Helping Africa

Entrepreneurship in Africa is sexy these days. Social networks are flooded with stories of young people building wild contraptions to solve everyday problems. And they are good stories. Full of heroes on journeys. Real people and real struggles. So we felt lucky. In the Scandinavian spring of 2014 a group of friends and I headed to South Africa to take part in that story – a story that turned out to be a lot more complex than romantic.


I study at the Kaospilots in Aarhus. The Kaospilots is a multi-disciplinary education, covering subjects such as leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation and organizational consulting. One of the didactical corner stones is the high degree of “real world” experience, the crown jewel being the ‘outpost’ on the fourth semester. An entire class moves to a different country for almost four months to form a temporary organization and work on a host of different projects in collaboration with local clients. There is so much learning to gain from changing the context in which you practice, and that’s basically the philosophy behind going. Everything you knew you knew becomes thought you knew and, though frustratingly hard work at times, deep learning unfolds.

Here is a Pecha Kucha talk I did one of the first days in Cape Town. It gives a brief overview of why we went (sorry for the bad video quality, it was not at all as dark in there)

You can read more about the Kaospilots in general here.

Without getting into too much detail, the Outpost is a highly chaotic experience and meant to be so. The frames are set up to be challenging. A lot of things happens in a very short time – it is definitely a case of falling and building wings at the same time.

The Entrepreneurship Center

I was project leader in a group of eight working for a social enterprise called The Entrepreneurship Center (well, in this article – write me of you want to know the real name) located in a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The Center provides talented and promising start-up entrepreneurs from townships with access to a shared work environment and a collaborative network. It was founded in 2013 and serves 20 entrepreneurs operating diverse and fascinating businesses.

We entered a consultant relationship to The Center – we were to work independently and not as interns, so the first weeks were spend in an inquiry process, trying to pinpoint exactly how we could best serve The Center. How would we be to the most help?

In inquiry work like this, I find inspiration in Edgar Scheins definition of the “helping relationship”. He writes (from Helping): “I find that even in the simplest helping situations, such as being asked for directions, it is useful to take a moment to think about what I don’t know and what the client does not know.” It was not only a case of asking The Center; “How can we help you?” – but to unfold the answer, dig in and explore our unknowns together. What was really needed? And who needed help?

Edgar Schein calls this approach to the helper-role Process Consultation and it rests on the following six assumptions (from Helping, page 63):

1. Clients, whether they are managers, friends, colleagues, students, spouses, children, etc., often do not know what is really wrong and need help in diagnosing what their problems actually are. But only they own and live with the problem.
2. Clients often do not know what kinds of help consultants can give to them; they need guidance to know what kinds of help to seek.
3. Most clients have a constructive intent to improve things, but need help in identifying what to improve and how to improve it.
4. Only clients know what will ultimately work in their situation.
5. Unless clients learn to see problems for themselves and think through their own remedies, they will be less likely to implement the solution and less likely to learn how to fix such problems should they recur.
6. The ultimate function of help is to pass on diagnostic skills and intervene constructively so that clients are more able to continue to improve their situations on their own.

The Process role contrasts the Expert and Doctor role, the two other helper-roles defined in Edgar Scheins terminology. The Expert being the one who delivers expert answers to questions or problems, useful in for example engineering and accounting. But, as no inquiry process takes place, the expert run the danger of (1) the client asking for help not having understood his/her own situation correctly and (2) misinterpreting the question or the context. The Doctor role is the position where the helper both diagnoses the problem, and prescribes the solution, leaving the one being helped almost entirely out of the loop. Ultimately, the Process Consultant wants to create learning at every step.

Uncovering The Need

We took the ‘process role’, but we still had expectations. We were students and this was ‘our project’ so we were – naturally – not entirely detached. We initially came to The Center with the assumption that we were going to work directly with the entrepreneurs – share our knowledge, help develop their businesses and engage in the ‘sexy’ story of the african entrepreneur. But after only a short while, this idea became challenged. The entrepreneurs were definitely our ultimate clients, whatever we did they would ultimately benefit from our work, but how did we really serve them best? We quickly ran into some unforeseen trouble.

In our initial interview, the manager of The Center noted how he experienced the entrepreneurs lacking initiative, curiosity and proactivity – how he sometimes found them leaning back, waiting for help, not taking responsibility for own problems. He emphasized that this ‘mindset’ was their main challenge and something he would like to help them with, but unsure how to. This mindset was not immediately evident to us – they were all dynamic entrepreneurial types – but it showed over time, and – quite unexpectedly – we found ourselves becoming part of the ‘problem’.

Entrepreneurship comes from French and means to ‘under-take’. Being an entrepreneur is ‘active’ by definition. There are no one but you to take responsibility for problems and to do the work. Living in a township, on the contrary, is in many ways heartbreakingly pacifying. Unemployment is more than 50%, life in general is tough and the freedom that the fall of apartheid brought is in many ways locked up by strong and deep economical divisions. For many people there are basically nothing to do about their life situation.

