036 – Response to “IDEMS’ Vision and Mission”

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
036 – Response to “IDEMS’ Vision and Mission”


This episode is a follow-up to episodes 033 and 034, which were a conversation between Santiago and David on IDEMS’ vision and mission. Here, Danny and David respond to that discussion, further explicating how they view the vision and mission and taking a critical look at their current formulations.

[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m David Stern and I’m here with my co founder and director Danny Parsons.

[00:00:15] Danny: Hi David.

[00:00:16] David: Hi Danny.

[00:00:17] Danny: Looking forward to this discussion.

[00:00:19] David: Yes, you want to follow up on our discussions about the vision and mission, which I’m really happy about.

[00:00:24] Danny: Yeah I’m glad you had the podcast on the vision and mission because it’s nice to explain that and where it came from. And I think it was interesting to hear and hopefully made things clearer for some people. But yeah, I’m also keen that we dig into it as well.

[00:00:40] David: Absolutely.

[00:00:41] Danny: I guess if I start with the vision.

[00:00:44] David: Yeah.

[00:00:44] Danny: Impacting Grand Challenges, you know, I’ve been thinking about this and we’ve talked about it a bit before you were doing the other podcast and given me a bit to reflect on about it.

But I really like the vision, as you said. It’s very short and simple, but more than that, it really explains what we’re trying to do and Impacting Grand Challenges, that’s a way that I am comfortable explaining my motivation. I sometimes find it hard to explain maybe my motivation for what I do.

And, you know, it’s not really about mathematics. It’s not really about technology for me or about data or, you know, it’s about the impact. And we’re looking at the impact on a big scale and the big difficult problems, the ones that may never be sort of solvable, but we’re going to…

[00:01:37] David: Move the dial.

[00:01:37] Danny: Yeah.

[00:01:39] David: And the things you mentioned, maths, data, tech, these are our tools that we have to help us. And they’re extremely valuable, useful tools. But they’re tools. They’re not…

[00:01:50] Danny: Yeah. And I feel that, you know, we’re using what we’re best positioned to use and what we do feel is an approach that hopefully will be effective. But yeah, as you say, they’re the tools that we use. If we had other tools, we’d use them and so on, and other people come from different angles.

[00:02:09] David: They bring different skills to the table. We have other members of our teams, of IDEMS, who have different skills, who bring different skills to the table. But those tools, maths, data, tech, we do have an approach to that which differentiates us from other people with those tools because we’re coming at it from this angle of actually low resource, development. And it’s not that we’re stuck in low resource, it’s that that’s where we’ve learned a lot about how to do things, how to build things differently.

[00:02:45] Danny: Yeah, exactly. And I think within that, as you say, there is things that differentiate us. I think, as you mentioned, some people are not sort of grabbed by that as a vision. We’ve heard this, you know, it’s not that original necessarily, and so on. But I think within that, and the longer description does build in some of those things. And as you mentioned that there is something unique about our approach, which ties into Impacting Grand Challenges.

[00:03:16] David: Absolutely. And it’s very hard to actually put your finger on it. And you actually had a criticism of our mission after listening to myself and Santiago discuss it and actually always come back to it in the way that we did. You felt that It’s…

[00:03:34] Danny: Yeah, it certainly doesn’t… I don’t quite connect with it as much as the vision. So the mission is: ‘Working collaboratively with diverse partners to enable the evolution of innovations which can impact lives all over the world’. It’s a little bit of a mouthful, but that’s a minor point.

I think the way I described it, you know, there’s nothing wrong with it. I believe everything that’s there and I agree with everything. There is a mission for us. But it sort of makes me think, you know, why this and why, why not something else? This is part of our approach, but you’ve got at least two of the principles in there: collaborative and diverse.

[00:04:13] David: Collaborative, diverse, evolution, innovations, sustainable development in some sense. It’s a combination of about four or five of our principles.

[00:04:24] Danny: But that makes me sort of think then why those ones and not the other ones?

[00:04:28] David: Why not inherently inclusive? Which is not really there in the same way. It’s not explicitly there. Why not some of the other principles we’ve got?

