Here to Hear: Reflections from a Social Enterprise Field Study in Cambodia
Each year a mix of community members and PSU students travel to India or Cambodia with Impact Entrepreneurs to spend a few weeks working, learning and collaborating with social enterprises. This year the group is in Cambodia. Here are their stories.
By Tanya Murray (center)
The Human Centered Design approach that we are using to work on our design challenge starts with a simple concept: Hear. The idea behind starting with hearing is that for solutions to benefit those they are developed for requires a solid understanding of their experiences and needs. Before we came to Cambodia, back home in our pre-trip class sessions, we talked about the how to truly hear requires what’s often referred to as “beginner’s mind.” The idea behind beginner’s mind is that there is value in being able to listen openly without being distracted by pre-conceived beliefs, ideas, or experiences. When our mind is open, we hear more. In the design process, being able to hear more means we become more informed about the problem we are exploring and the opportunities that exist.
I’ve practiced this concept at other times with varying degrees of success. I’ve found that in practice, the ability to really listen and hear with a beginner’s mind is challenging. I find it extremely tempting to start formulating solutions at my first inclination of a good idea. The ego can easily be lured by the attraction of achievement and focusing on a solution and the actions required to develop it is a great way to escape the ambiguity of the discovery process. I find myself wanting to relate what I hear to my own experience, labeling and organizing by the constructs I understand. The problem with chasing after the first great ideas that come to mind or judging too quickly is that opportunities can be missed.
I came to Cambodia and to this experience in social entrepreneurship with an intention to practice listening with a beginner’s mind. Given that the topic my team was charged to work on is small-scale farming, a field that I have in-depth experience in and care deeply about, I knew that I was in for a big challenge.
Over the past six days, I’ve worked with my design team conducting intensive primary research on small-scale, chemical-free agriculture in Cambodia and the produce supply chain in Phnom Penh. We talked to farmers, restaurant owners, the local organic certification organization, and several local NGOs who work to promote the viability of small-scale, chemical-free farming. We heard about what these people care about and their frustrations and successes.
Now, leaving Phnom Penh, my head is full, still spinning from the experience I’ve had. In part this is because Phnom Penh is a lively, bustling city that bombards the senses. Since this was my first time travelling in Southeast Asia, and my experience traveling in the developing world is very limited, there’s been a lot to take in. But even more than feeling filled with the beautiful cacophony of this city, I am full of the rich, inspiring stories that I’ve taken in over the past six days of exploration and discovery. I take the fact that I have yet to fully put all these stories in order as a testament, at least in part, to a small bit of success in hearing with a beginner’s mind.
Yesterday my design team gave a presentation on our research findings and our recommendations for possible solutions. I observed myself feeling critical of our recommendations, finding them vague and far from anything resembling a model or plan of action. Our findings speak more to the qualities that a solution might have. There are no models or financial projections yet, just little nudges toward a solution.
What I’m realizing, with a few miles of perspective on our experience, is that not having a solution yet is a good thing, serving as further evidence of my developing ability to listen with a beginner’s mind and sit with the ambiguity of this process. While we’ve started getting hints of the form that a solution might take, there are still more questions to ask and more to discover. A full-formed solution would be premature. I’m recognizing the value in being able to hear, working on developing the patience and presence required, and looking forward to the solutions that emerge.