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Always ask the ‘5 whys’


While trying to get my son to write in longhand instead of typing touch-screens and keyboards, he asked me a question that stopped me. “Why?” In that second, I found myself thinking if writing longhand was still a necessary skill in an increasingly digital world? Another thing my son’s question allowed me to remember was the “5 Whys Framework” that I learned during product management training.

The “5 Whys” is an iterative methodology developed by Toyota to help get to the root-cause of a problem by just asking “Why,” five times in sequence. The answer of the initial “Why” becomes the question of the next one. It helped them identify real problems to be solved and not symptoms. This methodology found its way into “Six Sigma” project management, then eventually, product management at technology startups. I adopted it as a useful strategy setting and decision-making method as well. Here, I try to use this methodology to analyse core issues in our local innovation and technology ecosystems.

Why write about technology for a newspaper?
I believe innovation ecosystems should be more inclusive. I want to bridge the digital divide that exists between this audience and the technology community to create a larger ecosystem. An ideal technology ecosystem is not made up of one side only. I want to be able to tell more stories of local technology to a mainstream audience in clear language. Emeka Afigbo of Facebook calls this digital divide between the technology/innovation community and the market or greater ecosystem, “The Abyss of The Great Outdoors.”

Why is it important to bridge this divide or abyss”?
Because the technology or “innovation” community, when viewed from outside, seemed rapidly becoming an echo chamber of cabals and cliques. This perception required correction. Most of the narrative frequently was centred on the same topics or the same people.

Why did the technology or innovation community become an echo chamber?
It is because everything and everyone in it revolved around locations. Recreating an innovation community in Yaba was a great achievement, the problem is that maybe we want to become like Silicon Valley too quickly.

I use the word ‘recreate’ because “innovation and technology” have existed in Yaba years before. For instance, The Polytechnic, Yaba aka Yaba Tech, has been there for a while. Talent has also always been there, Yaba has been a significant pipeline of talent over time and not just a business destination. MAYO at Sabo probably produced most of the top accountants and financial services professionals in the country today. Queens College is also in Yaba and has a lot of talented women in high places in society as alumni. I wonder why these institutions are typically not included in the “New Yaba” narrative? Is it because they do not fit nicely into a “Silicon Valley model”? A university like Stanford is an essential part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

Why is mimicking Silicon Valley a problem?
Another long explanation, bear with me. Silicon Valley was not a place looking for innovation or innovative people; it was daring and creative individuals who created a place where they can thrive. The history of San Francisco started from the gold prospectors, and it has culminated in current day Silicon Valley.

Efosa Ojomo is an MBA graduate of the Harvard Business School who works at the Christensen Institute. He has a fascinating theory that, “Innovation always comes before Infrastructure” and not the other way round. He has written articles online about this and is currently working on a book. He uses the theory to explain why aid efforts in Africa have failed because resources have been put ahead of “process.” I agree with him. It seems we have somehow come to the same flawed conclusion (resource before process) in African technology. We want the “funding and infrastructure” before innovation instead of the other way round. ccHUB existed before the MainOne fiber link at Yaba. ImpactHub existed before Google’s Projectlink

Why do we focus on resources ahead of innovation in African ecosystems?
We are already starting from a deficit position where infrastructure is a challenge we cannot solve by ourselves alone. It is why clusters like Yaba make a lot of sense from a shared resource perspective. The tech community at Yaba is in itself an innovation of sorts. It has spurred other similar initiatives around Nigeria and beyond.

I was at a meeting with people trying to build a technology cluster in another West African country recently and impressed at how closely they followed developments in Nigeria. I was also worried that they would make the same mistakes without learning from Nigeria. The recent closure of Idea Hub at Yaba spooked them a bit.

At the micro level, it is also about motivation. A lot of people want to be rich. I have no problem with that. The only issue I have is with indeterminacy. Local innovation cannot be taken seriously by outsiders when all we think of first is getting rich before providing innovative solutions at scale.

Please note that I have tried to use “innovation” here in this article instead of just technology. I believe our greatest problem has been a narrow definition of scope. This lack of breadth leads to the wrong measure of progress. Active and vibrant ecosystems are not necessarily innovative ones. Signal has to be separate from noise.

To provide solutions to all the “Whys” above, “5 Hows” are needed. I promise I shall discuss it here in another article. In the meantime, try the “5 Whys” on any issue yourself to discover your answers.

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