I attended an amazing event the other night. It was the opening ceremony of the third annual One Young World Summit. More than 1200 future leaders from 180 countries, all between the ages of 21 and 29, converged to wrestle with some of our biggest global challenges (Denny Civic Solutions, by the way, played an instrumental role in bringing the Summit to Pittsburgh).
One of the counselors who spoke and worked with the delegates was Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank. Yunus started the bank (whose name is derived from the Bengali word for rural or village) as a class project with his students in 1976. The idea was to provide low-interest microloans to poor women, giving them the capital they needed to start their own businesses. Today it is a remarkable success, having loaned over $11 billion dollars to women in developing countries, with a 97% repayment rate and more than 90% of the bank now owned by its customers.
How did this success happen? In his remarks at the One Young Word summit, Professor Yunus recounted how he was told that making loans to the poor was a stupid idea. However, he suggested that the idea worked because, not in spite of, the fact that his own stupidity about banking allowed him to plunge forward. Had he known how traditional banks work – requiring collateral, loaning only to those who already have money, etc. – he never would have started the Grameen Bank.
Once he did learn how traditional banks work, he made one of the most important decisions of his life. Faced with the knowledge that the poor were universally considered a bad investment, he decided simply to go against the prevailing wisdom and do the opposite. Instead of loaning to the rich, Grameen made loans only to the poor. Instead of requiring collateral, they asked for nothing upfront. Instead of charging high interest rates, they lower the rates to a level that allowed their customers to thrive. Instead of lots of forms and documents, they asked loan recipients to sign only a simple, one-page document.
This got me thinking about those of us in Civic Campaigns. What if we were “stupid” and went against conventional wisdom, recognizing the value of sometimes just doing the opposite? In short, what if we didn’t know what couldn’t be done?
This opens up a totally different approach. For example, instead of targeting the leadership of legislative bodies, what if we empower freshman legislators to champion a cause? If done right, you could earn a champion for life. Or, instead of raising money and making contributions to elected officials in order to gain their support (as many do), what if we did the opposite and made legislators compete to champion a cause or issue? That is, make them actually “pay” (maybe not monetarily, but in terms of time, leadership, and commitment) to be selected to champion your cause. This could totally change the dynamic and make for a more committed champion.
And what if a strategy called for losing to make a point? In other words, sometimes it is better to move an issue forward either through legislation or referendum – knowing it won’t pass – simply to start the conversation. Sometimes this can be far better than sitting on your hands until you think the time is absolutely right, thereby not only failing to succeed but also simultaneously failing to get your message across.
The idea of “trying something stupid” may sound a little silly. Nonetheless, I do believe that sometimes, “doing the opposite” – and being brave enough to defy the conventional wisdom – can pay off in ways you never imagined.