The real work – day four of the social lab in Malawi

The main objective of the fourth and final day of the Rumphi Social Lab design workshop was the formation of micro-action teams to take forward seven ‘big ideas’ to improve development in Rumphi.  The teams did indeed form (and merge down to five), and lists of ‘key assumptions that must be true if we are to succeed’ were made. Over the next few days, each team will meet with us in ‘coaching sessions’ to agree on one micro-action to take over the next eight weeks to test their assumption. In eight weeks all the teams will gather again to share their experiences and decide on what further micro-actions to pursue.

So, we can say ‘mission accomplished’. The formal work of the Rumphi Social Lab design workshop is well and truly launched. But we say this with a sense of irony, as the real work of the lab is just beginning. In this blog post we want to highlight one way we are approaching this real work, which involves building a culture of inclusive team-based learning and action.

Remember, the Rumphi Social Lab is not a ‘project’. It is a process by which diverse members of the Rumphi community come together around inspiring ideas for change, and then together learn how to bring those ideas to life.

The project model in our heads dies hard. In the late morning, one participant rose to raise a question that could have derailed the lab completely: “As we go off and start to work in our teams, we are quickly going to come upon the need for resources. What resources are available to the teams?”

My heart was in my throat as Evan Bloom of Root Change answered, “I want us to remember that the Rumphi Social Lab is not a project. We now have these powerful ideas that you have come up with. The next task is to work together in our teams to plan how to realize these ideas. Then to take a first small step that we can take with the resources that each of us brings to the team. In so doing, we will demonstrate our commitment, and we will inspire others. If our idea is good. If our commitment and follow through is good. Then the resources will follow.”

There was much nodding and a resounding murmur of assent from across the room. Phew, I thought, people do get it!

Phew, I thought again, as this is what our data tell us. Yesterday we did an anonymous paper survey of participants. Overnight we analyzed the 54 responses, and we had just spent an hour presenting and discussing the survey results with the participants.

Our first slide, below, showed us who was in the room. The discussion brought us all to recognize the core value of our diversity.

I hope that the person who had asked the question about resources was one of the 11% in the next slide who said they did not fully understand the social lab idea. This slide provoked a lively discussion, particularly as to why the ‘community structures’ were less on board. In the Rumphi context these include Area Development Committees, Village Development Committees and Traditional Authorities, who retain significant power over land allocation.

The next slide may explain the 40% reservation expressed in the previous slide, as at day one we had set a core principle of the social lab of ‘radical equality’, of valuing all voices equally. The fact that we could not fully agree about whether we were making enough progress on our commitment to radical equality was recognized as a strength. As one participant put it: “This slide shows us the ‘big picture’. We have to accept it.”

Many in the room had never before seen data represented in this way. The ‘big picture’ was a fact. We were in fact diverse. In recognizing our many different points of view, we saw that we were forming stronger basis for common action. This notion – more implicit than explicit in the discussion of the survey – was validated in the final slide.

There was a heated discussion of this slide as some people were vocally unhappy about the reservations expressed by NGOs and Community Structures. In the end, we came to understand that every individual has her or his own reasons for indicating that maybe she would not be a part of a micro-action team. That these reasons could be completely valid. And that we should not judge them for this.

Most importantly for Rumphi Social Lab, there was a very strong expression of commitment; more than enough to proceed confidently. Still, one person noted, “We need to keep working to get everyone to join in!”

As we had our final round of reflections it was clear that something much more was going on than five very cool micro-actions to tackle the lack of social trust in Rumphi. Trust was building. New relationships were forming across the usual organization barricades. Friendships were being struck.

The final blog in this mini-series will share the experiences of dedicated coaching sessions for each of the teams as they define their micro-actions – all the steps required to test a key assumption of the team’s big idea. The entire Rumphi Social Lab will reconvene in eight weeks to share our experiences, learn what is working and what is not, and decide on follow on actions. Please stay tuned!

The Rumphi Social Lab is a collaboration of Youth And Society Malawi, Root Change, Keystone Accountability and USAID Local Works

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