Lesson Learned the Hard Way #1: When assumptions turn out to be wrong, learn & adapt for impact.

When assumptions turn out to be wrong, learn and adapt for impact.

At Nuru International, our ultimate goal, essentially, is to work ourselves out of a job. We’re striving to end extreme poverty, and we’re doing it in a way that builds capable local communities, rather than communities that are dependent on us to sustain and scale progress.

It’s why our teams at project sites are comprised of both international and local staff members. Our international staff is meant to fill a temporary, advisory role. Like scaffolding that is eventually removed, international advisors reinforce our local permanent organization. This ensures that each of Nuru’s projects leaves behind a thriving local organization that continues to achieve results after international team members exit.   

The late chairman Philip Mohochi addressing a crowd of smallholder farmers. Nuru Kenya.

 It’s a model that we piloted in Kenya, where Nuru was working to develop integrated, locally designed solutions to extreme poverty. In this first iteration, international teams were placed on seven-month rotations. The idea was that Nuru wanted to maintain a high operational tempo and a strong sense of urgency to avoid burnout and drive faster results. In our field, wasted time means extended suffering and lost lives, and we didn’t want our local team to become dependent on a resource that was designed to go away.

This rapid turnover was modeled on military tours, which rotate teams frequently to keep soldiers fresh, sharp and maximally effective.

But we soon discovered that many of our assumptions were wrong: Putting up scaffolding faster than a structure can be built doesn’t lead to faster completion.

The result? The international teams’ operational tempo stayed high, but the local Kenyan team burned out. While international staff were running a relay race, the Kenyans were running a marathon, and the mismatch was unworkable.

The Financial Inclusion Program conducts savings trainings for Nuru members. Nuru Kenya.

 This played out in countless ways. Early during one of our transition months, a Kenyan leader, tired and frustrated, confided to an international team leader, “We can’t keep doing this.” Her team was still fiercely dedicated to improving lives in its community, but staffers were exhausted. 

 We found that a lack of consistency in management and programming direction ultimately resulted in programmatic churn — we were constantly “reinventing the wheel.” Local Kenyan teams felt confused, began second-guessing themselves, and actually became more dependent on Nuru. Their local ownership and morale plummeted, which slowed progress.

In short, we were achieving the exact opposite of the result we’d hoped for.

We needed to reassess, and when we did, it became clear that the pace and design of our international rotations had to change. Eventually, we settled on a nuanced, flexible approach. Most of our international staff are now on two-year renewable contracts, and their deployment varies based on phases of projects. With longer tours, they now work more sustainable weeks of 50 to 60 hours, versus the previous 80 hours.

In trying something new, we learned that consistency and proper pacing of implementation are critical to achieving long-term goals. We learned that burnout is more complex that we’d previously realized, and that time is a critical ingredient for building a culture of trust. Our local and international staff members need to be able to get to know one another and establish relationships.

And we learned that when promoting innovation, we must minimize any activity that undermines progress. With short tours, our international teams were just getting grounded as they were preparing to transition out, and a one-month overlap with their replacements wasn’t enough to provide the consistency our work needed.

This hard-won knowledge has paid off.

In Kenya, the changes we made quickly increased morale among local staff, and international staff reported better work rhythms and a more robust understanding of their counterparts’ challenges. Local staff were able to engage in more long-term thinking about individual program areas, which set the stage for shrinking Nuru’s expatriate team and accelerating its exit. Philip Mohochi, Nuru Kenya’s then-country director, was able to focus his team on the bigger picture, too, identifying and addressing gaps and challenges and creating succession plans for key roles in Nuru Kenya.

Getting it right was not easy – it required time, patience and a willingness to listen and adapt – but taking a chance on what is now Nuru’s signature staffing model was worth it.

Today, our local team in Kenya is executing its own unique vision for improving Kenyans’ lives, and in new contexts around the world, we are using what we’ve learned to more quickly gain exciting ground in the fight against extreme poverty.