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This TEDx talk by Marc Ventresca on “Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems” is about impact, authenticity and “how things really happen”. He uses some well known game-changers to illustrate what he means.

What he says holds lessons for the rest of us. It outlines how other innovators fit into the picture.

For me his talk helps to explain what I do and what value I bring. I’m using it to explore possible new collaborations (perhaps with you or with someone you’ll pass this on to).

If you’ve watched the video then the words below will be familiar. They’re almost word  for word what Marc Ventresca said. I won’t explain them because that is done in the video. I’ve changed the order of the quotes slightly to make it easier to pick my way through them.

  1. People who make things happen in the world are often passionate, persistent and, most importantly, they start with what they have at hand and turn it into something more.
  2. The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive, creative action.
  3. System builders have diverse skills, work with different kinds of people, create new kinds of protocols… work across a landscape that “until they came along had been unconnected”.
  4. A system builder looks around, understands the kinds of elements that are available, combines them in new ways, and generates new kinds of value by virtue of combing them.
  5. The work of system builders:
    • Sorting system seams.
    • How do I bring resources to bear from my network on my problem.
  6. They put together across different worlds each of the elements and invent new ways for them to come together.
  7. Value creation by the assembly of heterogeneous elements.
  8. System builders think beyond the immediate enterprise (and the imagery of entrepreneurship)
  9. Critique of the word entrepreneur regarding imagery, lessons, guidance, skills, opportunity and sense of the task.
  10. Building systems and unbuilding systems – pulling apart legacy systems.

I’m clustering the quotes together and using that structure to introduce myself and what I do. It could be that if you understand my role and my story we might find useful areas of overlap.

Perhaps you know the saying “To travel fast travel alone. To travel far travel together.” I invite you to read this as if we are both on a journey, and our paths have crossed, and we are wondering if we are travelling in a similar direction.

Quotes 1 and 2 – Working with what we’ve got, improvising, looking at things differently and making things happen.

  • People who make things happen in the world are often passionate, persistent and, most importantly, they start with what they have at hand and turn it into something more.
  • The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive, creative action.

Every word of the two quotes above apply to me, but I’m only picking on a couple of key points.

Making things happen and constructive, creative action

One  of the labels I’m comfortable to wear is “innovator”. It means that “making things happen” and “constructive, creative action” apply to me. I’ll illustrate that by putting a list of things below that I’ve been doing over the past fifteen years. Some of the things are still at the messy “work in progress” stage, others are finished.

I collaborate with other people, which is one of the reasons I seldom refer to “my work” but usually refer to the “work of Dadamac”. Dadamac is a continually evolving group with a small central core of people who keep it true to its “Dadamac DNA”.

Nothing on the list would have happened if I was on my own, but it is equally true that without me much of it wouldn’t have happened at all, and none of it would have happened the way it did.

It’s also relevant that everything on the list began with what was “at hand”. There are no externally funded projects on the list. I’m involved in things where people saw a need and a way of responding and got on with it.

Eric Ventresca says the “People who make things happen start with what they have at hand and turn it into something more.” That describes my experience well. Things have happened. New things have emerged. I didn’t come into this with a plan and the necessary resources. I was working full-time on something completely different, which I later changed to a less demanding and more flexible “day job” so I could devote more time to what was emerging

Interesting interpretations of reality

I’m also exploring Marc Ventresca’s important point about “interesting interpretations of reality” or, as some people would say, “a funny way of looking at things”.

This “funny way of looking at things” applies to me in both ways (i.e.funny haha and funny peculiar). Ref “funny haha” I have a sense of humour that includes a love of word play, with a strong sense of the ridiculous and of alternative realities. It’s all part of looking at things differently, (“interesting interpretations of reality” as Marc Ventruesca puts it) and making unusual and creative connections – equally relevant to humour and “peculiar” or innovative ways of tackling things.

Sharing “interesting interpretations of reality”

One of the difficulties with “interesting interpretations of reality” is that conjuring them in my own mind is much easier than creating them in someone else’s imagination. Many people need to see something real  before they can apply their imagination or effort. Even if they see a working prototype they may have difficulty in realising its significance, what it illustrates, and  how that fits into a wider picture.

