News & commentary about the global health workforce
Vital Home

You’re Not a Fraud, You’re an Innovator

This post originally appeared on the K4Health Blog

Do you ever feel like a fraud?

Not the kind who swindles the vulnerable out of their hard-earned savings or phishes for credit card digits online, but the kind who presents herself more authoritatively than she should? Masquerading as an expert? Or is it just me?

An article in The Atlantic last month on the confidence gap suggests that success has just as much to do with confidence as with competence. And the tendency to underplay or question our credentials and skills is more familiar to women than men.  As it happens, I read this article right before attending IntraHealth International’s annual SwitchPoint event last week.

SwitchPoint always makes me think in a new way, setting my brain on overdrive as it tries to connect the unlikely combinations of speakers and topics. Puppets, poetry, and technology? Games, 3D printers, and the government’s use of big data? Of course, getting the audience to think about the possible connections is the point (ahem) of SwitchPoint.

And last week, in my own SwitchPoint moment, I learned to re-label that feeling of fraudness I experience as what it feels like to pursue innovation.

It happened as I co-facilitated a microlab—kind of like (and at the same time nothing like) a breakout session at a typical conference—on games. It was a collaboration between IntraHealth and the Center for Communications Programs at Johns Hopkins’ Knowledge for Health Project. We introduced participants to Vital Pursuit, an online game about becoming a nurse in Kenya, and also tested a non-virtual game that had participants literally racing to access family planning methods before encountering unintended pregnancies.

Both games aim to make players think holistically, and on a deeply personal level, about the systematic challenges people face either in joining the health workforce or as seekers of family planning methods.

During the family planning game, players assumed different roles, such as a sexually active adolescent girl or a married man contemplating a vasectomy, and worked their way through barriers to be the first player to get a family planning method. Through a mix of chance and design, some paths are harder than others, some players get better support and service along the way from family, community members, and health workers.

At the end, the players were brimming with ideas about how the game could be used in different contexts.

Was I a Fraud?

I am neither a family planning nor a gaming expert, nor have I ever been a nurse in Kenya. Forget my more than ten years of experience in global health and knowledge management. Forget my perspective as an avid game player and client of family planning services. Forget all the research I’ve synthesized on family planning issues. I still wondered, what was I doing there? Was I a fraud?

The point of testing the game at SwitchPoint was to elicit feedback. A colleague of mine—a medical doctor and true family planning expert—attended and played the game. He gently pointed out to me at the end that we hadn’t adequately addressed the issue of dual protection.

For a moment my confidence gap took over and I felt like a phony for having missed something so important. I even defensively mentioned that if he had selected a certain card along the way, the issue would have indeed been addressed.

His point, of course, was that every player should walk away with an understanding of the need for dual protection for those at risk of sexually transmitted infections. His feedback was spot on and will be easy to incorporate into the game.

So instead of giving in to my instinct to chide myself, I thought of the remarks Ken Banks had made earlier that day. Ken, founder of FrontlineSMS and editor of the new book The Reluctant Innovator, believes in the power of ordinary, non-experts to solve problems and simply get things done. He pointed out example after example of game-changing innovations made not by experts but by regular people who had stumbled upon great ideas. Fittingly, Ken’s presentation was followed by that of Jorge Odón, a car mechanic who found an ingenious way to ease obstructed labor.

Of course, professional training, credentialing, and standards are vital. No one is suggesting we replace skilled birth attendants around the world with trained mechanics. But just as reluctant innovators often need to partner with experts to drive their innovations over the finish line, experts can benefit from the fresh thinking of non-experts who see possibilities and solutions others might miss.

And when you put them all together? Well, that’s when things happen.

Whether it’s a puppeteer, a mechanic, or a PhD, if someone comes up with a brilliant idea to improve lives, shouldn’t we seize it?  Not knowing everything isn’t a problem when you have the confidence to reach out to those who can fill in the gaps to make your work, well, work.

So my takeaway this year? Frauds Innovators + Experts = SwitchPoint.

Read more at SwitchPoint 2014: What All the Fuss Was About.