Toolification: My personal journey in shaping the way we do business support at SEED
[Read the White Paper on Toolification accompanying this post here: From imposing solutions to building resilient organisations: Using the 4 shifts of Toolification towards next-generation business development support]
My journey with SEED and providing one-on-one business support for eco-inclusive enterprises started in 2009. I worked with enterprises from Kenya and Ghana on their business plans, which at the time seemed to be already quite advanced. Given the maturity of their business plans, I assumed that the people behind those enterprises had a clear idea of where they wanted to go with their businesses and that they had done a robust market and financial analysis.
However, I understood quite quickly that their business plans were not written by themselves, but rather by an external consultant who had put a very detailed and professional business plan together. In the month after, I came across similar situations multiple times, which encouraged me in my understanding that the support we provide at SEED should be different to have a lasting impact. Since working at SEED, I have had the opportunity to provide one-on-one business support to more than 30 enterprises, review more than 200 business plans and facilitate more than 40 larger group workshops with more than 300 eco-inclusive enterprises from around the globe. I have enjoyed every day working with them. These are some of my personal reflections on my experience and the way we do business support at SEED, what we also call “toolification.”
Step 1: Mind shift—Tool facilitation
Building a relationship from scratch with an enterprise team or leader is not always easy. Creating a level of trust and shared understanding between an outsider and enterprise leader or team is indeed not easy. However, having worked for many years before as a journalist helped me to quickly understand that asking questions is much more powerful than giving people the feeling that you know the right answer. I almost immediately began to follow an approach which I summarised at the beginning of each enterprise engagement: “I am here to ask questions. I don’t know anything.
The only thing I might know is to ask the right questions so you can find the right answers yourself.” When listening to these words, many enterprise teams immediately felt empowered, clarifying my role as their companion or facilitator. However, to substantiate this claim, it was equally important to also clarify their new role as actors—not participants.
Asking questions is much more powerful than giving people the feeling that you know the right answer.
Step 2: Role shift—Actors, not participants
Once enterprise participants understand that the claim is real and that the shift is upon them, the real work starts and empowerment can begin. Providing each enterprise team member or participant with an active role in a workshop and business support process is key to seeing the shift in action. When seeing this shift in action, I was often struck by the disruptive ideas, new perspectives and unforeseen dynamics which emerged in the teams or groups I worked with.
By noticing the emerging “can-do” atmosphere and the attitude shift with the people involved, it became clear to me that this approach had the potential to create significant impact. In those moments, I understood that people prefer to implement ideas they develop themselves. I understood that with this approach, we create ownership—and that people come up with true out-of-the-box ideas themselves through being asked the right questions. At this moment in time, I was in a position to do this because we already had started to redesign processes and contents.
Step 3: Process shift—User-centred and modular
Having worked more for a decade in sustainability, I was very familiar with systemic thinking and people-centred methods, such as stakeholder dialogues and action learning. Designing dialogue and learning processes in a modular manner around a big picture often sparked best-in-class ideas integrating multiple perspectives from different people. When I started to work in business development support, I came across the business model canvas and design-thinking methods, which triggered me into thinking about how we could redesign and rearrange business support at SEED.
With these ideas in mind, we started to develop several modular toolkits framing the overall enterprise support process. Those user-centred toolkits allowed for both a common language and visual framing, while at the same time being modular and tailored to the individual needs of each enterprise. This process shift allowed us to deliver a customised business support package that takes into account the different stages and demands of each enterprise. It allowed us to look at similar key business issues from different perspectives. It allowed us to look at issues handpicked by each enterprise while delivering outcomes that are comparable by using a shared language. With this shift in process, we had achieved what we desired, but it was clear that the materials and contents we used would also need to follow a special set of principles.
Step 4: Content shift—Tools, Tools, Tools
Based on my work experience in communications and journalism, it was clear to me that the concepts and materials we want to use need to be simple, visual and tangible. Reading business literature, I learned that each 500-page book can be easily summarised with a one-page visual framework using matrices, maps, diagrams or process charts. With this understanding, we started to simplify complex theories, for example summarising the lean start-up in four easy steps.
We cleared out overloaded value-chain consulting frameworks and visualised them all on a one-page canvas. We heavily reduced the amount of theory in concepts like marketing, innovation, impact measurement and finance, making it understood for people without an MBA. In different settings and teams, we developed almost 10 toolkits with about 100 tools for eco-inclusive enterprises. Having had this rich experience working with multiple people on different topics and toolkits, I know now that each and every topic in the world can be summarised in a couple of steps using visual language. It also became clear to me that a lot of other organisations think in a similar direction and that toolification is indeed a promising new way to provide enterprise support.
Every topic in the world can be summarised in a couple of steps using visual language.
Step 5: What’s next?
In the last two years, we’ve worked with many like-minded organisations, such as the Inclusive Business Accelerator, the Siemens Stiftung, Hivos People and the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, on toolkits for eco-inclusive enterprises. We feel that many organisations feel the need for an overall shift in the way we do business support. In several tool development and training sessions with business support providers from across Africa, we were thrilled to see that the topic of toolification is indeed being taken up and that the mind, role, process and content shift is already underway. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from enterprises and support providers on our toolified business support offering has convinced us about the impact potential of toolification. We would, therefore, like to engage with a larger set of actors to explore how toolification can be helpful in the way business support is done.
Are you curious to learn more about toolification? Do you want to join us on our journey around a new way of providing business development support? Please feel free to get in touch and read our White Paper From imposing solutions to building resilient organisations: Using the 4 shifts of Toolification towards next-generation business development support.