Think small…change the world

Don’t kid yourself. Thinking that you can find new solutions is not only a matter of science. It’s a matter of faith. It’s not faith founded on belief without substance or experience.

But sometimes our experiences play tricks on us. We don’t see the real problems and the real solutions. We’ve been conditioned not to see that solutions do exist. We’ve been trained to play the game a certain way. We can only see the solutions that are “acceptable” or fit the “accepted wisdom”.

Someone once said that “for every difficult question there is a simple, direct answer. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”

I’ve found that to be so very true. As I work with process transformation using LEAN techniques, I’ve been struck by how many times the real, lasting solutions to tough problems are counter intuitive. They go against traditional wisdom.

I’ve learned that you have to balance these contradictions. I’ve learned to do things that seemed outrageous at first but really work. You have to slow down to speed up. I’ve learned that bigger isn’t better – that you can produce more efficiently in smaller units which are produced at the rate they are consumed. I’ve learned that you have to give up control to get a disciplined regulation of an organization. Sound like nonsense to you? That’s okay. I didn’t accept half of this stuff at first.

It took me a long time to realize that biggest impediment to problem solving is the way we stick to the things we “know” and rule out new and novel solutions. We do this even when our existing solutions are what is causing the problems.

What makes it more more insidious is that we don’t even realize what we are doing this until, for the lucky few, someone comes along and shows us that the emperor has no clothes.

The problems we face are large and important. If we merely show that our current wisdom is leading us off an abyss, we have not solved the problem. We’ve created another — hopelessness. When people fell hopeless and helpless, they simply go into denial. What we need is the faith and belief that there is a solution, if only we can see it.

How do you get people to try new solutions which their whole education and all general wisdom tell them are “pie in the sky” or “dreams” or will just plain never work? I said earlier that I’ve seen the results and now I have faith. But in our scientific and logical world, faith and belief is not enough. It’s rare that any of us have the position to bring a group or an organization along solely on the basis of faith. Real leaders can sometimes do this. It takes tremendous courage.

For the rest, we need to have some proof that if we let go of our current blinders, we can find solutions to even apparently insoluble problems. Only then do we stand a chance of helping others to rid themselves of the the baggage that is obscuring the solution from their view.

The proof is out there if you want to see it. I encountered that today. I’d like to share it with you.

I saw Bill Clinton speak today. If you ever want a perspective from someone who has seen and continues to see difficult, global problems — an ex president is the place to go.

I was so amazed as he spoke so frankly of the enormity of the problems that a president sees. Clinton was amazingly candid about his perception of the world’s problems and how all of it hit his desk in his years as president. It would be – it is – easy to be crushed by the sheer weight of it all. Global warming. Genocide. Poverty. Disease. Nuclear threats. And more.

I was a little bit crushed just hearing about it all. Especially since he spoke with such candor and with such knowledge about the details and the true complexity. Some politicians make it seem that all we have to do is follow their ideology and difficult problems will go away. I remember the Nancy Reagan line for solutions to the problems with drugs and addiction — “just say no”. Someone quipped to me that her solution for the problem of homelessness would be “just get a home”.

But it sounds like such “common sense”. Remember what I said? Every complex problem has a simple solution – unfortunately, it’s wrong.

So if you want a simple, ideological solution, Clinton isn’t the speaker for you. Folksy at times, yes. But he gives us more of what I’d refer to as “complex sense”. He respects the audience enough to give them a bigger picture. No easy solutions.

No surprisingly, he talked about global warming. He pointed out that although its received very little attention, scientists are increasingly pessimistic about global warming. Where the general wisdom was that we were facing a 4 degree increase in average temperature by the end of the century, many scientists believe that we may face more than twice that – a 9 degree increase. (Farenheit) That would result in global catastrophe and a reshaping of our societies and human habitation patterns. At a minimum, our coastlines will no longer exist the way they do today. We’re not talking only about threats to low lying cities like New Orleans, or some of the islands in the world that will simply disappear. We are talking about coast lines that will be moved back, eliminating huge areas of land that will be under water. A global catastrophe equal to anything you’ve seen in one of these blockbuster disaster epics.

