The Most Powerful Puzzle Piece

I’ve never forgotten the opening line one of my lecturers at Sydney Uni gave to my class on the first day of our Masters of Development, over 14 years ago now:

‘The reason most development projects fail is that there’s an ASSUMED TRAJECTORY of development’.

When I heard it, it took me a while to roll it around my brain, but once it landed – it changed the entire approach I’ve taken to my work ever since.

He was basically saying that assuming a western model of ‘development’ was wreaking havoc in less-industrialised countries.

(Thankfully, the days of referring to large swathes of the planet as ‘third world’ was long gone by this stage).

That if a community or country wasn’t achieving the goals set for it by the west, and following in its exact footsteps, that it was often considered a failure or even a failed state. Instead of looking at what it actually needed to thrive and succeed in its own unique right.

These words influenced so much of my life from that point on.

My Masters thesis, my choice of employers/jobs, projects I worked on, how I designed and delivered them, how I taught my university students, how I approached working with communities, and how I facilitated training for countless humanitarian workers.

And it continues to influence my approach to coaching, guiding, and mentoring clients to this day.

Before this, I thought my years of study and extensive experience should have express authority.

I mean, I’d done the hard yards, hadn’t I? And I was being employed because of it!

But, my expertise, while important, was always only ever half the picture. (And hint, the same likely applies to YOU.)

I researched and wrote my entire Masters thesis trying to get to the bottom of which factors made a development project ‘successful’ (meaning that several years down the track, there was positive change, as observed by a monitoring & evaluation team and the community themselves.)

And it turns out, the other half of the picture is as important (and sometimes far more important).

What I found was that success depends upon:

– Initiation originating from the party that desires change (so nothing is ordered or imposed).

– Their willingness to co-create and drive it is present (it turns out no one is being dragged kicking and screaming into sustainable change).

In other words, wait for the invitation, create the right conditions – and allow them to take the lead.

And THIS is where deft expertise comes in because there is a lot of mastery in honing and crafting an approach and a toolkit of techniques, processes, and experiences that encourage brilliance to emerge for a client (or a community).

Because natural intelligence and high-level capacities are always there when the right conditions are.

Which takes time, experimentation, observation, and calibration to create.

It’s not all peak experiences and further cultivation of the guru complex to feed an ego.

A couple of times I’ve received criticism for taking this approach with clients – for not pushing harder or giving relentless direction, demanding performance, or requiring strict accountability.

But it’s just not how I work.

I will always take a strengths-based approach, and I will rest in my expertise when it comes to what I know it takes to cultivate truly sustainable change.

And sure, I could cajole people into short-term ‘results’ and puff myself up as having all the answers. But that’s not how true life-changing shifts happen. And I certainly don’t have all the answers.

You have pieces of the puzzle.

I have pieces of the puzzle.

And we need to bring all of those pieces to the table if we’re to ever revel in the beauty of the full picture.