[00:04:37] Danny: Yeah, and bits of the wording I feel aren’t, maybe now that I think about it more, ‘working collaboratively with diverse partners’. I can see that’s important, but it’s almost a bit of repetition in some sense that ‘working collaboratively’ means we’re working with partners and so on. The diverse is important there. But does that need to be the first thing that’s mentioned? I liked actually how you were describing it in the podcast the different parts. The bit that I don’t like is then also at the end, ‘impact lives all over the world’, which I liked how you described it in relation to projects, it was sort of if we have a project in a particular area, we’re always then thinking who is not getting access from this? How could that change in the future? Is this something that can only ever be for that group? How could it scale to other places, even within that area who might be missing out, which we’re not thinking about?

That’s something I really like as a way of thinking. And I think that is how we try to think. ‘Lives all over the world’ to me could mean many different things. One of them being that. It sort of makes me think a little bit of you hear lots of organisations say they’re working all over the world, which means they have a project in this continent and a project over here and a project over here. And now we’re working all over the world, you know, we’re dotted around.

[00:05:54] David: Yeah.

[00:05:55] Danny: So…

[00:05:55] David: We recognise that actually you need to have depth in a given context.

[00:05:59] Danny: Yeah.

[00:05:59] David: And so we do work in all sorts of places, but we value depth, and that’s not the aim.

[00:06:04] Danny: Yeah. The aim isn’t to say, you know, we’ve got a few projects, South America, a few projects, Africa, you know, all over Asia which is sort of one of the impressions that I get from ‘lives all over the world’ when I hear it. That’s more of a wording part, but I think it’s important as well because we’re not going to be sitting with people every time they read this to explain it to them.

[00:06:24] David: Well, and I think there’s an interesting point there because we are in this interesting conundrum on this that we really value going deeply into individual contexts and yet our work does have us working quite literally in, I think last count it was over 50 countries.

[00:06:42] Danny: Yeah.

[00:06:42] David: And we’re a relatively small team, there’s more countries than we have people. Well it’s twice as many countries at least as we have people. And so there are real questions of how can we go deep if we’re actually spread so thin. And these are things that we’re really challenged with.

[00:06:58] Danny: Yeah, and I think trying to keep in mind the way that you described it, we’re not just trying to cover lots of dots on the map.

[00:07:06] David: No.

[00:07:06] Danny: We are trying to… We need diversity to learn and to get more understanding and experiences and use cases. But we have that wider coverage as well in mind, I think.

[00:07:21] David: Yes. We are not looking at the diversity to be able to say we’ve got something here and that we are looking at the diversity to be able to identify things that we weren’t aware of.

[00:07:32] Danny: Yeah.

[00:07:32] David: To be exposed to new things. To have a critical assessment of what we are doing with respect to a diversity of context.

[00:07:39] Danny: And to always have that idea of them going further, you know. Then how does that spread more?

[00:07:44] David: Might this be relevant to that context?

[00:07:46] Danny: Yeah. And so I think that’s something that’s really important that we communicate to our team and to others. And so thinking about how that comes out in our mission is interesting.

Something that I thought is maybe missing from the mission, apart from some of the critiques, is something we talked about in one of our podcasts, this idea of doing business differently. And I feel like that could fit quite well in the mission. It’s something fairly practical in terms of what we’re actually doing. It’s not our big aim but it is a big part of everything we do. And it’s a sort of distinguishing feature of IDEMS as well.

[00:08:27] David: Well, it doesn’t make us unique. We’ve got a whole social enterprise movement, which we’re sort of part of, if you want. But it’s a very important part of who we are. It’s this idea of recognizing the potential and the value of social enterprise as a tool to be able to do some of these things and to achieve this. So you’re right, that could have been our mission.

[00:08:48] Danny: I think not our whole mission, but certainly I think it could come in there as a part.

[00:08:53] David: Yeah.

[00:08:54] Danny: And it’s as we reflected, it’s then not something which is in our principles.

[00:08:57] David: It’s true.

[00:08:59] Danny: It’s very aligned with our principles in terms of how we do business. But it’s not something that we’ve… We have written about it in terms of our structure and our legal structure and why we’re that way. But yeah.

[00:09:12] David: It’s very interesting you say that because I don’t think we could have our principles without that social enterprise legal structure, the legal structures which make us a social enterprise. And so I think it’s necessary for our principles. But you’re absolutely spot on that it’s not explicit in the principles.

And therefore maybe it needs to be explicit somewhere else. Maybe we do need a new mission. Maybe we need to figure out how we bring that in to our mission.

