In the decades I have been engaging internationally, these are some of the lessons I’ve learned that come up again and again.
- Be humble – When engaging with new cultures be humble and assume you don’t know more than you do. Ask lots of questions and apologize for misunderstandings. Humility and not taking yourself too seriously goes a long way towards building trust and productive relationships.
- Cultivate a global mindset – Practicing a ‘global mindset’ (it is a practice) can help us to remember the small things that make a difference in a global environment, so that they can become routine to us. This can range from focusing on time zone differences when scheduling global meetings to speaking slowly and without acronyms in global groups.
- Structure a learning organization, allowing room for testing, failure and change – Learning and effective programs often come from testing out new ideas (such as in a pilot format) and learning before investing significantly in a particular direction. We need to give our organizations this ability to test, fail periodically, and adapt. I started the global Testing Change project to add to our body of practical knowledge and learning in this area.
- Build in Flexibility – There are often many routes to take in pursuing a solution, especially when different cultures come into play, and much that is out of our control. Recognizing this, being flexible regarding things you cannot control, and creating alternative pathways, can be a very important skill in any NGO, one that is engaging internationally or not.
- Different approaches to growth and ‘scaling’ – Our thinking needs to move beyond the historic definition of scaling as a centrally controlled scale up and the mindset that bigger is better. We need to work closely with local partners and in some cases be ready to say that what worked well in one place, may not work at all somewhere else. With all of the ways in which the concept of scaling is talked about, one of the most important lessons is that context matters.
- Appreciate the long term nature of change and growth – Organizations and networks that have been most successful with making significant changes, and most importantly increasing their impact due to these changes, understand that it is, and plan for it to be, a long-term process. This includes sustainable leadership and organizational commitment; space for learning and failure; effective communication channels; and peer support.
And a general ‘check list’ to consider for Strategic International Outreach!