Global Remote Collaboration for Impact at ThinkPlace

December 15, 2020


At Amani Institute, one of the things that is central to our methodology is learning by doing. Often times you will hear Amani Faculty say, “knowledge only has value when it is applied.” In our Social Innovation Management (SIM) program, the application piece takes the form of an intensive four month apprenticeship project at a partner organization. This gives social innovators the chance to transfer their theoretical knowledge into a real world context and solving practical challenges.

Given that our global outlook has been radically changed by covid-19, this year the apprenticeships have been done virtually as part of our first ever fully online SIM class. Despite the absence of the physical engagement that we truly do love, the virtual apprenticeships have enabled us to adapt and embrace the future of work via virtual collaboration by people in vastly distant geographical locations.

One of the organizations that we were partnering with for the apprenticeships is ThinkPlace, a strategic design and innovation consultancy  that works to solve some of the most challenging problems across the world. The collaboration between ThinkPlace and Amani Institute have been extensive over the years with numerous Fellows having worked at ThinkPlace for their apprenticeships and even eventually joining as full-time employees.

For this digital iteration of the apprenticeship, two Fellows, Faustina Ning’a and Laura Paonessa were collectively working to enhance internal communication and virtual collaboration at ThinkPlace US. 

Problem Definition and Solution

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the  team at ThinkPlace US had to split across time zones. Three of the studio’s team members relocated to Australia and two remained in Washington DC. This has led to some challenges in project collaboration due to the huge variation in time zones between the US, Australia, West and East Africa; where most of the studio’s projects take place. The Amani Fellows used a design thinking approach, the ASIF Framework to map out the root causes of these challenges. An interesting tidbit is that some of the solutions proposed by Faustina and Laura were adopted even before the completion of the apprenticeship! The Fellows have developed a project profile that will be used by the ThinkPlace team to guide communication flow at the start of any project and also gave a number of recommendations of adaptive strategies that can help enhance the organizational information flow and culture.

Key Takeaways

Here are some key takeaways from the apprenticeship engagement from Faustina, Laura and Juanita Rodriguez, the Studio Lead  at ThinkPlace US (Amani Alumni).

Juanita Rodriguez

 “Working with Faustina and Laura has been excellent. Both of them have been incredibly engaged during the apprenticeship project. I really enjoyed the apprenticeship process with Laura and Faustina and the remoteness didn’t feel like a barrier with them. They have brought a lot of new ideas and have managed to keep our team engaged through the process.  

What makes Amani Fellows unique is how self aware they are. In my opinion, the inner journey in Amani Institute is unique and the process we go through of internal reflection, acceptance and identification of the value we as change-makers bring to the world, is unique. 

I think this partnership has been successful because both parts share value with each other. From the ThinkPlace perspective, in Kenya and in the US the perception of Amani fellows is of prolific and well-rounded professionals. The fact that most of the Amani Fellows that have done an apprenticeship with ThinkPlace are familiar with Design Thinking is already valuable for us. I can see these apprenticeship processes can also be a good platform for senior designers in ThinkPlace to engage into mentorship and coaching practices. Having an internal project worked well for us this time, having the Fellows working in an actual ThinkPlace external project with our clients sometimes is more uncertain, but could be something to explore further in the future.”

Faustina Ning’a

One of the things that I really enjoyed was how receptive the ThinkPlace team was to new ideas. Some of the recommendations that we gave were adopted even before we finished prototyping. Also the element of getting positive and encouraging feedback from such an experienced team really made the whole apprenticeship very enjoyable.

One of my takeaways as someone who has been in the corporate world is that it is possible to work with purpose other than profit. The support structure and the intentional desire to provide solutions to problems I’m too familiar with inspired me. I also love how organizations that are in the social innovation sphere are all about creativity and new ideas to bring about systemic change.

I am now convinced that I do want to venture into a career in social impact. Through the apprenticeship I have realised that I want to do good and use my creativity to solve social issues.  I am consciously and thoroughly looking for an opportunity in social innovation. In society today, profits and cash is king, but I’m honestly exhausted with this cycle having worked in this industry for 5 years. I want to help the society and not milk it.

Laura Paonessa

The most fulfilling part of the apprenticeship was to build a strong team with Faustina and Juanita, given how far apart we are from each other. I chose this apprenticeship because I wanted to improve my skills as a designer. I learnt about the design thinking method incorporating some elements of the ASIF process too. I trusted my intuition and reaffirmed that I enjoy being a facilitator. This apprenticeship gave me the confidence to think of facilitating other social innovation processes in the future.  

One of the cool things about the ThinkPlace team is that even though they were under pressure with the different deadlines, they all were open to receive external support and were very collaborative during the workshops and the interviews. We designed our own metaphor to evaluate the collaboration and pace focusing on their rhythm, and they received it with curiosity and eagerness.

The process of coming up with the solutions to the virtual collaboration challenge was interesting. We revised the problem description we were given, identifying more in-depth causes, and designing different exercises and facilitating workshops to go through the different stages of the innovation process: sensing, testing, and prototyping some solutions. It looked like doctors going to the doctor! We were using design thinking to work with experienced designers. The team had to adopt a participant perspective and we had to lead the process while learning and overcoming our time zone challenges too.”


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