The Art of ‘Humble Inquiry’

Humble Inquiry, by Edgar H. Schein, documents the type of communication that should be applied to various personal and professional relationships. Along with bu51vO3tAAbjLilding relationships, people need to start “asking questions to which they do not already know the answer”.

In many instances, those with power and status are reluctant to broadcast their need for information from their subordinates, even when doing so will lead to better results. In society, we routinely display basic humility for those people who are seen to deserve respect – royalty, bosses – and optional humility to those people we view as having accomplished something special – sports stars, musicians. In his book, Schein describes goes on to describe a third type of humility, called here-and-now humility, which is not based on social norms or recent success. Instead, this form of humility is situational and it based on what the person needs. For example, a CEO may need to rely on his executive team, or a coach may need to adjust his plan based on what the athletes tell him.

In one simple, yet effective, example, Schein takes use inside a surgical theater. Here, a four person team (with characters and relationships highlighted in the attached diagram) must work together to complete their combined goal. These four actors have to balance differences of gender, nationality, class, and professionalism while constantly providing information to one another so the operation is successful. The thing that Schein highlights which is unique is that although all three co-workers under Dr. Brown will show respect and humility to him and possibly each other, it is Dr. Brown who needs to show the most humility.

Why? Because, as senior surgeon and the one in charge, Dr. Brown requires information on the equipment, the anesthesia, the patient’s vital signs, and many other factors during the process. If he operates without an openness to receive criticism or a differing opinion, it means he may not receive important information. If his team does not receive feedback, they may feel that anything other than basic humility may run the risk of retaliation or loss of their position.


I find this book powerful as it describes a major problem facing international development. Similar to the example above, development work routinely involves people from different countries working together to reach a common goal. Some have long track records, while others have never traveled outside their home country. They bring with them all of their cultural upbringings.

All expats start off with a disadvantage. They need to learn the culture of the people they are working with. There are differences in language, religion, commerce, family dynamics, politics, and history. The people who are most knowledgeable about these subjects are the people who have lived there their whole lives.

Additionally, people coming to work for a few months or even a year to enact a project need to recognize that they might have the wrong answer. If they are humble and acknowledge their naïveté, they will be able to start the conversation from a better place. Local people know what works and what doesn’t. They have seen NGO’s come and seen NGO’s go. They can help development workers save so much time and effort, if only they were included in the conversation.

Going forward, I hope to use humble inquiry and an open mind when working in development.

I know I have much to learn. I will try to ask more than I tell.

Have you ever rushed to action, only to later find out you should have asked a question?

Have you ever wished you asked a question so that you were better prepared?


A New Chapter

The past two years have seen a complete change in my life´s focus. This came about from my first international experience, working with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Ghana at the end of 2012.

The next year – 2013 – say we go in and out of different project management jobs, as I stuggled out of an engineering-focus and more into a development-focus. I attempted to get a second international placement but did not succeed. I volunteered with a number of organizations, as a way to increase my understanding of poverty and global development work.

Luckily, 2014 will be much more promising and transformative in relation to my new work focus.

I will be living and working in Nicaragua during the month of May, in partnership with Project HOPE, an Edmonton-created initiative between Ceiba Assoication and MacEwan University. Myself, my co-team leader, and 11 students will be working on the repair of 6 classrooms in Esteli, as well as the construction of a multipurpose room with the dual ability to provide a space for teacher planning and student counciling.

When I return to Canada, I hope to set out new horizons that include more travel and work in other countries. Grad school is also my intention starting in September.

Stay tuned for more updates.


A Project Stuck in Neutral

During an eventful Friday, I went to the field to visit a GEM (Ghana Environmental Management) Project, or GEMP. This followed the Environmental Management subcommittee meeting the night before, where nearly all the government departments were present (Agric, Education, Health, NADMO, Fire Service, Environmental Health, and a man from the NGO PAPADEV).

The project concerns a nursery with various tree saplings that are to be grown inMankuma, and then sold to five pilot communities, creating revenue for one town and food production for the others. Thanks to the donors, these saplings will be subsidized. So, on the economic side, rather than the usual 2 cedi that might be paid by the community, it will be 1 or 1.5 cedi. The other rationale for this project is to encourage reforestation, as cutting down trees for charcoal is a major issue in several districts. The meeting saw an odd point, where they talked about taxing the illegal practise. Seems like some twisted logic.

Unfortunately, this proposed plan hasn’t happened yet. The meeting saw a lot of back and forth, but the main result is that meeting attendants would break up into groups and go to the different communities to get people on board.

Some of the trees have been planted, but due to quarrelling between the two men in charge of running the program, who are from different villages that make up Mankuma (found on either side of the main road), work has been put on hold. After visiting the site, which has plenty of brush lying around (a potential fire problem) and some trees planting within 3 or 4 feet of each other, we went into town to visit the two traditional authorities. It was the DPO, a chief from Bole area (Saala Wura), a representative from the Fire Service, and myself who went to the respective chief compounds to explain our concerns.

Turns out that the two men went for training in Tamale, but now aren’t talking to each other. Thus, the standstill. Thanks to some discussions with the 2 chiefs and their declarations that things will get done, the two men are suppose to get back to work and clean the site. The reason for this ultimatum to get things done by Monday, was that the donors – CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and EPA – were going to visit on the following Wednesday. They had plenty more saplings to donate, but need to see something optimistic before continuing with the project. It was very odd for me to see the DPO specifically introduce me as a Canadian in relation to the fact that it was a Canadian donor’s project. As if, I had any influence in the decision making.