[00:09:42] Danny: Yeah, I think that’s why it’s great that it’s been discussed because it’s not something that had been on my mind a while and until I heard it through your discussions with Santiago, to sort of rethink, and we’ve always said these are not things that are set in stone and we want them to evolve with inputs from others, and help us to think about them again and maybe think about them differently.

[00:10:06] David: Absolutely. And I think there is this element of, in some sense, that big vision of Impacting Grand Challenges. We’ve been challenged on this by a number of people in a number of ways, and this is something which would probably evolve. But I think the two of us, this still resonates as fundamentally, if we’re not working on this, if what we’re working on doesn’t actually move the dial on Grand Challenges, we’ve got waylaid.

[00:10:35] Danny: Yeah, and I really understand the criticisms and so on, because, hearing it from us helps to explain it, but on its own maybe people don’t have the same connection with it. But maybe that’s something we need to think about in how we communicate as well or, yeah, maybe it evolves and it expands, I don’t know.

I found the, I think it was in the second part of your podcast on this, where you then got sort of specific and discussed projects.

[00:11:05] David: Yeah.

[00:11:05] Danny: I really liked bringing out different projects and thinking about them, but the way that I felt they were trying to be tied to the vision was sort of a little bit not the right question in a sense. It was sort of simplifying those connections. Some of the projects, let’s say they’re related to climate, okay, that means then they’re related to a grand challenge of climate change, or a grand challenge related to climate change. That’s not really the point to me, because lots of people are working on climate projects.

[00:11:40] David: Absolutely.

[00:11:41] Danny: And actually any kind of social project is somehow related to some big grand challenge.

[00:11:48] David: Yeah.

[00:11:48] Danny: I feel linking individual projects to a grand challenge and saying how they relate is not really the point, it’s more general than that and more our overall approach. It’s how we’re thinking about a project in terms of we rarely think about projects as one-off projects, which we just do and then finish. We’re always thinking about, as we were talking about lives all over the world, how could this work then go to other places or other people who can’t get access to it?

It’s our approach to projects where the funding runs out and then we try to carry them on until the funding comes back again and sometimes they’re investment and sometimes they’re funded projects and that long term aspect of it.

Some projects that could be related to a grand challenge, there was some you picked out, but they were kind of small individual projects that just happened. And I think that’s fine as well. You know, we will have some projects as well in the future, which are just about helping us pay our costs, and that helps us towards our vision because it helps us to keep running as a company. So even something that may look like it’s related to a grand challenge, maybe is less so than something else which, which doesn’t. Yeah, I feel the vision is more subtle than that maybe, more related to our approach.

[00:13:09] David: Yeah.

[00:13:09] Danny: And how we operate.

[00:13:11] David: No, and I think that’s absolutely fair. I think that the thing which comes out of a lot of what you’ve said is actually these elements of building incrementally, accepting the complexity. And the thing which didn’t come out of what you were saying is this element of explicitly coherent, which was actually very interesting because when I was discussing with Santiago, I recognized that I feel that is the one where we’re actually really struggling to do because it’s expensive. It’s expensive to build that coherence in. To not just have coherence, which we have because we join the dots, but to make that thinking visible.

[00:13:49] Danny: Can you explain maybe how you see that exactly? Because I felt maybe you and Santiago were speaking about it in slightly different ways.

[00:13:57] David: Explicit coherence is we have, as you mentioned, what really ties us towards the grand challenge, towards our vision, is our underlying approaches. But we’re not good at making that clear and visible to others. How are others able to see that coherence? When people look at our range of projects, they just see a range of different things and they think these guys just do anything that comes their way. We’ve been told that. Whereas underlying them, they all connect.

In our minds, there’s coherence between every project we’re working on at the moment. But that coherence is not explicit. We’re not making visible the coherence, the links that we’re seeing and that we’re building. And so that is, I would argue, a weakness. This is part of what I suppose the podcasts are aiming to address, to try and actually make some of those discussions which were internal, external and visible and to be more explicit about it. But it’s hard.

[00:14:56] Danny: Yeah, and I can see it being a challenge as we get bigger.

[00:14:59] David: Yeah.

[00:15:00] Danny: And as people, get more aware, and less and less of a percentage of IDEMS work will be any individual. And, and we will have specialist people on education and so on, which we’re starting to already get.

