Thinking outside the box

I want to relate a cute story that’s stuck with me since I heard it about a decade ago – one that really highlights the value of thinking outside the box.

George Roter, co-founder of the wonderful NGO Engineers Without Borders, gave a talk at the University of Toronto where he related a story of when he was on a service trip to some impoverished village in Africa. The villagers maintained a significant cattle population and were struggling to keep the cattle fed & hydrated during the dry season. They would have to take the herd long distances to find water and food and these treacherous journeys were hard on both man and beast – often with many casualties among the latter. Could the foreign team come up with a way to avoid this?

Being consummate engineers, George and his team jumped to find cool and innovative solutions to this problem. Perhaps they could design a giant well, or reroute a river, or build some sort of massive storage for supplies. I believe they eventually settled on some complex construction project. Such a thing would require many moving parts, both literally and figuratively with lots of institutional backing.

As the project neared its start though George noticed an odd thing. None of the villagers ate meat – their diet was mostly vegetarian. They also didn’t really drink milk or make butter, nor did they use the cattle for leather. Sure a few of the animals were used as muscle to pull carts, but certainly not enough to justify keeping giant herds. Curious about this George did a little more digging and came to the stunning realization that the villagers were using the cattle as money! They were using the animals as literal stores of value – for trading both near and far and for use as dowry. What the villagers needed wasn’t a way of keeping more cattle and growing their numbers, what they really needed was a bank!

I think the story ends on a happy note with George and his team successfully linking up this remote village with the wider financial network of its home country. Something no one would have done had someone not stepped back for a moment and looked at the big picture. I think a good takeaway from this whole episode is the value in always questioning our actions. Of not getting tunnel-vision and of always trying to find the reason behind why we do things the way we do.

For those who perhaps know George or have heard this story, I apologize as some details might be garbled or wrong – its been a long time since I heard it – but drop a comment if you know more details!

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