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The Essential Question You Forgot to Ask

And it's one you probably think you do

An Nivacle boy holds two badoque

Angie Riveira was in tears. She was desperate to learn how to save her business. And as she stood at a busy intersection of Asunción, Paraguay, all she had in her hand was a lousy clay ball.

As a single mother, Angie works hard as a necessity entrepreneur selling chipa on the hot streets and over-crowded buses in the city. (Chipa is a bagel-like bread that she can make at home and sell to hungry Paraguayos on their way home from work.) Each transaction is essential. She literally has to sell to survive. Hence, “necessity” because every night she comes home to her young daughter with just enough guaranis to pay for that evening’s meal.

Which is why Angie came to Elevate Business — a for-profit venture that looks and feels like a charity. Why? Because its mission is to change the lives of struggling entrepreneurs like Angie that are saddled with crushing debt by teaching basic business and financial literacy skills. Angie enrolled to save her business, which really meant saving her family.

Incubated in the halls of Stanford University, Elevate has since worked with tens of thousands of entrepreneurs like Angie in countries like Paraguay, Peru, Columbia, and Mexico. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Jeremi Brewer. And it is different than any other training company in the world because they foster the most essential question in a most unusual way.

On day one, just as Angie sits down to be taught, Jeremi asks her and her classmates to stand up. He hands them a small clay ball used for hunting by the local Nivacle tribe. It’s called a badoque and it is otherwise useless to the world. Jeremi explains, “You have eight hours to trade this badoque into an income generating activity. Trade it. Sell it. Keep trading. Keep selling. Hunt for your business! Don’t come back until this afternoon.”

Angie was flustered. Even angry. “No tengo tiempo por esto. Necesito ayuda!” she said. I don’t have time for this. I need help! This is not the training I wanted. I thought you’d teach me important things.

But Angie relents. And, as expected, on her first attempt she’s met with laughter and derision. It’s embarrassing and feels pointless and she’s tempted to quit. But eventually she succeeds in trading the ball and by mid-afternoon she is selling trinkets to cars at stop lights.

By days end Angie is exhausted. She has been stretched beyond her comfort level and feels depleted. But surprisingly not defeated because, despite the difficulty, Angie has a little cash in her pocket instead of the badoque. That little difference goes a long way.

And now Jeremi and his team stand in front of the enthusiastic entrepreneurs. What have we taught you? he asks.

“The reality is,” Jeremi says with a smile, “we don’t teach them anything. We have learned that there is no better teacher than the market. No better classroom than the street.” And it’s true. Jeremi isn’t with Angie as she timidly pitches a clay ball to strangers. He’s not there to console her when others laugh in her face or respond with a crude remark. In fact, there is no one looking over her shoulder holding her accountable. It’s just Angie.

And this is when Jeremi see’s his students light up. Something important has shifted in their own minds. They have taken ownership for their own learning. So, as a result, Angie asks herself the Question. Research has shown that this essential question can improve productivity, spark innovation, and usher in a new wave of creativity.

Angie asks, “What have I learned?”

Thinking in Three Magic Minutes

To truly understand why this question is so essential for business leaders Harvard’s Francesca Gino and her team gave hundreds of participants twenty seconds to solve a difficult brain teaser. After their first round, the researchers gave the participants a choice to either spend three minutes reflectively writing on what they had learned from their first attempt or spend time practicing on another set of math puzzles for the next round. Honestly ask yourself what would you do?

Astoundingly, 82% of participants “chose to gain additional experience” without even considering what they had learned. No assessment of strategies. No appraisal of errors or even what they did well. Imagine! That’s like working hard on a new social media campaign, getting back the analytics, and throwing them in the shredder.

So what kind of impact can three minutes of reflective thinking actually make? It turns out, the reflective group was nearly 22% more effective than those who jumped back into the exercise without asking what they had learned.

It’s important to remember they were given a choice. This choice isn’t merely a simulation for a study. It’s one we face every day: whether or not to deliberately learn. Which is why famous psychologist John Dewey was so adamant we don’t really learn from our experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences.

What have I learned from that last sales call? What have I learned from reviewing this data? What have I learned from that staff meeting? Too often, Gino writes, we believe that “gaining additional experience would [give] rise to superior performance improvement.” But studies show that many of us are choosing to act because it’s easier, not because it’s more productive.

Our brains are incredibly energy efficient—constantly hunting for the calming waters of cognitive ease. And that means it tries to steer us back to the same routines, patterns, and experiences that are so familiar.

Asking the Question is asking more from your mind. Reevaluating or even challenging our preconceived beliefs and biases—or what psychologists call schema.

These schemas stifle productivity and creativity. They even plague places of legendary innovation like Silicon Valley. Recently, the former CTO at Hewlett Packard explained in an interview that the heart of the problem for business people and entrepreneurs is they “look at the end results of experiences and consciously or unconsciously turn these results into rules by which we operate in the present.” That’s scary because “these rules are a snapshot of an old paradigm…In many cases, the world has moved on.”

Fostering a culture that asks the Question after each meeting, report, or phone call is the quickest way to break down the collective schema’s that keep us “clinging on to the “obvious ideas that were once true.” Instead, we would be far better served as managers and leaders to engage in deliberate reflection.

If even for three magic minutes.

Learning is Our Responsibility

Jeremi has performed the badoque experience in over 19 different countries. “We’ve done it with Stanford MBA students to dirt-poor Benin Africans. The result is always the same.” Researchers from Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, and Harvard are investigating these results. They want to know What is the power of the badoque?

But Angie will be the first one to tell you these results came only when she took ownership of her learning experience and asked the Question.

“I learned that I can do this! And I learned how I approach difficult problems. It was definitely a paradigm shift. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience of going out exchanging and just opening yourself to the opportunity. It was the first time in my entire life that I realized I had the capacity. I didn’t need the teacher to tell me what to do. I just needed someone to give me a little push.”

Jeremi says they nurture the Question throughout their entire curriculum. “They need to learn they don’t go to Elevate to be taught” he says. “We provide tools and training. But learning is their responsibility.” Angie agrees. Today, she has her own bakery and daughter is going to one of the nicer schools in her neighborhood.

So how do we foster results like these? For Angie, and the rest of us, the answer begins with the Question: What have I learned?

———

• Interview, Jeremi Brewer. April, 2018 and in Necessity Entrepreneurs: Microenterprise Education and Economic Development. eds. Gibson and Brewer, 2014.

• Di Stefano, Giada and Gino, Francesca and Pisano, Gary P. and Staats, Bradley R., Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning (June 14, 2016). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; HEC Paris Research Paper No. SPE-2016-1181.

• Dewey, John. How We Think.

• Interview Philip McKinney. July 6, 2012. Author Phil McKinney On Going “Beyond the Obvious”

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