One of my favorite parts of my job is working directly with social entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world. As Managing Director of the Center for Social Impact Strategy, my job is to train and connect people who want to make a positive social impact in their communities. Over the last decade, I’ve had the honor of listening to, coaching and supporting hundreds of people who want transform an idea into positive social impact, take a creative leap, start a social venture, or improve an idea they’ve been working on.
When this positive momentum exists around the individual and the idea, I’ve identified two themes that come up time and time again: The first is the need to develop oneself as a social innovator, leader, or person who connects passion to purpose. The second is the need to translate those intentions in a way that is faithful to the passion, purpose, and the realities of the external world. Both are important, distinct, and deserve introspection.
I’ve honed in on five questions that help me to get a better understanding of these individuals’ ideas, the connection to their personal purpose, and the vision they are aiming for. More importantly, this process helps get them ”unstuck” by getting the ideas out of their heads and creating space to give voice to what matters most — their core values, their hopes and dreams, and the current realities they wish to change for good.
Here’s what I suggest: Get a friend interview you, or just take out something to write with and ask yourself these questions. I’ve also included resources and tips that will help you get your creative juices flowing.
1. What outcome do you want to achieve?
First and foremost, you want to establish focus and understand the “what” behind your idea. With so many issues and challenges in our communities and world, it’s so important that you take the step back and determine what you actually want to accomplish in your work and how might you go about measuring it.
Activity: Take some time to work through the questions in this 24-page guided questionnaire from the Hive Global Leaders Program. I’ve done this exercise individually and with colleagues each year for the past three years. Each time, it helps me clear out the noise and establish both personal and professional focus.
2. What is your “Why?”
Once you’ve determined your outcomes, you need to really hone in on your “why.” There is usually a powerful personal, emotional, and/or rational purpose or passion that is the driving force behind the outcomes you’d like to achieve. This will be crucial to you as you build out, develop, and scale your impact idea, as well as in getting others on board in support of your mission.
It will also help you understand if the reason why you’re doing the work you’re doing is personal or purpose-driven. A mentor once reminded me, “Treat people they way they need to be loved, not the way you need to be loved.” If it’s personal, that’s wonderful, but it’s important that you take time to dig deeper into the experience of those living the challenge that you’re hoping to address, and build an understanding of the needs of the beneficiaries.
Activity: Watch Watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk “Start with Why.” He breaks down the process of going from inspiration into action in this 18-minute talk. By articulating and understanding my personal why, I’ve been able to incorporate this vision in every meeting or interaction I have with people I want to engage. Sharing your “why” is a powerful way to get others excited about your idea, too.
3. What gets you into “flow”?
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes in his book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, about flow, a state of consciousness when people are genuine satisfied and are completely absorbed in one activity. In these moments, people feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
Remember how you feel when you’re ”in flow” — when are you most creative, in community, and have a sense of belonging. Your time and attention is your most valuable resource, and only you can control it. Therefore, you need to make sure you can and will dedicate your time to your idea and its growth in order for it to be sustainable. By being able to get into flow with this idea or project, you’ll also encourage yourself to slow down and enjoy the process. Being in a hurry to do more can undermine your purpose.
Activity: Create a list of 10 to-do’s and not-to-do’s for the next month. By visualizing things that are sucking up your time that you do not enjoy, you’ll be able to create create space for the things that you want to be doing. I like to get an “accountability partner” to help me hold myself accountable to these lists each month.
4. What is the challenge you’re addressing, and with whom?
The next step is to understand the needs you’ll be addressing. Set aside your assumptions, and open yourself up to hear insights in unexpected places and gather information from the people affected by the issue. At this stage, it is imperative to reorient away from thinking about the communities we care about from a deficit perspective. The process of understanding the communities we care about is an ongoing, in-depth process. These insights, in turn, help orient our ideas toward appropriate interventions that also draw broad participation from the communities we care about.
Activity: Dive into design research and learn about the problem from the perspective of the people who are experiencing it. Use free resources from IDEO’s Design Kit, including the following:
- Immerse yourself and observe how people are interacting with the issue today
- Conduct One-on-one interviews
- Do an Expert Interview
- Facilitate a group interview
- Look through the University of Pennsylvania’s sample script template
- Review guidelines on qualitative interviewing from Harvard’s sociology department
5. Who else is doing similar work and what is their value proposition?
If you are at the early stages of coming up with an idea, you’re probably eager to get started. But first, you need to think through the existing landscape: is anyone else already working something similar that you can collaborate with? Or is someone else already addressing the issue? Take the time to do this research and understand the players in the existing eco-system. You will find that your work is only one piece of the puzzle, and that identifying community assets and potential partners can complement and amplify your work. Seek alignment in values and purpose with potential partners and allies who can potentially help you achieve your goal. You’ll be surprised at how people will be willing to support you.
Activity: One adapted framework we use in the Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy’s Community and Collaboration course taught by Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson is the Check Your Baggage exercise. This exercise helps our students build awareness of the preconceived notions that they may have about a community, the source of those notions, and how that may impact their work.
Another helpful tool I love to use is Ask Wonder, a research platform that will help you generate insights, identify organizations, and map existing resources with the help of efficient experts in as little as 24 hours. It will save you time, and come up with ideas to challenge your thinking and generate new collaborations, and it’s affordable, too.
6. What might prevent you and the idea from succeeding?
On a personal level, figure out what you fear, and what’s holding you back. Addressing these problems head on will save you a lot of time and stress. Figuring out how to remove these barriers is not something you can learn from a book, but it can absolutely be done. List out the roadblocks you are anticipating for your specific the idea or venture. Imagine that it’s a year from now, and the venture has completely fallen apart. What happened? Analyze all the reasons why it didn’t work. This is a method is called “the pre-mortem,” a powerful exercise developed by Psychologist Gary Klein.
Activity: Take 20 minutes and explain what went wrong. What are all the worst-case scenarios? What are all the roadblocks and adversities and challenges and obstacles that they could face? What could go wrong?
The purpose of this activity is to identify the potential problems long before they occur. Scott Sherman, Founder of Transformative Action Institute (TAI), who teaches the “pre-mortem” approach points out in his training manual, “Unfortunately we often have a blind spot. We need the perspective of other people who can see dangers of which we are completely unaware.” For this reason, I suggest working with another individual who isn’t as entrenched in the idea, and ask him or her the same questions.
Change happens through individuals, organizational vehicles and movements. No one, single individual can create the change we want to see in the world. That’s why we need to build habits of listening, trying, sharing and reflecting on our experiences. In doing so, I hope you will begin to see themes emerge that align your core principle and values to action.
If you’re planning to ask yourself these questions, I’d love to hear what your idea is, and how you answer them — please feel free to email me directly.
If you’re interested in learning more frameworks and tools to get your idea off the ground, or if you’re looking for a community of people with whom to ask these questions aloud, check out the training programs and resources we offer at Center for Social Impact Strategy.
Adapted from CSIS blog “Ready to Make an Impact? 6 Questions to Ask Yourself“