From there Clinton went on to talk about international conflicts. He spoke with knowledge and absolute authenticity. At one point he shared a poignant, moving confession. He felt that he could have saved hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in the genocide that went on when he was president. He pointed out as a fact, not as an excuse, that his people were blind to the problem. How does the world’s greatest intelligence gather system miss the genocide that affected close to a million people? It didn’t fit their way of seeing problems. It fell into their blinders.

All of that data, all of that information coming in. Everyone so into “group think” that they couldn’t see the problem emerging? No. I don’t believe it. I believe that the information came forward and that someone in the chain of command decided it wasn’t important. And when that happened, there wasn’t enough openness, enough leadership or enough organizational courage to challenge that sort of thinking. Hundreds of thousands of people died.

Clinton practically had me in tears. He refused to push the blame to someone else. He simply said that he’d have to live with that mistake for the rest of his life. Wow.

But if that had been all he did, I would have walked out of that room depressed. Instead, I left feeling elated. He didn’t simply rub our face in the hopelessness of global problems. He gave us some practical advice with the same power and authenticity that he conveyed in defining the problems.

He urged us not to get caught up in what defeats politicians. He said that the problem with politics is the way that they posed the questions. Politicians, he said, focus on asking “what?” and “by when?” They should be asking “how?”.

I think what he was trying to say is that when we ask the wrong questions, we can easily blind ourselves to real and creative solutions. When you are tackling a difficult problem, you have to be very careful in how you phrase the question. Each question, to some degree or other, restricts its own answer.

Then without really realizing it we are not in search of a solution, we are playing the game of admiring the problem. A game with a predictable ending. We start with optimism and end at the insurmountable problem that has defeated those before us and will now defeat us as well.

Given this repeated pattern, we can all be forgiven sometimes if we despair. How can one little person can make any real difference in this world? When someone who has been the most powerful person on the planet confesses that they have felt frustrated and powerless, it makes it even more believable.

It would be easy to throw up your hands in defeat. You could believe that the individual is dwarfed by global politics, international business, global geopolitical realities — and in the face of that, we are truly powerless.

Bill Clinton doesn’t accept that.

And bless him, he gave us some answers which proved that individuals can make a real difference – if they choose to change the game.

He gave a number of examples, but here’s one that spoke to me in particular.

We could easily say that poverty is impossible to address. We already give enormous amounts but its never enough. Is there any way to truly help people? In the midst of this never ending demand, can we really make any difference at all?

It turns out that we can – and many do. Clinton talked about a modern miracle called micro-lending. For those who don’t know about it, micro-lending focuses on loans to those who banks would never loan money to – individuals in poor regions, those in poverty, those with no assets to secure the loans.

Instead of lending massive amounts of money or aid, micro-lending lends what for us might be small or trivial amounts. But for those who receive the loan, that money is far from trivial. For them, it is the way of fulfilling a dream. lifting themselves out of poverty or changing the face of an entire community.

The classic wisdom that you need huge programs, massive amounts of money, that we need to send large contingents, that it takes organizations like the world bank to go in and tell these people how to run their economy — it turns out that this is nonsense. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a lot of cases where these macro solutions actually worked their way down to the average person on the street in terms of benefits.

Micro-lending, on the other hand has incredible and measurable results. It delivers effective solutions directly to those affected. It’s not us swooping in to help some poor unfortunate. It’s about enabling them to find their own solution.

According to Wikipedia, it’s not a new idea. It’s been around since the 18th century when Jonathan Swift inspired the Irish Load Funds. It gained world attention since the 1970’s when it was tried by organizations in Bangladesh. For those who don’t go that far back, Bangladesh was the “poster child” for poverty, with starving people, distended bellies and pencil thin limbs. The “mega solutions” were tried. Rock concerts were held. Charities showed awful pictures of starving children and brought in millions.

I don’t know how much of that (if anything) really worked. I know that people give millions and millions. How much really reaches those in need? I don’t know.

I do know that micro-lending gets right to the people in need. Why? Because you can see it directly. The money that you donate turns up in terms of loans to real people. You can see it.

I also know that in 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameem Bank for their work in developing micro-lending and in particular, focusing that on the development of Low Cost Housing.

Micro-lending works. You can prove it with hard, unbeatable facts. For one thing, the default rate is close to 0. Yes. Zero. Nada. Nothing. It’s incredible. These loans to the poorest and most disadvantaged are far, far more secure than say a load to individuals or even large companies. I’ll bet GMs bondholders would like to have place their money where it had a zero default. It’s not just a tribute to the their honest. The money truly has a return in terms of their standard of living. They can afford to pay it back.