After these meetings, we all returned back to the District Assembly and made our leave, but not before one more task. The DPO handed everyone their respective allowances for the two days: 10GHC for field visits and 15GHC sitting allowance for meetings.

I’ll need to check with DPO to see what the result from this week was. How well the site was cleaned up and if the donors will continue with the project.


First Week in Ghana

After an 11 hour plane flight to Accra and a 4 hour time zone change, my body’s normal sleep pattern sure did take a wallop. For the first week in country, I was involved in a lot of activities, including logistics, travel, and training for my placement.

I only stayed in Accra for 2 days (July 30-31) whereby I went on a scavenger hunt to experience the sights and sounds of the city and learn the local customs of Ghana. While at the market, I picked up some traditional African cloth (2 yards) that can be taken to a tailor to make a shirt and some small souvenirs. Thanks to the people I went there with, 2 staff from the guesthouse and 2 other Professional Fellows, I was able to experience the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean which was effortlessly tucked behind the market.

One amazing thing about Accra is the wide variety of shopping options. It has the big shopping malls common to most Westerners. But there is also a whole gambit of roadside vendors selling tons of amazing food. These are amazing examples of entrepreneurship in action.

One final form of retail, which it sometimes crazy, is the inter-traffic, car-to-car salesmen. These are people who walk through traffic carrying their goods (water, cell phone credits, electronics, bath essential, or anything else you may need) and sell through your car’s rolled down windows. It can be quite hectic when you combine the fact you may have to barter on the price and that traffic isn’t at a standstill forever, causing a lot of running on their part.

Next stop: Tamale. 

Bus company: STC. 

Duration: 13 hours.

Along the bus ride from Accra to Tamale, with a stop in Kumasi, I saw some amazing villages and the beauty of Ghana that I`ve been hearing for a long time. It was quite refreshing to get away from the traffic congestion of the big city and see what lies beyond.

I also experienced some cultural differences while on the road. Like the road side urinals (10 peswas) or toilets (30 peswas). Running water is sometimes a problem, so make sure to bring a bucket of water before you hit the john.

There is also a swarm of vendors trying to sell you food every time you stop in a community. Fish, fried yams, apples, ground nuts, and the ever important bagged water.

Note: the Ghana cedi is trading at approximately 2 GHC to 1 CAD. And their are 100 peswas per cedi.

To give you some context of my travels, I’ve included the map below of Ghana. It is colored coded by the 10 different government regions. These regions are further broken up into districts, totaling 212 overall. The bulk of my team’s work involves the Northern Region, so it is no surprise that the district I am slowly making my way to is located. Have a little bit of fun and try to find Bole – my final resting place.

Peace out.


Hopes, Fears, and Other Thoughts

Tomorrow is the day that I start a new path in my life – working in international development.

I will be working with the organisation Engineers without Borders in Ghana (a country along the southern coast of Western Africa) and will be assisting the Governance and Rural Infrastructure (G&RI) team for four and a half months. I will leave the technical descriptions of my work to latter posts.

But before I leave the Great White North, I will stay in Toronto for a few days, starting this Saturday, for my pre-departure training. I’m looking forward to some intense learning sessions, meeting my fellow Profession Fellow (PF) volunteers and all the great staff at the EWB National Office. It may become daunting, but the important things always are.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve grown considerably in preparation for this adventure. From my re-engagement of EWB, through the Edmonton City Chapter; to my swift application for the PF program in February; and continuing with months of Foundation Learning, mentorship meetings and early morning phone call overseas; I’ve slowly began to get my head around working in a foreign country in Africa and what my work will involve.

As a result of all this learning, I’ve had many assumptions changed and my eyes opened. Growing up in a farming background and then residing in the relatively small (in terms of population, anyways) city of Edmonton, I was content with going to Africa, living in an isolated town, sleeping under a tin-roof, and being exposed to a region in desperate need of assistance. This is the picture that many people have of Africa and it’s hard to blame them for thinking this way. There are far too many infomercials and fundraising events which focus their cameras on scenes like this. But this is the exceptions to the rule. The rule being a growing, bustling Africa, full of enthusiastic, hard-working people, no different from any Canadian you may have met. They have cities like us, are addicted to cell phones like us, and enjoy life like us. They are our distant neighbours.

Another presumption I had was the inevitability of getting sick, even having malaria. This was very short-sighted. With the proper attention to my surroundings and use of the correct medicine, it is entirely possible to end my placement in no worse shape than when I began. All you need to do is follow the Boy Scouts solemn motto: Be Prepared! Consequently, I’ve been receiving vaccinations for everything from yellow fever to HepA to rabies. I’ve got my malaria medicine, antibiotics, and a whole slew of other pharmaceuticals. All of these measures have eased my fears and hopefully keep me healthy. I will strive to stay vigilant to any dangers around me and hope not to get a false sense of security.

I’ve also been introduced with the challenges of working in a new society (Africa/Ghana), a new work environment (government), and a new lifestyle (dependent on others for information and help). These 3 areas will be my main areas of personal learning and growth over the next few months. I hope to expose myself to as many people as possible and learn as much as I can. I hope that I can bring some new ideas to the G&RI staff and leave a lasting impression on the people I interact with.

I hope that anyone reading this blog will muster the courage to challenge me. No matter how much I learn, I still have misconceptions and biases about the world around us.

So. Ask questions. Leave comments. Start a discussion outside the confines of the internetz. Leave no stone unturned and no mind unopened.

Well, I’m off.