Staying unstuck: 6 ways to create things in immovable environments
I was once tasked with setting up a country office for an NGO in Ethiopia. From scratch, I aimed to establish the physical, legal, and partnership base to drive years of impactful work.
Some things worked better than my wildest expectations: within 6 weeks we had found and secured an office, retrofitted a workshop, guesthouse and office, and hired a small staff. Some things were much harder: after a year we’d only slightly increased our long term partnerships, and it was taking us months to get supplies through customs.
I was a non-local amidst a set of slow-moving systems (Ethiopian bureaucracies, NGO timelines). I was never sure what initiative would move forward, and rarely had full control.
Maybe this is more of an intrapreneurship post than entrepreneurship one. But most of us in startupland, regardless of role or side of the table, are trying to create things from nothing and sometimes rely on other stakeholders to get shit done.
Here’s what I learned in Ethiopia:
1) Control what you can control.
If the ball’s in your court, and you can move something forward, then move it forward. Never be the slow link. In Ethiopia this meant jumping in the pickup, grabbing some cash, and getting out into the markets to buy beds, shelves, tables, equipment, and hundreds more things.
2) Nudge forward what you can’t directly control.
Balance between wallflower and supreme pain in the ass. Sometimes you can be a pain, like when a supplier isn’t delivering. Other times you can’t, like when waiting for a work visa for your staff. Find the right amount of pressure to move something forward as fast as it can go. And don’t stress yourself or exacerbate a situation by overpressuring it.
3) Identify and reduce mission-critical steps.
Figure out what the critical steps are, and do everything you can to get them done. Try hard to minimize the number of these. In Ethiopia, we needed government approval for our construction. There was no way around it.
4) Be flexible about path.
It helps to have several ways to get to to and end point. If A is blocked as a step, can B work instead?
5) Involve the minimum number of people necessary, in the right ways, at the right times.
Getting ideas, buy-in, and permission is often necessary. But think about how. And don’t include people who can’t add to or stop your plans.
6) Get forgiveness instead of permission.
Sometimes permission is necessary. But more often than we think, doing and then asking for forgiveness is possible. Selectively push your permission-forgiveness comfort zone.
Creating amidst immovable environments can be frustrating. But there are ways to work, while reducing your stress and frustration.
What other ways have you found to do this?