On a macro level, we experienced a South African context where the white man for hundreds of years had been telling the black man ‘how things should be done’ – and still do. This is a sensitive subject, never the less part of reality. Many neocolonial mechanisms (like western aid) keeps the heritage of apartheid alive. We saw negative feedback loops in the modern South African society, patterns of deep systemic challenges that both underprivileged and privileged participated in sustaining.

On a micro level, we observed two things in particular. Firstly, much of the potential funding available to the entrepreneurs was supplied by western organizations reinforcing the dependent relationship. Furthermore The Entrepreneurship Center get western university interns on a regular basis. There was often no strategic intention with these interns, so they were mostly left to do what they felt like, often conducting teaching sessions and workshops for the entrepreneurs. We observed how the actions of these interns pacified the entrepreneurs rather than activating them – how it reinforced the entrepreneurs in the ‘township receiver’ role, basically telling them: “You don’t know how to really move on with your business without an educated, young, white person telling you how to”, feeding into the whole South African macro-complexity.

We saw a real danger of us stepping into this pattern, and even with our best intentions, entering an uneven relationship, pacifying the entrepreneurs rather than activating them. Subject wise we could easily have been expert consultants on entrepreneurship, we would have loved to and parts of us still wanted it, but if we truly wanted to help, we simply had to find another way.


So what did we do? We invited the manager and a few of the entrepreneurs for coffee and shared our concerns. Edgar Scheins tenth principle of the Process Consultant (see them all in the bottom of this post) is: ‘When in doubt share the problem’. So we did. We shared our concerns and why we were reluctant to work directly with the entrepreneurs. It turned into a very good and honest talk. They understood – one entrepreneur said “… and I don’t like being anyones project” referring to how he felt that western people entering townships often did so for their own sake – as a personal ‘feel good’ project. We had to admit that we recognized this sense of ‘feel good’ when we initially left for Cape Town. We found a common understanding of the problem – the first condition for finding a shared solution.

At the very beginning of any helping situation, the relationship is unbalanced, which creates the potential for both client and helper to fall into traps derived from that imbalance. To build a successful helping relationship therefore requires interventions on the part of the helper that build up the client’s status. In considering how to do this, the helper must first clarify what role to take vis-à-vis the client. What is often not evident is that the helper has a choice of role, and the way that choice is made has long-range consequences for the relationship, as the next chapter will explore.

Looking back through the lens of Edgar Schein, it’s clear how this intervention massively helped reduce the imbalance and bring us closer to both the manager and the entrepreneurs.

The Final Assignment

So, together with The Manager and working from this common understanding, we eventually decided that in order to help the entrepreneurs in the most sustainable way, the goal of the project should be to empower The Center – not work with the entrepreneurs directly. This realization marked the conclusion of a very rewarding learning loop – both for us and The Center.

But – how to empower The Center? The key had actually already been handed to us. The first time we met, the manager told us that The Center had a strong ‘learning by doing’ mentality and emphasized with pride how The Center, since its founding a year ago, had continued working its way forward, solving problems as they came, despite much hardship and chaos. We probed into this, challenging him on what ‘learning by doing’ means. Real learning happens once you reflect after doing. Had they been reflecting systematically on their actions during the past year? It turned out they hadn’t. And of course not, start ups (almost) never do. This became the backbone of our assignment; Facilitate an internal evaluation of the past year for the The Entrepreneurship Center to recognize what worked and what didn’t – in order to strengthen The Center in helping the entrepreneurs.

We designed a process for the key stakeholders at The Center.

The Process

Looking back at a journey, there was always a purpose for embarking and in order to have something to evaluate against, the first step of the process was to connect The Center to this purpose, often called ‘the why’ – “What did we set out to do?” was the guiding question.

The main body of the process was designed around three broad focus areas. These three areas were chosen to create a framework, a language, that could contain and help us navigate many of the more specific needs and areas that we saw could potentially be worked on. The three focus areas were:

1. The Center from a business perspective. This focus area gave space to evaluate the Hubspace as an institution – evaluating value creation, sustainability, the business model, operational activities etc.
2. The Entrepreneurs – the ultimate client. This focus area directed the attention to the entrepreneurs as the primary ‘customer’ of The Center – their needs, interest and challenges. How well did The Center meet these? And how could the entrepreneurs be further involved?
3. Relationships – with a special focus on the leadership of relations. Exploring the field of ‘relations’ was initially intended to explore only external stakeholder relations. But the focus area organically evolved into evaluating relations from a leadership point of view – inspired by Dee Hock’s model of personal leadership.

We consciously let the frames be this open so that any content would be contributed by the needs of The Center and the management. Before the execution phase, we had an alignment session with the management on what each of the three focus areas potentially could cover. This was done to make sure that the three areas were sufficient and would lead to relevant processes.

