I’m a gamer. Not the World of Warcraft sort of gamer, but a real gamer. Zelda never did it for me, but I’m always up for a ride on B & O Railroad or an excursion to the distant lands of Catan.
Yahtzee is one of my favorite games. In short, gamers throw five dice in series of three rolls to make certain combinations, highlighted by the elusive Yahtzee: A five-of-a-kind. A few weeks ago, I played with a friend who was new to the game. And one overzealous comment reminded me how dangerous prescribing can be.
My buddy played a strong first few rounds. He scored high across the board and was close to achieving the elusive top bonus because of it. But as he approached the finish line, he met a familiar Yahtzee dilemma. On his first roll, he showed three fours. He didn’t have space for fours on his board, but I stopped him before he changed directions.
“You know,” I shared, “It’s rare to land a three-of-a-kind on your first roll. You should go for the Yahtzee.”
My friend knew well my Yahtzee wizardry, and so he took my advice. He went for the Yahtzee.
But it wasn’t in the dice. He fell short of the Yahtzee, missed the top bonus because of it, and finished with a mediocre score. His great start fizzled to a crash-landing. And whose fault was it? The dice’s fault? The Yahtzee newbie’s fault? Of course not. I coached him. I walked him off that cliff.
A week later, I sat in a half-day Convene management training. The trainer began the session by stating his thesis:
“Everything I say today comes down to this: Good managers help their employees develop self-generated ideas.”
Self-generated ideas, he outlined, are the bedrock of success. When others develop their own solutions, they are most-likely to succeed. When they simply follow our prescriptions, their ceilings lower. At best, they become carbon copies. At worst, they never own the idea at all.
When Jeff Rutt founded HOPE International, he learned this firsthand. He saw a great business opportunity for the Ukrainian churches: Sunflower seed processing. So he bought the processor, shipped it over and trained the Ukrainian church how to use it. But when he returned a year later, he saw a deflating scene.
The processer was never even turned on.
Jeff witnessed his great idea sitting dormant, cobwebbed and rusting. He drew them a blueprint, but they never owned it. It was Jeff’s great idea for them, but never their idea.
(Because Jeff is a resilient entrepreneur, he did not give up. Eventually, he pioneered a brilliant approach, unleashing thousands of Ukrainians to create self-generated ideas.)
I love telling other people what to do. When I’m the expert, it’s particularly difficult not to prescribe solutions. Whether with the Yahtzee dice or management discussions, the prescriptive road is the easy road. “Do this. Like that. With those.” But nobody grows with this approach and it’s never their fault when the idea fails. It’s hamstrung at the starting block. Unearthing solutions within others always trumps giving them ours.
As a tribute to the late Paul Harvey, who passed away last month, I’d like to share “the rest of the story” of HOPE’s beginnings. You think you know how HOPE International began? Yes, the Ukrainian pastors approached Jeff Rutt (HOPE’s founder) and his church and asked them to stop with the hand-outs. And yes, HOPE began with twelve enthusiastic Ukrainian entrepreneurs shortly thereafter. But, do you know what happened in-between those two incidents? The story is actually a bit grittier than what gets printed in the brochures.
As HOPE’s web site history correctly states, Jeff “returned from the trip with a strong drive to find a solution. He plunged into research and eventually discovered the concept of microfinance.” “Eventually” is the key word. When the Ukrainian pastors approached Jeff in 1997 and asked him and his church to change their missions strategy, Jeff started thinking. What these pastors asked for was a long-term, sustainable solution to the abject poverty which existed in their communities.
Jeff and his church thought through and researched close to 50 different ideas and eventually landed on a promising plan. The plan they decided on was to help these churches process and sell sunflower seeds, as sunflower seeds are one of the most abundant resources in Ukraine. They wrote a comprehensive business plan and then raised $2,000 to buy a top-of-the-line sunflower seed processor. Through this plan, Jeff estimated the Ukrainian church members would be able to generate thousands of dollars to fund the ministry of the church, eliminating the need for his church to bring the hand-outs.
They excitedly took care of all the shipping and logistical issues to ensure it got to Ukraine. Jeff led a group of enthusiastic members from his church to Ukraine to be there for the delivery of the machine and to help train the Ukrainians on how to use it. They celebrated the machine’s arrival, took their pictures arm-in-arm with their Ukrainian friends, and flew back home—solution found!
Not exactly… One year later, when Jeff and the church returned, they found the machine exactly where they had left it. The Ukrainian church leaders were embarrassed to even show them the unused machine. “There was absolutely no evidence it had been used…it was in the exact same spot we had put it,” Jeff shared with me. Cobwebs and dust littered the gears and levers. Remarkably, the processor hadn’t moved an inch from where it had been delivered. It hadn’t even been turned on.
Why did this happen? The issue, as Jeff describes, was ownership. “It wasn’t their idea. It was our idea. When you have your own idea, then you will do whatever it takes to try and make that idea work, but they didn’t have any ownership of this idea.” Ownership is the name of the game. Often, charity, while well-intentioned, fails to truly stimulate long-term change. Even in the case of providing an income-generating piece of machinery, Jeff found that without local ownership, the idea and machine wasn’t ultimately theirs.
We need to continue to find creative ways to partner and empower the poor, to break the perpetuity of poverty. Real transformation and development happens when we partner with local ingenuity and ideas. Jeff and his church learned that lesson in a very real way—and HOPE was birthed out of that realization. And now, today, in some of the most challenging communities in the world, hundreds of thousands of industrious and innovative individuals are having their potential, dreams and ideas awakened and resourced. In the words of Paul Harvey, “And now you know…the rest of the story.”