Creating Change: The Suburb Analogy

After thinking about my work related to data analysis training and the work of my organization (EWB), I have come up with the following analogy. THE SUBURB ANALOGY describes two modes of getting to widespread change.

To build a suburb, filled with the same design of house, you can try two tactics:

  1. All at Once. Start construction of the whole project, say 100 houses, and phase each step separately  So, you would start the excavation of all of them, then pouring the basements, then the framing of the upper floors, and so on. This method means that once one trade is down, they move onto another house, while a different trades person continues behind them. A finished house only appears later, after most of the houses are at a stage somewhere between start and finish. This is the normal way a suburb progresses.
  2. One at a Time. Solely for argument’s sake, we could look at a house being build to completion before you move onto the next one. You would pick one location, build it from the ground up, hand it over, then move to house #2. This is extremely time intensive as it means workers leaving site to come back at a later time. But the beauty of this idea is that it means that you make sure the house is perfect (more or less) before starting the next one.

This is basically a general pair of ideas that can be applied to any system of widespread change. Whereby, a finished product or service needs to be done on a large scale.

The G&RI team of EWB is basically a group of government consultants, working at the most grassroots level of government: Regional, District, or Town Council.

 In my own work, I am trying to train officers in data entry and analysis. Without giving it a proper examination at the start, I easily fell into the trap of trying to teach “all at once”. I was trying to get all departments familiar with level 1 before moving to level 2. This was not the best methodology as it takes a lot of time to do 10 different workshops per level and it would take weeks to have one officer actually complete all the lessons I created. The other problem was that I would not know the success of my plan until the end, after a lot of invested time.

So, now I’m trying the “one at a time” approach. I will teach a few officers all the way up to completion, then help the others get to the same point. This helps me test out my lessons and see if it is actually worthwhile to spread.

Likewise, I feel that my team may benefit from the “one at a time” approach. We could go to a single district, stay a long time, and try to learn all the ins-and-outs. Just this summer, when the Junior Fellows (JFs) were scattered about Northern Ghana, G&RI learned new things about IGFs (Internally Generated Funds, or taxes), the district database, Area Councils, and information flow from constituents. This experiment would be risky, especially if the district chosen is slow moving or filled with conflicts, but it would be an interesting idea.

Both my work and my team’s is characterized by low staff numbers (less than 10 people at a time), so we must try things out before we can scale them. We find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the two ideas: fine-tuning before expansion OR learning while we grow. 

It sure would be nice to have more volunteers.

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