From a time perspective, the overall process was designed according to Bliss Browne’s Appreciative Inquiry framework Understand, Imagine and Create (LINK). This was to ensure a natural and reasonably coordinated progression through the three focus areas. In the first step, understand, aspects of the past is explored, analyzed and understood – all the time reflected against the original purpose. Questions are asked and knowledge created. Once done, work can start on imagining how things could be done differently – “How can we better support what we initially set out to do?” The last part, create, is where the ideas from imagine says hello to reality and choices have to be made. “How are we going to act going forward in order to serve our purpose?”

If evaluation does not show in action, it is a waste. What have you learned, if it does not show in your actions? Thus we emphasized this by closing the entire process in creating an action plan, forming a red thread from the original purpose to the actions of the future.

Here is a model of the Process:

In practice processes are not linear like this. Its back and fourth, especially between understanding and imagining as ideas develop and call for better understanding. But with this framework it was possible to always orient ourselves roughly in the process by looking at the nine squares. It coordinated the three parallel process and gave a common language for us and The Center for what was otherwise quite abstract work.

After a long build up and design phase and a lot of negotiation of realities, the actual process was carried out in two weeks. Our Kaospilot team split into three groups, each facilitating one vertical leg of the process.

Hosting a Space for Reflection

Looking back, having summarized it all in this blog post, this project seems fairly easy and straight forward – even despite the frustration. But I tell you, it was not. This was one of the most tricky projects I’ve ever been involved in – but also one of the most rewarding. The conflict of initially thinking that we were to work with the entrepreneurs, realizing that it was impossible and then having to figure out – as a group – “what now?” put our team work under severe pressure. We were eight strong headed Kaospilots, each with our own ideas of (and fears about) how to move forward. But like I say in the video, there simply were no ‘way’ forward. We had to create that way by moving in the darkness of not knowing.

Edgar Schein says “the client knows best”. Our project became a great success by not trying to solve their problems, but simply offering to hold a space for reflection. To let them be their own experts. We offered The Center a process and a framework to look back, understand, imagine and finally; create. A few weeks where all they had to do was to show up and be open. This turned out to be the real gift that we brought.

Bonus: Edgar Scheins 10 Principles of Process Consultancy

Excerpt from the book Process Consultation Revisited.

1. Always try to be helpful.
Obviously, if I have no intention of being helpful and working at it, it is unlikely to lead to a helping relationship. In general, I have found in all human relationships that the intention to be helpful is the best guarantee of a relationship that is rewarding and leads to mutual learning.

2. Always stay in touch with the current reality.
I cannot be helpful if I cannot decipher what is going on in myself, in the situation, and in the client.

3. Access your ignorance.
The only way I can discover my own inner reality is to learn to distinguish what I know from what I assume I know, from what I truly do not know. And I have learned from experience that it is generally most helpful to work on those areas where I truly do not know. Accessing is the key, in the sense that I have learned that to overcome expectations and assumptions I must make an effort to locate within myself what I really do not know and should be asking about. It is like scanning my own inner data base and gaining access to empty compartments. If I truly do not know the answer I am more likely to sound congruent and sincere when I ask about it.

4. Everything you do is an intervention.
Just as every interaction reveals diagnostic information, so does every interaction have consequences both for the client and for me. I therefore have to own everything I do and assess the consequences to be sure that they fit my goals of creating a helping relationship.

5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution.
My job is to create a relationship in which the client can get help. It is not my job to take the client’s problems onto my own shoulders, nor is it my job to offer advice and solutions in a situation that I do not live in myself.

6. Go with the flow.
Inasmuch as I do not know the client’s reality, I must respect as much as possible the natural flow in that reality and not impose my own sense of flow on an unknown situation. Once the relationship reaches a certain level of trust, and once the client and helper have a shared set of insights into what is going on, flow itself becomes a shared process.

7. Timing is crucial.
Over and over I have learned that the introduction of my perspective, the asking of a clarifying question, the suggestion of alternatives, or whatever else I want to introduce from my own point of view has to be timed to those moments when the client’s attention is available.
The same remark uttered at two different times can have completely different results.

8. Be constructively opportunistic with confrontive interventions.
When the client signals a moment of openness, a moment when his or her attention to a new input appears to be available, I find I seize those moments and try to make the most of them. In listening for those moments, I find it most important to look for areas in which I can build on the client’s strengths and positive motivations. Those moments also occur when the client has revealed some data signifying readiness to pay attention to a new point of view.

9. Everything is a source of data; errors are inevitable – learn from them.
No matter how well I observe the previous principles I will say and do things that produce unexpected and undesirable reactions in the client. I must learn from them and at all costs avoid defensiveness, shame, or guilt. I can never know enough of the client’s reality to avoid errors, but each error produces reactions from which I can learn a great deal about my own and the client’s reality.

10. When in doubt share the problem.
Inevitably, there will be times in the relationship when I run out of gas, don’t know what to do next, feel frustrated, and in other ways get paralyzed. In situations like this, I found that the most helpful thing I could do was to share my “problem” with the client. Why should I assume that I always know what to do next? Inasmuch as it is the client’s problem and reality we are dealing with, it is entirely appropriate for me to involve the client in my own efforts to be helpful.

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