December 2011: We were excited. Diana Yusoff, one of our most illustrious alumni and founder of a highly successful social enterprise project, Gourmet Guru, agreed to lead the founding of the Alumni Association. The SIFE programme (SIFE was the previous name of Enactus) had been running for close to ten years and our alumni, numbering in the hundreds, were carving out successful careers for themselves. Could we tap on their energy, talents and networks to form an Alumni Association and provide them with learning opportunities, while at the same time, create a platform for them to be in the programme?
A group of alumni gathered to brainstorm around pizzas. They were interested in networking and events, doing community projects and working with their juniors. In short, nothing that needed an Alumni Association. While most of them were upbeat and energised discussing how to continue their involvement in the programme, Diana and I were not particularly pumped — a clear value proposition for the alumni has yet to emerge. That, we knew, would be critical in order for us to proceed.
At around the same time, the programme was ramping up support for our student projects by conducting workshops for them. Diana mentioned a workshop she had attended recently on futures thinking — could we excite a wider group of alumni by having them go back to their experiences, so as to project a compelling future for the programme? We called the workshop “Dream Up a Future SIFE.”
Projecting into the Future
9th June 2012: I remember that morning as though it was only yesterday. As we arrived at the venue, a brand new corporate training centre, Diana and I were gripped by contrasting feelings of apprehension and hope. Could we meld together a group of alumni, now working at different organisations large and small, whose only previous relationships with each other were as competitors at the National Competition for a prize to the World Cup?
The day went better than we expected — the participants enjoyed themselves. Reflection paved the way for projection into the future. We discussed exciting visions for the programme and organisation. But while they enjoyed the workshop, there were no inroads to a strong value proposition. Diana and I were still short of something…
…and then it hit us. The Aha moment! We had a challenge scaling up student training workshops — we needed more manpower, much more manpower. We needed people who understood projects, understood students’ learning needs, and could facilitate and train them. Each dilemma could not be solved on its own — we put the two together and had a solution!
Diana and I quickly fashioned together a group of alumni to start planning the workshops. We allocated workshop duties, put together work plans, rolled up our sleeves and got down to work. Eventually we formed specialised teams, gave ourselves a name and expanded the scope of our work…
Going Against Conventional Wisdom
May 2015: There was a light but persistent rain. We had been walking for 20 minutes under the McRitchie canopy before we took a vote to call it quits. We adjourned to Mamie’s place to dry up, proceeded with our sharing and then broke bread together over a superb fish head curry meal.
Over 2.5 years we have put together a team of passionate, talented, diverse and committed individuals. The team numbered around 30 and grew by around two each month. We have developed programmes like the project accelerator, attached mentors to every school, and provided support for Enactus Singapore in marketing.
The advice of every well meaning person with experience that we met along the way was that we should cut down our involvement because the volunteers were stretched. Too much work. Too many workshops. There should be more fun. But how can we achieve our goals if we slowed down the pace, eased the workload and brought in more fun?
A creative director once told me that the copywriters that produced the best work were always involved in the most number of projects. The peculiar thing was that some of the volunteers could hold down a demanding full time job but still found time to be heavily involved in the programme. Some have even moved to leadership and mentoring roles.
Again, we had to see things from a different vantage point. The issue here was not the workload or the commitment, it was the type of volunteers we had. By keeping the commitment high and finding the right volunteers, we created a bigger impact, not less.
Yes, we had to be watchful and actively guard against burnout, but you could see how the energy and enthusiasm emanating from one volunteer would energise the rest. We had to go against conventional wisdom. The volunteers want more, not less.
The Power of Imagination
Our realities are bounded by the limits of our imagination and our desire to shape our futures. (And, I guess, by the laws of nature and physics too. But I digress.) What has defined progress and innovation is the ability of the human mind to imagine and reimagine. Who could imagine that cell phones would once again get bigger and lose the key pad? It is this ability to see a future, something that has yet to exist, that allows us to solve problems and improve our current condition.
If Diana Yusoff had not questioned why homemakers with superb cooking skills could not use that ability to generate income, Gourmet Guru would not have been born. If Tam Pham had not dreamt that we could create a board game to teach business models better than case studies and lectures could, we would never have built this learning tool. If Neo Huan Ling did not envision solving the problems of food wastage and high food prices jointly, FoodSavers would never have been started.
Imagination. Every crisis creates opportunity, every struggle offers the chance to rediscover something about it. Every creation stems from the ability to see potential where others can’t.
In the programme, we support student groups in the development of breakthrough project ideas, and overcoming adversities to create innovative solutions. NTU’s ATypical was a project that evolved from an overseas community involvement programme. The project started in 2009 when students sold traditionally crafted laptop bags from Cambodia. It then evolved into a partnership with a social enterprise selling gifts. Challenges abounded, and the team decided to embark on a new business model that could create greater impact and sustainability. Reimagining how the challenge of developing empathy and understanding of the hearing-impaired could be addressed, ATypical developed a game room that allows participants to play games and have fun, while experiencing the physical challenges of being hearing-impaired.
The ABCs of Imagination
Appreciate. Gain a good appreciation of the situation. Go for depth, breadth and diversity. Seek unconventional viewpoints while understanding traditional thinking. Understand how various elements work together in synergy or interact with tension.
When thrusted into the task of building the Alumni Association, we spoke to alumni and understood their motivations and needs. We tried to understand what they felt was valuable for them to contribute their time. We formed hypotheses and tested them out. We tried to find a sweet spot where a tension could serve as a springboard rather than a compromise.
Brainstorm. Generate ideas. Read, observe, immerse yourself in different fields, whether or not they are related to what you are doing. You can never know which two disparate ideas can fit together and form your solution. Try all combinations, don’t settle for commonly accepted norms and wisdom. Persevere.
Our first ideas didn’t work. We tried out other ideas. We tapped on the different experiences Diana had. We tested our new hypothesis. We didn’t get a 100% fit again. We pushed on and tried a different angle — it worked!
Create. With a blueprint of the future, we move into the creation mode. Be agile — a plan is a basis for change, it is almost never the final product. Test, change, improve. Gather resources, gather support, gather momentum. Finish off the product, sit back and savour your success, then go back in, tear your idea apart and try and improve it again.
The story of the FastForward committee has been a story of disappointments, difficulties, let downs and misfires. Yet, this has also allowed us to grow the volunteer numbers, grow the programme and grow the individuals who are working with us. Through learning and improving we develop a more relevant programme, more resilient people and a better experience for our stakeholders. Every time we finish something we wake up the next morning to try to improve it.
Continuing the story of reimagination, Diana and her team developed a candy game to teach risk management and an origami game to teach financial management. Chua Ming Zhou has revised that game another three times. We worked together to develop a course to teach student leaders in our alma mater leadership skills for diverse situations. We pulled together a group of alumni to share insightful stories and lessons from their experiences. Diana grew the committee and handed it over to me.
After leaving Enactus, she is still reimagining boundaries and reinventing how things are done. Diana uses the business model canvas for project planning, balanced scorecard to chart departmental strategies, the customer purchase model for campaign planning in her work, and continues to use the innovative facilitation and learning methods in workshops.
Never stop imagining. You will never know where it brings you.
Daniel Tan, Fast Forward Committee Chair / Senior Manager, Unity Technologies
Daniel joins Unity Technologies after 3.5 years at a venture capital. He is infected by passionate, purposeful and creative people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Daniel spent time studying in Australia where he grew to love Aussie rules football, kangaroo steak and the Outback. In his spare time he works with youth and social enterprises.