Ellenore's Note: Think Big. Then Work Backward, Step by Step
We reached an amazing milestone this month. One hundred unique titles published (nearly all in 3 different languages – which means almost 300 books total) in less than 3 years. This milestone represents the halfway mark of the ambitious goal we set for ourselves of 200 unique books in 6 years, the size of a small library. I reflected on what made this milestone possible and what took us from pie-in-the-sky, seemingly crazy goal and made it fully achievable. Here are a few things that stood out for me:
Thinking back to when I founded Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund in 2016 while still working full-time at Amazon, I wanted to take the best of everything I had learned in my professional, educational, personal, and volunteer efforts to increase the impact and speed of accomplishment in my not for profit efforts. And I wanted to build a team that would combine the best of their previous experiences, too, and apply them to the complex challenges that require nimble responses and better solutions as quickly as possible.
My 13-plus years at Amazon have had a powerful influence on my approach to most things in my life. From this experience, I drew heavily on their leadership principles and key strategies to create a similar backbone for how we do our work at OHBD. When we set the original goal of 200 books in 5-6 years, I kept two specific Amazon leadership principles at the forefront of my mind, with slight modifications for our model:
1. Think Big: Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners.
2. Bias for Action: Speed matters...Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.
These principles guided development of our original goal. It needed to be big enough to have the impact we sought. I asked Jane how many books would have the capacity to impact the literacy rate of Ethiopia. She suggested perhaps enough to complete a small library for practice reading, which would be around 200 books. So, we choose that number when we only had 10 sample versions. Because we agree “speed matters”, we gave ourselves 5-6 years to complete, even though producing these 10 had taken a year.
The important take away here was we didn’t know HOW we would achieve the goal at this point. We hadn’t set up a publishing process yet. Illustration was a key constraint. "Thinking big" means thinking without constraints. "Thinking small is self-fulfilling," and adding constraints like budget, current team, experience, and capabilities at the beginning of planning almost inevitably leads to small thinking. To help people I mentored at Amazon develop this Think Big skill, I would often ask them, “What would you do if you had the team and resources to do anything?” In other words, start your thinking as if anything is possible.
Once we had our Think Big goal defined and we'd made the commitment to achieve it, we needed to create a “working backwards” (another key Amazon concept) plan to make it a reality (the applicable Amazon’s leadership principle here is Deliver Results). A working backwards approach starts with the end goal and then works backwards to determine the steps needed to achieve it. We found this approach very helpful here. I also drew on a simple concept for this phase of the work I heard often from Jane, with whom I had worked since 2010 on projects in Ethiopia, “step by step”. She learned the power of this approach from her experience as an NGO founder as well as an award-winning author.
The definition of step-by-step is "marked by successive, finite degrees." It is taking the idiom “put one foot in front of the other” to other kinds of progress. We had already successfully used this approach to build and expand a library in Bahir Dar together, as well as strategic fundraising. Most often the path to success is not clear or defined. We continue to work toward our goals a bit at a time until we have more information or the path opens up.
In 2017, Jane and the team experimented (another key Amazon strategy) with a number of approaches for creating the books and by the end of the year, we had a creative process we thought could scale to support our goal.
Then we needed to move into actually producing the books, but we lacked expertise and knowledge about the process. Production demands required different skill sets and a new team. I reached out to my community for recommendations. Steff Stephens jumped in to help us build the processes and team, drawing on her experience as a Microsoft Program Manager to guide her. Steff recruited Kate, another resourceful and process- oriented leader, who now heads up our production. Step by step, we added more books to the Amazon platform, then added Kindle format, and then translations in new languages (Steff's current focus).
Illustrators were recruited or stepped forward. Some were students working with art teachers, some were art students, and others were amateur or professional artists. This month and below, we celebrate the key groups and people who helped us, step by step, to build the capacity to reach this first Think Big milestone and make us confident that the original goal will not only be reached, but exceeded. Thank you all for being part of the enormous effort to make this possible. This achievement is worthy of taking a moment to savor and celebrate. We look forward to celebrating again when we reach our complete, BIG 200 book goal.