I’m wrapping up my last few hours in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt with this lovely view feeding my mind and senses and a million and one thoughts swirling around in my head. It’s been a stimulating few days spent with some of Africa’s best and brightest entrepreneurs at the Africa Forum 2018.
Out of all the ideas floating around, however, two keep popping back up, again and again:
1) Think big…then even bigger
2) Fall in love with the problem, not the solution
So, there I was representing TruLuv (when am I not?!), a smaller manufacturing business– the lone business from Ethiopia– in league with 100 startups that could, as the IFC put it, “speed up innovation in Africa.” I definitely had moments over the past few days of questioning, “do I really belong here?” I mean, many of these startups are tech-focused and making life and businesses infinitely easier in markets across Africa…they’re doing really impressive work, and against the odds, too.
But folks listened to our story and tasted our bites in all flavors (or just the one they knew they’d love!) and I was reminded that we’re on the right track, doing something innovative and needed. People told me that they couldn’t wait for TruLuv to arrive in their countries to replace the snacks imported from outside of Africa– snacks that are often tasteless or filled with artificial ingredients.
So yes, our work is proving to have a valuable and meaningful impact, woohoo!
But spending time with such an impressive cohort of entrepreneurs has forced me to ask myself a new question: “are we thinking big?” I’d say the answer to that is “probably.” But the better question is: “could we be thinking bigger?” and I believe the answer is “absolutely!”
When I say “big” what do I mean? Of course, there’s the question of scale, and as a business operating out of a 32 square meter space and hand-making all of our granola, I think it’s clear there’s plenty of room to grow and scale.
But what I’m really getting at is creative growth. Bold ideas. Ideas that are boundless and crazy and optimistic.
Bear with me!
I’m as much a realist as the next person, but I’ve gotten to thinking, what do we miss out on when we don’t give ourselves the freedom to imagine something bigger and better than makes any sense within the limits of our present reality?
And perhaps more importantly: what do our customers, our teams, our partners, our peers, our families, our children miss out on when we don’t envision something amazingly ambitious with and for them?
When was the last time someone proposed a creative solution to a problem you were facing and you answered, “that won’t work because…” ? For me the answer is just a few days ago, but I can’t tell you how much I appreciate folks who pushed past my “it’s not possible” mindset to get me to reframe to one of, “it’s possible if we can address such-and-such challenge,” which then opens the doors to “how can we solve such-and-such challenge?”
I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s been so long since I reevaluated a problem that I don’t even remember why I had closed the doors on other possible solutions.
Which brings me to the next bit of wisdom that resonated with me this weekend…
“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
This quote was thrown up onto the screen by South African entrepreneur, Craig Wing, at the Young Entrepreneurs Day opening session. And it hit me hard.
As a Myers-Briggs ENTJ, I’ll admit that I enjoy the efficiency of moving quickly from problem to solution, so the idea of falling in love with the problem rather than the solution hasn’t been part of my repertoire.
How many times have I tried to make something work because it’s what I had decided was the right solution at some point in time, even when it has been clear that it just wasn’t working?
I’ll never forget this *brilliant* make/bake-your-own-granola idea that I had for a food festival last year. I had committed to it and believed fully in its brilliance, but it just wasn’t working. I was the only one making my own granola for those two days. It didn’t work in that situation for reasons that I figured out once I was open to admitting to myself that this solution wasn’t the right fit, and once I was able to let it go, I was free to find a better solution for the following year (hello, parfaits!). I was even able to recycle my original solution more successfully later, in a more appropriate setting.
If living and entrepreneur-ing in Ethiopia has taught me anything, it’s that things change and sometimes the “perfect” solutions aren’t really a great fit at all in practice. But this necessary fluidity is actually a blessing in disguise, because when you fall in love with the problem rather than the solution, it keeps you nimble and more likely to come up with new and potentially great ideas.
This approach works for the BIG problem a business is out to solve for its customers, but it’s also great for all of the smaller problems we face along the way.
So, the two things I want to share that have been helpful to me:
1) Ask yourself if you’re thinking big enough!
(Find some practical tips on how to think big with this article “How to Think Big, In Work and Life”)
2) Think about where you are banging your head against the wall, holding onto a solution that isn’t right. What would happen if you opened yourself up to a different approach– or maybe even different approaches.