The diary of an accidental social entrepreneur

In her first diary entry, Helen Trevaskis recounts her mental upheaval as she transitions from innovation consultancy to the coalface of social enterprise, and gets to grips with the tensions involved in developing a product for use in India's slums.

I have a growing urge to contact all the companies I’ve advised on innovation over the past 15 years. I’ve imagined the calls, ‘Hello. Remember those snacking, insurance, and skincare ideas we developed? Yes that’s right, the ones for teenagers, frequent fliers, and dogs. Well, um, I know it’s been a while but I'm calling to give you a refund.’ And I’ve imagined the bemused responses of my former clients as I ruefully own up to what I have come to realise – I had no idea what I was doing. Sorry. 
What has triggered this (so far) entirely imagined ‘consultancy amnesty’ is that finally I’m trying to do innovation myself and it’s hard. Of course, coming up with something new is hard – I expected that. But, I also expected all those years as an innovation consultant to count for something and I’m not sure they do?
Perhaps, I’m finding this particularly taxing because it’s social innovation not just creating the next new shampoo (although, never underestimate how hard creating the next new shampoo actually is). And, social innovation means you can’t simply work out what people will buy then sit back and think “Job done!” No. What you create must address a specific problem, which usually means it must play a specific role in a specific setting. It has to function effectively and consistently, often in a testing context. And, then it needs to be used correctly or you end up with poultry cages made from anti-malarial bed nets, and oral rehydration salts for diarrhea over-diluted and useless. 
But, I’ve also consulted on social innovation projects including many for Unilever – a company stretching itself to reach social and environmental goals – so being charged with creating ideas that both sell and deliver socially is not entirely new to me. Hmmm…
Perhaps I’m finding it harder than expected because of who I'm not? I was never the kid who bought a bag of sweets then divided up the contents to resell in the playground, at a profit. Nor did I burst into the world of work filled with the desire to make the world of better place – I cut my business teeth researching booze, holidays and British Gas. But, I meet enough starters of start-ups – social and other - to know they come in varied shapes and sizes, with almost as many different motivations as backgrounds. So what is it...?
I am reminded again and again by everyone we meet that what we’re doing is oxymoronic in nature
Google’s Alberto Savoia says in his Pretotyping manifesto that “Most new ideas fail”. Not content with this crushing observation he continues, “Most new products and companies do not fail due to poor execution, but because they are The Wrong 'It' – ideas that sounded good in theory, but prove to be uninteresting to the market.” This helps me understand what’s causing my retrospective consultancy angst: as a hired hand I’ve always been able to walk away before anyone knew whether or not we had the wrong or even the right “it”. 
Every year around the globe 3.5mn children under five die from diarrhea and acute respiratory infections. Evidence suggests that better hand hygiene of the sort our mums taught us – wash your hands with soap after the toilet and before you eat – could help significantly reduce this depressing figure. This is true in settings where people have lousy or non-existent sanitation infrastructure, like the slums in India where we are trying to innovate.
But, despite hand hygiene being high on the international public health agenda, and innovative work being done to encourage hand washing with soap – Unilever’s Lifebuoy is one example – at-scale success is illusive. This is where the “it” we are trying to create fits in. Over the next 12 months with a small pot of development venture funding we want to work out if changing the things in people’s lives, not just the stories around them, can improve hand hygiene habits. 
Commitment phobia
Perhaps by nature consultants have commitment issues, when being able to move on to the next project, leaving the last behind is part of the role’s attraction? Especially those who, like me, left agency life early on in their careers to go freelance? If so, my desire to step into the world of social enterprise suggests a masochistic streak. But here I am. And I’m delighted. But, I’m also having to embrace a new mindset for those moments where I feel like everything I thought I knew, had decided was true and was excited about, is slipping through my fingers. 
There were many of these moments last month in Bangalore on a reccy to plan the work we’ll be doing there for the next year. For example, half way through a meeting with our agency: realising that much of what I know about hand hygiene may not apply to slums; later, standing in a slum sited symbiotically beside a concrete processing plant and watching peoples’ vigorous morning ablutions (one man was doing a full body wash with a stone), and wondering how the hell we could convince people so attentive to personal hygiene they need to do something else? Then, listening in awe to two experienced social innovators working in massive slums in Agra and Bombay. They revealed the challenges of getting any venture off the ground in settings where the deficits of the physical infrastructure are compensated for by a massively complex social infrastructure. 
I am reminded again and again by everyone we meet that what we’re doing is oxymoronic in nature – we are trying to develop products designed to work in slums for people who want products that are aspirational: who wants to be sold something that reminds them of their low position on the social ladder?
I’m not sure what this mindset is called but I know it includes a series of tensions: the tension between optimism and realism; between pig-headedness and humility; between a narrow focus on the big goal, and an overdeveloped peripheral vision that allows you to spot the opportunities you didn’t expect, but would be crazy not to embrace. And, I know where to look, to understand more about how to develop it – to my former clients, as what I’m experiencing must surely be what many of them were going through when I worked with them.