This is not charity. These people and the small businesses that are recipients of loans pay back the principle, often with a fair although not crippling, interest rate.

A marvelous thing happens when you empower people to succeed and have high expectations of them. I saw the power of local business first hand when I worked for a wonderful guy named Jim Gowans in what was then Inco’s Indonesian mining operation. I’m not an apologist for big business. I’m talking about this leader and his team. I remember Jim Gowans focusing on local business. He pushed his staff to learn the local language. He expect the company to provide support for local businesses with its purchasing power. But he did it as a business person. If there were local businesses that could do things profitably and sustainably, he wanted to see us move heaven and earth to support them.

It wasn’t charity. It was responsible business.

Micro-lending is the same.

I’ve long been fascinated by micro-lending. To be able to do it is one of my dreams. I’ve often thought that if our business ever really took off, or if we won the lottery, that’s how I’d use that money. I dreamed of being able to one day be able to make a difference.

But I’m not the president of a huge business with millions of dollars of budget to allocate. We do well but we don’t have hundred of thousands or millions. And I haven’t won the lottery yet.

I was thinking about “what” and “by when”.

Clinton shook that apart. “Did you know,” he said, in that folksy Arkansas manner, “of a group called You can be a micro-lender with as little as $25.00.”

He spelled it out clearly for us and challenged us all. You don’t have to be a millionaire or a former president. None of us can solve the entire problem. No solution is perfect. But if we all do something, the power is enormous. He pointed out that Obama’s average donor gave approximately 50 dollars. Many were poor. In the end, the Obama campaign was a juggernaut, with more than enough money to finance a great campaign.

What if we could harness that force to fund micro-lending? It turns out that we can.

I got home and checked and he was right. Kiva is a micro lender that allows an individual with as little as $25.00 to be a micro lender. You put the money in, you select the project, you get to monitor it. You pool with other individuals to create larger loans, just like banks syndicate to fund loans of a large size for them. It’s not a charity. It gets paid back and you can put it back to use again and again and again.

You can see the pictures of the people who you help. You can hear their stories. You can have a direct impact on their life.

It struck me how imaginative this business model is. It is truly a creation of the web. It adopts the networking capability, the peer to peer approach, viral marketing disciplines and leverages a web site to manage it all.

Yet there is nothing extraordinary about the technology. Nothing I could see in terms of function that couldn’t be built for next to nothing. You might even find open source programs to do most of it.

The technology is not astounding. The creativity is. A global problem. But one person can make a difference. They changed the game.

I’m sold. I’m in. I’m going to become a micro-lender. I urge you all to do it. Let me know if you do. Tell me how it works out.

So my thanks to Bill Clinton. He gave me an amazing example of technology and of social networking using a new business model. He shattered the common wisdom that one person can’t really make a difference. He showed me someone who had really changed the game.

Score one for the good guys. That was a gift for my soul.

He also left me with a business lesson These people have tackled a intractable world problem that has defeated huge governments, large organizations and others with way more resources than any of us will ever have. They did it with the same tools that are available to all of us. Our company could have built their solution on a shoe string.

But by simply changing the business model to leverage the power of technology, people and process in new ways — they issued a challenge to us all. The next time you want to complain about the recession, or your lack of resources or of how the problems you have are insoluble, it may be time to step back. Stop asking “what” and “by when” and start thinking of “how” — how you can change the game.

You can. And if you do, let me know what you did. Please. I am really interested.

So I got real value from my ticket. I learned how I could fulfil a dream and do some real good in the world. I also took away a lesson about how you can beat the world if you are willing to step away from the same old, same old and really take a creative look at solving your problems.

I got million dollar consulting advice. I’ve passed it on to you for free. Don’t thank me or pay me yet. Go and become a micro-lender for $25.00 Help some other entrepreneur. Because no matter how tight your business is, you can find that amount. It’s worth it to get the answer to so many big problems…

If you want to solve a big problem, think small. Change the game.

Thanks, Bill.

As always, I’m interested in your comments and issues.

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Filed under Change, Lean, Social Media, Social Networking, Strategy

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