When you created your business, you passionate about a problem. You empathized with the people experiencing the problem and likely worked with them to formulate a solution.
But a lot has happened since then. You've got an org chart now. An advisory board. And an accountant. All of these processes and systems had to be created to help your business grow to solve the problem for more people.
Now you sometimes go for days without thinking about the problem. You're thinking about the problems you face in your daily life in trying to address the problem. You don't often have time to talk to the people experiencing the problem anymore.
You feel distant from the experiences of the people who are most affected by the problem. And you're not alone.
What you're experiencing can be a temporary distance. Your business depends on you and your team maintaining proximity with the people experiencing the problem. If you allow the distance to continue growing, you risk your business becoming irrelevant.
So what can you do?
I've created a list of some of the ways I've been able to maintain a connection with people experiencing problems I have sought to solve. When I fail to do these things, my own solutions become detached from their experiences and flop when I try to implement them.
These things take time. But the long-term well-being of your business depends on it.
1. Be vulnerable
When we think about engaging people most affected by the problem, we think first about what we can learn from them. But you may not be the first people trying to solve their problem. If you have a presence in the community, you may have a reputation that you can either build on or that you need to improve. No matter how long you have been in this work, you need to continue to prove yourself trustworthy, and that requires that you enter into their culture on their terms. It might require answering questions they have for you, sitting for long lengths of time in complete silence, joining them on seemingly irrelevant activities, or eating food you're not comfortable with.
Whether the problem you seek to solve is in your own country or another, finding opportunities for authentically entering into the culture and experience of the people who experience it will show that you are coming with respect. If you have lost connection with the people who are experiencing the problem, it may take time to re-establish trust.
2. Be humble
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received upon my entry into the field of evaluation was to "be humble." There is power in being able to "judge" other people's work as worthwhile or not - which is often the perception people have of evaluation. This advice meant to enter into conversations with compassion, to truly seek to partner with the people whose work I was evaluating, and to truly seek to create a plan that would actually respect and improve their work, not judge it.
As the leader of a social enterprise, you have power that the people experiencing the social problem you are seeking to solve don't have. Whether you look like them physically (racial or ethnic background, gender, ability, etc.), or whether you were in their position and are solving a problem you had, you likely have power that they do not. No matter how long you have been at this work, remind yourself of the wisdom the people experiencing the problem have that you do not.
3. Be curious
When we first hear about a problem, we're curious. We want to know everything. But as we learn more about it, sometimes we either feel we have to defend our own expertise and are not open to new information, or think we know all we need and go off on our own to find a solution that will end the problem.
Practice active listening by asking questions and not interjecting with your own ideas. Just hearing the answer and asking more questions to help the speaker go more deeply into their own experiences. And don't be afraid of silence. Accepting silence demonstrates respect for the other person's process. And in some cultures, you will need to sit in silence for a very long time.
4. Practice beginner's mind
When I lived in Australia, I started watching rugby. I kept asking people questions about it and then saying, "oh, so that's like in American football when...." I completely confused myself, so I gave up trying to understand it through my existing paradigms. That's when I really started enjoying rugby.
The problem you seek to solve changes daily because its context changes daily. Laws get changed. Resources diminish. Natural disasters occur. Cultural norms shift. Relationships become fractured. When you speak with people experiencing the problem, ask questions that you think you already know the answer to. You can even engage in a daily meditation practice like this one to challenge yourself to be open to new ideas in your daily life.