The “Reversal”: How to launch innovations in new communities

February 5, 2019


In my experience as a social entrepreneur and based on what I’ve learned from engaging with other social entrepreneurs from around the world, I would conclude that there are three key strategies that make up the “secret sauce” of success. You have to know, respect and practice “The Costanza Rule”. We’ve covered this. The “reversal” can be extremely powerful when you are launching in new places and with new people. I’ll cover this here. And you need to search for and find “trim tabs” for systems change. I’ll cover that next week. You'll note that all three of these relate to counter intuitie thinking. I’ll use my work in developing world communities as the context, but these three success ingredients apply to my work at Ashoka in education and I would contend to any social entrepreneurial effort. Now for the “reversal”.


Two big questions that I am continually asked are, “How do you get started in a new community?” and “How do you get someone to “buy into” taking a chance as first time entrepreneur with a new social innovation?” These are great questions and the answers are obviously multifaceted with no standard Ikea-like furniture building instructions. However, let me share a strategy that I have found incredibly powerful in getting organizations and individuals to decide to hear you out and take a chance on engagement. This strategy is the “reversal”. Before moving on though let me be clear that his is simply an authentic way to foster engagement and is not a neat little trick. Authenticity always wins the day and if you are ever approaching community engagement with a thought that you are going to pull a rabbit out of a hat to win people over, you aren’t going to hear “Oooooh!” Be prepared for “Boooo!” Following is a bit of a primer on what a “reversal” is and how it can help get you going both when you are launching your efforts in new community and when you are presenting your social entrepreneurial opportunity to new entrepreneurs.


The “reversal”


This time of the year the movie “Love Actually” is in constant rotation. If you recall, there is a scene in the beginning of the movie where Colin Firth’s character comes home early to see his wife who it seemed had a bad cold. When he walks in the door he hears her yell out something like “Get back her big boy!” and then his partially disrobed brother walks in the room. What!? What just happened!? In “You’ve Got Mail” Meg Ryan is waiting for her mystery guy at the end and, “Oh my gosh!”, it’s Tom Hanks! What a wonderful unexpected surprise! Or what about the final scene in “The Sixth Sense”. Who knew!? Shocker! These are reversals.  Someone expects one thing to happen based on their experience and then something totally different happens. Surprise! There are reversals in likely every movie you’ve ever seen. Why? Because they work to get you engaged and keep you engaged. The unexpected makes us sit up in our chairs and pay attention. This is no less true in social entrepreneurship as it is for a plot device in movies. Obviously I am advocating for the Tom Hanks example here and not the naked brother one. And I am not just talking about non-profit work. This works in business as well.  I am not sure if Neil and Dave would agree, but I tend to think that the beautiful and authentic reversals that they have designed at Warby Parker are key ingredients to their tremendous success. “I get to try on five pairs of glasses at home with no cost!?” “I have someone who is accessible and truly interested in me when I go to a store!?” These are not normal experiences for customers. They go against what has been ingrained in our customer experience expectations. That’s why they work.


The “reversal” applied when launching in new communities


If you want to get up and going in a new community you can’t just walk in and say, “Here I am!” You need to get started by engaging with local community leaders, community groups and/or local organizations. The more the better. You need to find local partners who will want to work with you. How do you do this? About two weeks ago I was having a conversation with a woman researching our work in Haiti. We’ve certainly made our mistakes, and I’m probably responsible for most of them, but objectively our amazing team’s work in Haiti has been very successful. I digress a bit but I have to give a big shout out to Kim at Levi Strauss Foundation, Fares and Farid at IFC and Linda and formerly Aaron at Ashoka for making all of this possible. Getting back to the point, this researcher asked me this question about getting started.  Here is basically how I responded.


“When we first went to Ouanaminthe our team reached out to local schools, churches and non- profit organizations to set up meetings. I then went and met with a number of the leaders of these organizations. I briefly and hopefully humbly presented who we are and where we have expertise and experience. As I had learned previously, people in Haiti are accustomed to having NGO’s come in and tell them what they should be doing. I asked leaders what their priorities were. They are used to people showing up once or twice and then not showing up again. I said we were going to come back next week to get started. When things do get started they are used to people leaving after a short period of time.  I said we want to make a multi-year commitment if they were up for it. They are used to promises of massive projects. I said we wanted to start small and learn and co create with them. NGO’s more often than not are giving things away. I said we wanted to work to empower local entrepreneurs to start their own ventures. There can be a sense that they are being talked down to oftentimes. I worked to ensure that my body language and manner of speaking was the opposite of this.”


I went into greater detail but I think you get the picture. The result was that we were able to engage with three new partners in a manner of weeks and get started with pilot projects in short order. By simply working to understand what didn’t work in the past and presenting our approach in an unexpected and polar opposite way, leaders listened and decide to take a chance with us. And again, this wasn’t out of some playbook. It was and is simply the smart way to go about engaging with new partners in new communities. Doing the unexpected separates you from the crowd and inspires interest. And it makes the work a true joy as you build mutually respectful friendships quickly.


The “reversal” applied when starting social innovations with new entrepreneurs


The approach is no different when we are looking to inspire a woman, first-time entrepreneur to take a chance with us utilizing the MicroConsignment Model. Think about what people are used to oftentimes when we show up as foreigners with what we believe to be some great new idea to change lives. They are told what they should be doing. They are told how great this new thing is going to be for them. They are required to make some kind of a potentially costly financial commitment. And they are required to make a big time commitment. We work to do the reverse and express this in our first meeting with a group of women. We start by saying that we have an opportunity for them, but we only want them to do it if they see value in it. We tell them we are going to show up for the next several weeks to conduct capacity building sessions and that we would love it if they come back, but if they decide not to that’s totally fine from our perspective. We’ll just offer the opportunity to others if this is the case. We tell them we understand they have many other obligations in their lives and that if and when they do decide to work together with us, they can do it full time or part time. It’s up to them. And at any point they can quit if they want and there is no financial requirement as we are using a consignment mechanism. They just have to return their inventory. No harm, no foul. This is all typically very unexpected. This starts us off with the “right” relationship dynamic that ideally demonstrates trust, understanding and is dignified.  We certainly have a structure and there are requirements, however we design our engagement in a way that is the opposite of what they are often accustomed to experiencing. This has proven instrumental to any success that we have encountered. One key aspect of this as you can see is that we are not trying to convince. Convincing doesn’t work. Social entrepreneurship is about offering compelling and informed opportunities. The “knock on” benefit of taking this opportunity-focused approach is that it forces you to actually offer good opportunities. Go figure! The more you give people authentic opportunities to say “no”, the better you will be at designing social innovations that get them to “yes” or at least “maybe”. Looking for the “no’s” gets you to the “yes”.


To conclude, be unexpected. Do the unexpected. Take the time to truly understand the fears, uncertainties and doubts of potential partners and individuals when you seek to work in new communities and offer new social innovations. Learn about what hasn’t worked and do the opposite. Use the “reversal” to get people engaged. This might just make all the difference. Hope this helps.





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