This is a huge challenge to genuine innovation because early stage creative collaboration on an innovative project requires people with vision that is shared, or at least overlapping.

The need for visionaries and the passion and persistence of unreasonable people

One of the benefits of being someone who generates “interesting interpretations of reality” is that it’s easy to imagine alternative realities and see how things would fit together to make them possible. People who see things differently can imagine improvements and see the possibilities for change.

Marc Ventresca refers to the passion and persistence of people who make things happen. It can make us seem unreasonable. George Bernard Shaw explains it well: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

It’s a continual challenge to find ways of sharing visions once they’ve been imagined, but explaining and sharing ideas effectively is an essential basis for attracting the right collaborators. As Marc Ventresca says:

“The formulation and dissemination of interesting interpretations of reality form the basis for constructive, creative action.” or, in non-acadmic-speak  “If you don’t share your way-out ideas no-one will help you to make them happen.”

Lack of fellow visionaries is one of the reasons why so much has to be done using the resources that are to hand.

Visionaries are needed for collaboration on innovative work and for its resourcing.  Funding bids tend to be framed in “existing interpretations of reality” even when they are seeking innovation. Similar constraints apply to other ways of doing things and raising money, even in entrepreneurship.

The hope of connecting with additional people of vision is the motivation for me to write this post.

Quotes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7: A rich mix, brought together to create value

Everything Marc Ventresca says in the quotes below  describe me and what I do. Again, I’ve highlighted a few points because they have extra significance.

  • System builders have diverse skills, work with different kinds of people, create new kinds of protocols… work across a landscape that “until they came along had been unconnected”.
  • A system builder looks around, understands the kinds of elements that are available, combines them in new ways, and generates new kinds of value by virtue of combing them.
  • The work of system builders:
    • Sorting system seams.
    • How do I bring resources to bear from my network on my problem.
  • They put together across different worlds each of the elements and invent new ways for them to come together.
  • Value creation by the assembly of heterogeneous elements.

Until Marc Ventresca introduced me to the term “system builder” I hadn’t though of myself in that way, but I do now, and it makes sense that I am one.

I explored my relationship to systems building and systems thinking in:

System builders’ features

Marc Ventresca‘s refers to system builders having diverse skills, and working with different people. Those features describe me, and help to explain why I value the rich mixture of all I’ve done in the past and how I’m continually drawing on different parts of it.

I do have diverse skills, and I work with different kinds of people. I’ve worked in many cultural contexts, in the past fifteen years and before.

Thanks to my London location, my work in Africa. and related online initiatives. I connect with a richly diverse range of people scattered across the globe, including a cluster of long-term contacts in English-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. I have done collaborative work with many of my contacts, some only online, some only face-to-face, some using a mixture of both approaches.

System building

System building explains why I turn up in so many apparently unconnected contexts, because I see the relevance and connection, even if I can’t always explain exactly why I’m there.

As an innovator and systems builder I bring people and things together in new ways, and put an extra something in the mix, then “things happen that other people enjoy or find useful” (which is one way of describing added value).

Like many people who design or invent things, my strengths lie in coming up with ideas to address real problems, figuring out how things might function, and developing working prototypes where appropriate.

Afterwards, when I reflect and analyse, I’m interested in lessons learned in the process, how they apply in other situations, the bigger picture and new things that I can see emerging.

One of the reasons I find it hard to explain exactly what I’m doing is because “What I’m doing now” is only part of the picture, what I’d prefer to explain is the invisible, longer-term, systems-building that connects everything.

Quotes 8 and 9: Connecting with entrepreneurs

  • System builders think beyond the immediate enterprise (and the imagery of entrepreneurship)
  • Critique of the word entrepreneur regarding imagery, lessons, guidance, skills, opportunity and sense of the task.

I’m often to be found in the company of entrepreneurs, especially ones who are starting out and are learning useful stuff.

