset is not how do I get you to the next level? My mindset is what can I do to change you today? How can I touch you? How can I make you feel? How can I get you more excited about the work that you want to do? How can I give you a new insight into a problem that you’ve been struggling with or get you to just open up your mind to a new way of thinking, to new technologies that are out there, to exciting work that’s happening all around the world, right? You’re a person in this, and how do I treat you like one?
Finally, live with the uncertainty of “and.” I think this is a big one for the times in which we live. At Acumen, we talk about how we are not going to solve a lot of the problems that we’re seeing in the world today, because it feels like we’re so bifurcated. There’s this problem of “or.” Things are either for profit or purpose. There’s a division between rich and poor, private or public, but I don’t think it’s about figuring out which side is better, right? I don’t think we truly … No one truly believes these days that it’s actually enough to work in a terrible private sector business that is ruining the environment or taking advantage of people, making lots of money and then giving it away. No, that’s not a good model, nor do we believe that, hey, the work of social change is entirely that of the public sector or the nonprofit sector. We see private companies are able and willing to do good, as well.
We need to start to shift to a model of “and,” but that takes different mindsets, and that takes a different skill. Actually, we don’t know how to do this quite yet. We have a master class instructor. Her name’s Krista Tippett. She runs an incredible podcast called On Being. If you haven’t checked that out, I highly recommend it. She was talking … She talks to amazing thought leaders all around the world that are wrestling with difficult questions. When she was in our master class, she talked about how common ground is not the answer, which is actually counterintuitive. I want to share a little bit about what she says.
She says that “a hallmark of our age is actually vast open questions. That is our challenge. There are questions we’re not going to answer anytime soon. In fact, we are not asking the right questions yet to know what the right answers might be. Problem is that an open question is more uncomfortable to a human than a clear enemy. Give us someone to fight, and our human instincts kick in and we know what to do. Uncertainty makes us humans a little bit crazy. The problem is that we can’t call it for any side. We can’t have a debate on how to solve the environment and say, ‘Hey, this side, you’ve won.’ We can’t have a neat framework for our economic system. We can look at our hospitals and our schools and our prisons, and we know that they are broken. It’s nonsensical, some of the things that we do here, but it’s actually an open question about what that all actually means.
“This means that the only common ground … What common ground actually means is that we see that these things are not working, and we wade into that complexity together, in conversation and in discernment, rather than looking for an answer, because if we reach too quickly for answers, we will waste time. We will not walk into the generative and resilient possibilities.”
Now, this is a difficult proposition for a school. Many schools, at least in the schools that I went to, I was actually being trained to find the answer, right? That’s what you’re rewarded for. Find the answer. I think what Krista is actually saying here is that, no, it’s time for us to actually live the questions.
What does that mean for a school, because where people are coming to ask for the answers, we’re actually going to have to say, “Hey, guys, we don’t have the answers. You’ve got to sign up for a school where we don’t have the answers. Then we need to work together on figuring out what that actually means.”
Living the questions, I think, is a big lesson for us, and it’s something that we are excited about, as part of our future. We are starting to lay the groundwork for living those questions, first by finding the right people in community, people who are actually willing to do the work, people who are willing to actually think about themselves and how they might change in service of the world, and also people who are willing to wrestle with the big questions out there. They are people, who treat each other as people, and see ourselves as one big community.
This journey isn’t for everyone. We’ve designed it that way. If any of this seems exciting to you, I totally welcome you to join us. As you can see, my education as a social change maker is still continuing. If you come with us, I will walk with you, as we live those questions. Thank you.