Elbow Wars with the Racist: the Potent Weapon of Diversity

Those who fly frequently will relate to that anxious moment at the start of a flight. Knowing that the success of the following day’s sleep-deprived meetings will largely depend on squeezing a few measly and uncomfortable hours doze between films, the nature of your seatmate is critical. I have been fortunate to sit next to some wonderful people on flights: the Ghanaian Minister of God who left me reflecting on my own spirituality; the  entrepreneur from Burundi who gave me some great ideas about improving the vaccine cold chain; the Thai chef who treated  me to one of the finest meals I ever ate at her Bangkok restaurant. To provide balance there have been some less positive experiences: a plethora of snorers and snorters; a smattering of alcohol indulging holiday-makers laughing the night away when us workers just want to sleep; the evangelic American, returning from Uganda, who really liked to talk.

But my fellow passengers have generally been good folk with any minor annoyances effectively overcome by the iPod volume button. So perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later I would encounter that seatmate from hell. And, as luck would have it, that seatmate came into my life on one of the longest flights I ever have to do: Johannesburg to London. Twelve hours. Non-stop. South African Airways.

Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela

It was three weeks ago, a couple of days before Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday. SAA had been handing around large birthday cards for passengers to write felicitations to the most loved man on the planet. I wrote something utterly unremarkable and passed it over to my neighbor commenting on my inability to find words worthy of that great man. Her retort floored me.

“There is no way I am signing his birthday card. That man screwed up my country and handed it over to the Blacks”.

I am not proud of my reaction: being British, and therefore with conflict avoidance embedded deep within my DNA, I turned away fuming on the inside and frustrated with myself for not knowing how to handle the situation. I eventually found solace through winning the elbow war and via the inflight film selection. Watching Happy Feet, a film about dancing penguins, provided some much needed calm (that is, until I remembered penguins are not quite as innocent as they seem).

Our Formative Years

My unpleasant encounter in the air got me thinking about how my seatmate’s upbringing would have differed to my own, and the immense value in diversity. There are many wonderful things about being British. The Olympic opening ceremony last week was a super insight into our unique blend of culture and self-depreciating humour (what other country can boast of Mr Bean, Shakespeare, the NHS, a perfectly formed sense of sarcasm and irony, an impenetrable indigenous language (Cockney rhyming slang – cup of rosie, anyone?), and a Queen now shown to be in possession of a delightful sense of humour?). But the bit of Brit I am most proud of is our diversity. London is home to representatives of every country on earth. I was fortunate to grow up in this diverse city and feel thankful for what that has done for my own outlook on life. And that appreciation of diversity has strongly influenced how I see the role of innovation in global development.

The Potency of Diversity

Scholars of innovation have long noted the importance of diversity: differing voices, viewpoints, skills, and experiences are essential factors in generating and critiquing new ideas. Failure to leverage the potent weapon of diversity can seriously limit an organisation’s ability to maintain its competitive edge. We need lively debate. We need to identity the next generation of big ideas. We need to be able to find talent in unusual places. In global development we are moderately good at recognizing the need for cultural diversity but far less good at harvesting ideas and solutions from diverse and unusual places. And what is certain is that the most innovative development programmes have sourced ideas from diverse sectors and delivered solutions through unusual alliances.

Diversity breeds Innovation

Back in 2005 I was working for AMREF, Africa’s largest health organization, and found myself searching for solutions to Kenya’s front-line health worker crisis. Put simply Kenya’s nurses were inadequately trained for the tasks they were expected to deliver. Some basic modelling indicated that up-skilling the 22,000 “basic” level nurses to “advanced” level could deliver great health outcomes but would take in excess of 100 years, given the limitations of Kenya’s physical training infrastructure. We played around with various iterations on an Open University model of distance learning but the figures were not stacking up. Then, as serendipity played her hand, I came across Matthew Edwards and Gib Bulloch, partners and progressive thinkers at Accenture, and learned about their market-leading eLearning division. And the seed of an idea was planted.

Kenya was a very different place in 2005. The mobile and internet revolution was yet to take off. mPesa was barely a glint in Safaricom’s eye. And skepticism remained about the usefulness or even applicability of technology in the development sector. So the prospect of using eLearning to train 22,000 largely IT-illiterate nurses, the majority of whom had no access to the internet nor even a computer, seemed like a non-starter. But with diversity comes confidence and the fledgling partnership between AMREF and Accenture believed that this idea had legs. The first step was to convince the Nursing Council of Kenya that we should give it a try. Accenture ran a two-day workshop, which succeeded in bringing the NCK from a point of utter doubt to one of real excitement, and gave me immense confidence about the potential of our idea.

So we had an idea, we had enthusiasm and we had three partners with very diverse sets of people, agendas and priorities. But we shared one objective: to do something transformational for Kenya’s healthcare system. And within the context of that common goal our diversity proved to be our success factor. From Accenture we received the rigour of the private sector, robust programme management and facilitation, and a cutting-edge top quality eLearning solution. From the NCK we gained expertise in curriculum design, inroads to the Ministry of Health and, critically, insight into how nurses think, work, live and aspire. AMREF brought progressive thinking, deep experience of African healthcare systems and innovative cross-sectoral ideas. Each partner brought teams  so passionate and smart they were a joy to work with.

From Divergence to Convergence

Did we hit challenges? Sure we did! Was the relationship rocky at times? Of course it was! Did we occasionally misalign? Naturally! Indeed recalling the baffled face of an Accenture colleague when a nurse asked why we were talking about mice makes me smile to this day.  But our divergent backgrounds became a point of convergence. The diversity of our ideas and views provided rich and vibrant debate within the partnership that challenged and motivated us to do more and do better every single day. Seven years later eLearning in Kenya is thriving: 145 centres across the country; thousands of nurses enrolled and learning; and exciting ambitions for international acceleration. Perhaps more significantly though it has provided an example of disruptive innovation within a relatively conservative health system. And that disruption would not have been possible were it not for the idea incubation made possible by our diversity.

The eLearning initiative in Kenya taught me a great deal about the need to respect and embrace divergent skills and experience.  Good ideas come from unusual places. Listening, hearing and learning are skills that make people good innovators. And we could all do better. The racist on my flight from Johannesburg had spent her life listening to a single viewpoint and it had made her a bitter, unhappy and thoroughly unpleasant human being. I am ashamed that I did not have the courage to try to change her mind. To return to the theme of this blog: this was an absolute personal failure. I should have looked her in the eye and challenged her. But at least I won the elbow war.

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One thought on “Elbow Wars with the Racist: the Potent Weapon of Diversity

  1. Reflective account of an unpleasant experience – I hope your elbow war victory gave her a VERY uncomfortable flight. Have just look up the AMREF / Accenture project – great idea.

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