And so yeah, that is a challenge. I felt maybe, we started to improve on that a bit through our team meeting, especially our first one, where we did realise a lot of people working on a lot of separate bits where there’s actually a lot of overlap and support that could be going both ways on different projects and seeing actually how climate projects can relate to education projects and so on.

[00:15:42] David: Absolutely. And how, in our mind, that everything’s connected. Really, I’ve done this exercise fairly recently of taking an area of our work and actually saying, okay, if we were to take this through so it could really impact, what would it use? And we find it actually touches on everything from the education components to all the technology which is being built would be needed to come in for that individual component.

And that’s where I believe a big power of our approach is that we do have coherence, but a big weakness we still have is in making that explicit.

[00:16:25] Danny: Yeah, and I think maybe that partly comes from a lot of our work being sort of foundational or enabling other things to happen, and so we are kind of naturally a step back in terms of the spotlight and in the background, and that’s sort of our strength, that comes a bit from this sort of mathematical approaches and so on and logical ideas. But yeah, I guess we then become less visible and what we’re doing and the connections of what we’re doing become less visible.

[00:17:00] David: Yes, and, I take this in a very simple way, but most of the experts we work with, and we’re privileged to work with world experts in a number of different domains, but if you’re an expert working in your domain, you actually have a lot of specialist knowledge, whereas what we end up doing is we don’t understand necessarily all of your specialist knowledge, but we can see how the patterns of what you’re doing relate to the patterns of what others do. And we can actually build structures and bring things which for you are innovative, but for us we’re just taking them from what’s happening elsewhere and this is just part of the structures you could be using. And so in your domain it’s very innovative, but in general, in terms of what’s known in the world, it’s just using the fact that lots of things are known. And we’re helping bring those connections, those tools, to play in many different domains.

[00:17:52] Danny: Yeah, and that comes back to having the diverse projects, and in diverse places, but diverse areas as well. And we’re often that link between different areas or different groups of organizations that don’t….

[00:18:07] David: Even within the same organization, we’ve had this before, where there’s a big group of collaborators, with word experts all over the world, working on the same domain. And we were working with different parts of that group on different components and then saying to them you’ve got to talk to each other because you guys are doing this and you guys are doing… And you’re basically agreeing you’re doing the same thing but you’re going around in the same loops, if only you talk to each other. And so part of what we’re doing is also is building those connections even within domains.

Experts are surprisingly isolated in some cases when it comes down to actually the individual work they do, the learning from other groups who are just a bit different. They’re often seen as being very different, whereas a lot of the commonality we can then draw out and say, yes, the actual topic is a bit different, but the thinking they’ve gone through is very similar. You should learn from each other.

[00:19:03] Danny: That pattern recognition and so on and underlying similarities of seeing things, the same thing in different ways.

[00:19:10] David: Exactly. They could be from two very different areas, in which case we often don’t bring the two together because they don’t see how to talk to each other, but we can bring the ideas, or from groups who are actually very close and actually recognising and helping guide that discussion so they can see how to help each other and influence each other.

[00:19:29] Danny: Yeah. Well, hopefully this discussion has helped us to be a little bit more explicit about some of that and even just starting the conversation is…

[00:19:38] David: Exactly.

[00:19:38] Danny: …I think helpful.

[00:19:39] David: And thanks for bringing this up as a topic. As a point of discussion I really enjoyed my discussions with Santiago on this. I think this is a topic which I really was grateful he forced us to address. And I think It’s been great to then come back and reflect on that discussion with you, to actually go a bit deeper into it and come down to the fact that probably we do need to change our mission, you know, we’re happy with the vision, but we probably do need to change the mission at some point.

[00:20:11] Danny: Yeah, I’m really pleased to have had this time to reflect and discuss on it as well. I’m interested to see what comes next and what other people reflect on this, reflecting on our discussions and all the discussions.

[00:20:23] David: And hopefully within, maybe even by the time that our listeners are listening to this, we might have a new mission. Look at our website, have a look, and maybe you’ll find our mission is no longer: ‘Working collaboratively with diverse partners to enable the evolution of innovations which can impact lives all over the world’. It might even be less of a mouthful.

[00:20:46] Danny: Maybe, we’ll have to see.

[00:20:49] David: Maybe it’ll be more of a mouthful, you never know. Let’s see what happens.