The StreetwiZe story has enabled me to push my boundaries beyond Eke-Nazareth and move towards more instructive domestic and foreign regions. These past few years have taught me that there is a big difference between teaching a subject, and actually engaging with it. That is why, on the occasion of 10 years of StreetwiZe, I’d like to share my 10 lessons in humility.
Lesson 1: Standing still is not moving backwards
They sure sound nice, these typical one-liners: ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’, or ‘Standing still is moving backwards’. Even more so for a hyperactive fellow like myself. Unfortunately, in a start-up organisation, the reality is that we move backwards because we forget to stand still. It is important to take the time to step away from the daily hassle and reflect on three big questions: ‘What do we stand for?’ (mission), ‘What are we aiming for?’(vision) and ‘How do we get there?’ (strategy). What you invest in, and how you manage or communicate all depends on a crystal clear answer to these three questions. It was only after we developed our answers at StreetwiZe, as part of a strategic exercise, that our necessary focus was automatically created. These three questions are just as important on a personal level, so I warmly invite you all to try and get your answers straight, both as a person and in your organisation.
Lesson 2: Simple is not straightforward
Have you ever wondered why it’s StreetwiZe with a capital Z? The ‘Z’ stands for ‘zero point’, referring to the ability of the organisation StreetwiZe • Mobile School to bring people back to the essentials. The full explanation was probably written down on several pages that have since been banned to our archives, for good reason. Simplicity is elegant. Strong baselines and short, powerful messages almost always hit their mark. So let’s forget about expensive words found in management handbooks and let’s choose a no nonsense communication style. Back to the essentials of our message, with the capital Z in StreetwiZe.
Lesson 3: Don’t get caught up in ‘the Flemish paradox’
‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’. We have probably all heard this age-old wisdom from our loving grandparents at some time, and it illustrates quite well that we don’t appreciate people to be too direct. But because we often don’t communicate (clearly), inevitable frustrations can pile up. And despite my affinity for communication skills, I have noticed that I rarely manage to translate those built-up frustrations into constructive feedback. What we have learnt from this as an organisation is that setting clear expectations is an essential condition to maintain relationships. For example, what exactly do we mean by ‘engagement’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘authenticity’? By translating these somewhat vague terms into explicit agreements, we can create a climate of predictability in our organisation.
Lesson 4: Dare to say no
Social entrepreneurship is popular, so both profit and social profit organisations often come calling, asking us to give a testimonial or to be on a panel, free of charge. The closer we feel connected to these organisations, the harder it is to say ‘no’. However, we cannot realistically achieve our mission by always saying ‘yes’. I can no longer count the evenings that, except for the obligatory bottle of Oxfam wine, didn’t turn out to be a very valuable use of our time. Be selective in saying ‘yes’. We’ve recently started including a fixed number of free-of-charge activities in our strategic planning as a way to guarantee remaining critical on how we spend our scarce amount of available time on requests.
Lesson 5: Find the ugliness in your child
‘Nobody will tell you that your baby is ugly when you’re working for a good cause’. That was Dan Heath’s opinion, when I asked him why we were not getting a whole lot of useful feedback on our products and services. He could not have beenmore right. When you are trying to achieve a social goal, social rules tend to impose self-censorship when asking for people’s opinions. On top of that, you mainly receive attention from a select group of enthusiasts - I’m still counting myself among those. This easily results in a message that reaches everyone except for the ones you want to reach. That’s why it’s worthwhile to actively try and find parties that have the guts to say your child is ugly! Negative criticism is indeed constructive. Especially to build team spirit, because nothing is more fun than digesting that feedback together, in a bar.
Lesson 6: Stop talking, start participating
I am a serial talker, there is no doubt about that. Luckily, it’s not just me, in an organisation where most employees once and again spend their time teaching or giving advice. Needless to say, our meetings are lively and interactive. On the flip side, it can take a while before we reach consensus. In the past two years especially, we have learnt that perhaps not everyone needs to have a say on everything. We’ve established a more efficient decision structure, that ensures that the best-placed people take the end decisions, while the people involve dare consulted.
Lesson 7 : I like it, so I don’t do it
One of my favourite activities to boost my self-image is to attribute creative talents to myself. Regrettably, being confronted with colleagues who really have these talents (and there are quite a lot of those on our team), I have to admit thatI best stick to what I am actually gifted in. So, no matter how much I like making movie montages or experimenting in Photoshop, I don’t do it, even if only to avoid getting feedback along the lines of: ‘well… it’s certainly different’.It is never too soon to start the exercise of assigning talent roles, next to functional roles.
Having experience can change people in strange ways. In my case, you’ll jokingly fly through a ‘train the trainer’ session for newcomers and leave them completely confused. Reinforced by my sometimes exorbitant urge to put things in perspective, you get a proven recipe to leave new people in the team entirely to their own devices. That’s why a hiring and on-boarding policy is a topic that doesn’t just deserve proper attention in theory, but in practice as well.
Lesson 9: Go outside once in a while
’The truth is out there’, said the caption of the X-files. I nostalgically look back on Mulder and Scully and their intriguing searches for the truth. But going out there to find answers is not a privilege of fictional FBI agents, it is within reach for all of us. So why don’t we do it more often? It strikes me that there is always a reason not to go to a conference, or participate to an event, or visit experts that can shed a new light on an organisational puzzle.It’s a pity, because fishing in the same internal pond predictably always results in catching the same fish. In short, go out there. Go find some information, and inspiration.
Lesson 10: Be sure to let off steam
Is StreetwiZe a success story? Both on a personal and organisational level, I can happily affirm it. But a ‘yes’ is often followed by a ‘but’. It’s no different in our case, because we aren’t there yet. Every year brings known or new challenges and that’s not going to change in the upcoming 10 years. Even a professional optimist like myself can sometimes find it difficult to accept that, or to keep going for it with a positive mindset. But that’s only human.It’s not bad to occasionally experience the difference between positivity and naivety. Which brings me to what is perhaps one of the most important lessons of all, for myself and for the organisation: let’s enjoy our intermediate successes. Let’s celebrate, let off steam, and cherish what we have achieved already. Despite my natural aversion to some forms of non-functional physical exercise, I’d like to end with a sports metaphor: life is a marathon, not a sprint!