A Four Step Plan For When Life Sends You On A Detour

When 2013 dawned, we had one mega plan for Appropriate IT (AI). We had successfully tested our curriculum and established demand for a radically different type of corporate training in India. All that was left was to launch the first physical center for Appropriate IT Development Academy in Coimbatore, India by the end of 2013.

Forest scene (cc) Remi Longva

Forest scene (cc)
Remi Longva

The last quarter of 2013 did indeed witness a launch. However, it was not the Academy. It was Appropriate IT Innovation Lab’s first product – an open source platform for crowdsourced monitoring, citizen engagement, and social accountability. The first project utilizing this product was Citizen Action Platform (CAP), an anti-corruption effort to bring accountability into health care service delivery in Apac district in Uganda. It is a combined effort of three organizations – Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF) in Washington DC, USA; Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU) in Kampala, Uganda; and Appropriate IT (AI) in Chennai, India. (and if I may give the climax away: AI has become richer at the end of it all. Literally and metaphorically speaking.)

How did we go from Development Academy in Coimbatore, India to an Innovation Lab project in Apac, Uganda? Here is the story of how it happened. Since I am feeling a bit philosophical when I look back on the past year, this blog post is going to sound a bit zen-ish. If that is not your cup of tea, stop here and click away to buzzfeed. Right now. ;-)

(for reference: Appropriate IT = AI; Development Academy = Academy; Innovation Lab = Lab)

1. Take the Detour

We were busy dreaming up a big launch for the Academy, when a concept note that I had written many, many months before for PTF suddenly came to life. The concept was a crowdsourcing platform with a difference – a built-in verification/validation mechanism, strong privacy/encryption, and a feedback loop. These were critical factors missing or weak in many existing ICT4D (information & communication technology for development) projects. When PTF informed us that the concept we presented at the International Anti-Corruption Coalition (IACC) in Brasilia had found backers, we were faced with a choice.

The original plan was to focus on the Academy for a 2-3 year period and once it was established, get to experimental projects for the Lab. Now, life was presenting a detour. As a small company, we did not have the resources to handle two mega projects in 2013. So, should we focus our energies on the Lab and move the Academy to the backburner? We had put our hearts into the original plan, but then again, our hearts were in developing the new concept as well.

After much consideration, we decided to take the detour life had thrown at us. This then leads us to the next step…

2. Enjoy the Scenery

The decision to take the detour was easy. However, it was hard, especially initially, to really put the Academy aside. So, while I had made that decision, I was also trying to circumvent it as much as possible by trying to ride two horses at the same time for as long as possible. Thankfully, I realized the folly of it soon enough. Or, at least soon enough to avoid an inevitable crash and burn that came tantalizingly close (it is a whole other story that will be told at another time).

The issue with taking detours/forks in the road is that there is always the temptation to look back. This constant look over the shoulders means one is not really focusing on what is in front of one’s face. The Lab was taking on a new project that was filled with a lot of exciting ideas, learning, successes, failures, partnerships, and opportunities. There is material enough to write a book in there, as you will see in blog posts that will trickle out over the next few months. If we had dispersed our limited energies and focus, we would not have gained as much. More importantly, we would have done a great disservice to both projects. So don’t over commit. Be present, and enjoy the scenery.

3. Relish the Journey

Once #2 became true, the entire journey took on a different hue. We had done technology trainings for activists in North Africa before, but this was our first project in East Africa. It was a region with its own set of challenges (just so we are clear, no region of the world is exempt from challenges) and was also brimming with excitement and energy, especially since information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly mobile phones, have opened up new vistas. Here was the opportunity to utilize ICTs to empower citizens and civil society organizations solve some of those challenges.

Since we were focusing all our attention on this project, we had the time to labor over workflows, user interfaces, and visual design until we got as close to perfection as possible. We took on as many technical challenges as we could, for instance, this was the first fully responsive site we have built and a beautiful one at that. Everything, including real-time visualizations, maps, tables, and graphs, display beautifully on all screen sizes, whether it is laptop, tablet, or smartphone. I could go on and on, but will stop since that runs the risk of becoming a parent who has shown one too many baby pictures. :)

4. Journey is the Goal

It is very tempting to talk about the goals we are moving towards. However, that undermines the pleasure and purpose of the journey itself.

Coincidentally (or maybe as part of some unknowable universal design), I was in THNK, an 18 month creative leadership program in Amsterdam at around the same time. The vital part of the program was the executive coaching (thanks Robert :)), serious playing (thanks Lieselotte), and mentoring/learning (thanks Menno, Bas, Rajiv, BJ, & Judith) that made us realize life’s major transitions are just huge opportunities in disguise. So, we were well-positioned to enjoy every moment of it. (side note: if you are looking for an awesome, way-beyond-executive-MBA type leadership learning experience, you should seriously consider THNK’s upcoming programs).

The journey has strengthened both the Academy and Lab. For one, the inter-connectivity between the two became clearer. More importantly, AI has an exciting new product (name and other details coming soon). A tool, judging from the reactions of the few who have previewed it, that has a lot of potential and therefore can become another revenue source. Add this to our previously identified revenue source – corporate trainings – and AI has become richer at the end of it all. Literally and metaphorically speaking.

So, that is our new road map for the future. Or rather, the four step plan for when life sends us on a detour, like it does so very often.

It is not that we have found all our answers and surmounted all barriers. The journey will go on. As Emerson said “to finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” We have lived a few good hours and are looking forward to a few more.

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Categories: africa, appropriate it, featured, innovation lab

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