I don’t have a natural flair for entrepreneurship, but I recognise its importance. If innovations that I care about are going to happen at a large scale and in financially sustainable ways, then either I need to develop entrepreneurial skills or I need to work with people who do have them.

The ideas Marc Ventresca explores around the relationship between entrepreneurs and system builders help to explain why I hover on the edges of entrepreneurship. I belong there as a system builder.

From an immediate entrepreneurial perspective I’m concerned to expand various current enterprises and make them financially sustainable. I need to make that happen. It’s an important and urgent entrepreneurial task, which demands attention, but I don’t sense it as the complete task.

I’m strongly drawn towards putting my effort into the system development that could make for a more enabling environment, which in turn would lead to a completely different level of effectiveness for the enterprises in question. The system development is where I really want to be working, but I can’t abandon what needs to be done now for the sustainability of innovations I’m helping to make happen, unless I can find others who will take that on.

Marc Ventresca’s talk makes sense of my long view, my relationship with entrepreneurship and my unconventional sense of what should be done.

I explain this more in The long view of a system builder

Quote 10: The internet, disruption and legacy systems

Marc Ventresca explores issues of innovation, systems development and relating to legacy systems

  • Building systems and unbuilding systems – pulling apart legacy systems.

Deeply disruptive changes of the Internet

The connecting thread in all my system building is the Internet, with the deep, disruptive changes it makes possible.

The areas that I know best in “the world of the deep disruptive changes made possible by the Internet” are connected by ideas of learning-and-earning, patterns of employment, sustainability, empowerment and appropriate technology. They are impacted by the changing patterns of communication and connection that are increasingly enabled by the Internet.

My main areas of expertise are:

  • “International development” topics, especially involving UK-Africa relationships and collaborations
    • Current work within Dadamac Foundation illustrates some of this (I’m a co-founder, trustee and volunteer.)
    • More background in ++++++The world where I work+++++++++
  • Education/learning approaches enabled by the Internet, especially non-formal learning supported by communities of interest or practice.

Relationship to legacy systems

The relationship to legacy systems is a challenge. It is tempting, and easier in the short term, for the new and old to go about their business separately. Legacy systems have an established power base. Like historians on the winning side they are able to frame the present narrative and influence decision making.

In some ways the legacy systems look powerful and impregnable, and yet from the perspective of the deeply disruptive changes of the Internet they seem shakier and more vulnerable. In many ways the reality of the Internet challenges their long established norms, expectations and patterns of behaviour.

Few legacy systems have completely reinvented themselves since the advent of our increasingly connected world. Legacy systems, with histories much longer than the history of Internet, tend to have the Internet as an add-on. There are younger “Internet based systems” that could not have come into being before the Internet and are therefore totally embedded in the realities of the “connected world”.

Some pre-Internet structures and systems negatively constrain legacy systems and need to be dropped in favour of new systems, more appropriate to the pace and norms of a connected world, but legacy systems also have efficient strategies, and their knowledge and networks remain valuable.

Collaboration would be my ideal. That could enable the smoothest, and least wasteful, transition from the old to the new.  Ideally there will be a combination of the best of legacy systems and the best of the Internet based systems. The old and new could make a powerful and effective team. It would require some challenging cross-cultural collaboration which is difficult but not impossible.

Helping that kind of thing to happen is what system builders do.

More on international development:

Summary

Marc Ventresca’s talk on “Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems” gave me a structure to explain where I belong in the interconnected worlds of innovation, system building and entrepreneurship.

I’m an innovator and systems builder. My practical projects  relate to international development, and to education and learning. My thinking is around longer-term, less visible aspects of change.

This post introduces who I am, what I know and what I do. It refers to practical work I’ve done over the past fifteen years.

The connecting thread in all my system building is the Internet, with the deep, disruptive changes it makes possible.

For more on those changes see “The Invisible Revolution” in “Despatches from the Invisible Revolution“.

I wrote this post in the hope of connecting with others who have overlapping interests, and in the spirit of possible collaboration.

“To travel fast travel alone. To travel far travel together.”

Contact me through the contact form or on twitter @Pamela_McLean