June 9, 2014

What We’ve Learned

In celebration of the launch of our new website, we’re taking a look back at Reboot’s three-and-a-half years of growth and change—and looking forward to our plans for the future. Last week, we kicked off with Our Story, the first post of a three-part series. This week, we’re outlining some of the most important lessons we’ve learned about what it takes to run an enterprise that’s able to balance mission and business.

So without further ado, here are five lessons we thought were worth sharing…

 

1. Values first. Always.

Every time a new opportunity comes across our desks, we use a matrix to decide whether or not to take it on. At the very top of our list of criteria is the client’s alignment with our values. It’s not just a Boolean ideological rule, e.g., “We don’t work with tobacco firms.” It’s a deep examination of whether our fundamental vision and approach to development and social justice aligns—not just with the organization as a whole—but with the specific counterpart team we’d be working with. It’s important that both parties bring complementary views and values to answering tough questions throughout the project, even if that means swimming against institutional and political pressures.

We apply similar thinking to the promises we’re willing to make to our clients and partners. If we can’t field the best possible team to try and tackle an initiative, we would rather pass on a project than bring anything other than our best.

Many exciting opportunities have unfortunately passed us by. But following these rules makes sure we keep our for-profit social-enterprise in line with our original values and goals. We have all seen firms grow to a size where they need to “feed the beast,” eventually having to take on undesirable projects in order to sustain the desired rate of growth. So we manage our pace closely, even as we grow ambitiously, to mitigate the risk of having to take on work that doesn’t align with our values.

 

2. Success takes humility.

As a people-first organization, we rely on an incredible team to solve tough challenges. We are unjustifiably lucky to have such brilliant, passionate staff dedicated to this work, and have seen time and again what factors are the most crucial to success. Skills and experiences matter, but we find that intangible qualities—psychographic, ethical, and personal—are often the factors that make or break a candidate’s ability to thrive in our environment. At the top of the list are humility and generosity.

Pursuing social change is challenging and rarely glamorous, especially as we eschew quick-fix solutions. Addressing corruption in a resource-poor, conflict-affected context, or advancing human rights and social cohesion in a newly democratic state—these things just don’t happen overnight. The work can be frustratingly slow.  Maintaining humility, putting others before self, and putting in the effort even when the results may not be realized in our lifetime—that’s what it takes to do this work well.

 

3. For best results, avoid labels.

We often get asked whether we’re a design firm, a management consultancy, or a social enterprise. But the best description we’ve found is: “Reboot is a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance.”

While it’s honest, it’s a bit wordy, so we understand when our colleagues offer other labels. We’ve  been called an “ICT4D firm,” an “open government shop,” and (our favorite) “a radical, anarchist collective for good governance” (this was from a client we deeply respect; we took it as a compliment).

The truth is that we very purposefully work in and draw practices from all of these fields and more, without subscribing to any single one. Our work is predicated on the idea that there is no single magic bullet that will solve social challenges rife with geographic and institutional politics. Identifying with a single field or school of thought is a kind of myopia.

We’ve adapted tools and approaches from various disciplines. While we have drawn perhaps most heavily from the practice of human-centered design, we recognize the limitations of traditional design practices, and our various projects have drawn in methodologies used in economics, public financial management, applied ethnography, journalism, and more.  We don’t believe in blueprint approaches, or applying global “best practices” from one context to another. Because we take an ethnographic approach to research and participatory design, our analysis and interventions are uniquely tailored to the contexts in which we’re working.

 

4. Entryism works.

We embed as deeply into our client and partner organizations as possible—an entryistic approach that has helped us address social issues at a scale and speed that would otherwise be highly challenging for an organization of our size. If we set out to build our own infrastructure and staff, our impact would be limited by the rate of our growth. Instead, we’ve been able to leverage the resources and minds of the world’s most influential organizations such as national governments, the World Bank, and the United Nations.

We also work hard to get executive buy-in throughout the process. As a result, we’ve continued to grow our collaborations with several clients over the years. We consider it part of our mission to  help our client counterparts influence dialogues within their own organizations about how governance and development work should be done. The type of access we’ve gained and relationships we’ve built with senior decision-makers would have been far more difficult had we worked as a grantee or outside advocate. Ensuring support from leadership also makes us and our work better; it forces us to fit our bright ideas through real-world constraints and increases the likelihood of sustained commitment to whatever we’re working on.

 

5. Never stop testing our model and assumptions.

Although we’ve had success with our model, we recognized from the start that this was just one approach. As a young organization, our capacities and experiences are constantly, growing. Thus, we believe that our model should also consistently be challenged, to make sure that it remains the right one for us.

For example, we set out to work with large institutions—namely, governments, multilateral development organizations, and international NGOs—because of their reach, resources, and influence, and what these factors meant for improving human development. While we’ve been happy with the results this approach has produced, we’ve begun to feel it is too limiting given the many other paths to achieving social progress.

To that end, since 2013 we’ve experimented with working with different kinds of organizations, including small non-profits, advocacy groups, philanthropic foundations and technology startups. In this work we’ve also trialed several different models of collaboration. Beyond our standard consulting model, we’ve made grants, provided pro-bono or in-kind services, worked as part of larger consortiums, taken on short-term targeted assignments, and served as mentors and trainers.

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Drawing from what we’ve learned, we’ve spent the last several months detailing out plans for Reboot’s next three years. We’ll share more about those in part three of this series.

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