Starting a business or making a career move is tough at the best of times. Doing it during a global pandemic – with skyrocketing costs of living and isolation from traditional systems of support – is a near-perfect recipe for disillusionment and burnout.
Enter: Better Together.
With funding from the City of Ottawa’s Community Economic Development program, Impact Hub Ottawa worked with local leaders to pilot a three-month program that brought the best of our community – expertise, networks and peer support – to entrepreneurs and career shifters from equity-deserving groups in Ottawa.
Our goal? Prepare people to make their next career or business move with confidence through human-centred learning, networking and skill-building opportunities.
Pilot projects are a great opportunity for organizations to engage in social R&D by testing assumptions and validating approaches to program design and delivery. Too often, tight timelines and strict requirements on project spending lead to programs based on precedence or untested hypotheses about which interventions will produce which results for participants.
We learned a lot!
Some things we’d do again in a heartbeat; others, we’d adjust or scrap altogether. In the spirit of learning together – and holding ourselves accountable in building future iterations of the program – here are a few of the insights and lessons we learned in designing and delivering this pilot.
Whether you’re in the business of program design or are simply curious to learn more about our programs, read on to learn what worked, where we missed the mark, and what we’d do to deliver an even stronger program next time.
Better Together: The Essentials
Timeline: Jun-Dec, 2022
The program: A 3-month series of mutual learning sessions and wraparound supports designed to help entrepreneurial and career shifting professionals from equity-deserving groups make the next moves in their career journey. Better Together was delivered through participants meeting in virtual cohorts for a series of mutual learning sessions in September, October and November.
- Jun-Aug: Co-design & recruitment
- Sep-Nov: Thematic workshops, 8 total, 4 per cohort
- Sep-Nov: Networking events, 6 total
- Sep-Dec: Coaching & Impact Hub Ottawa Membership
- Ongoing: Monitoring & evaluation
Ambition #1: Co-design & Iterate
Co-design, or collaborative design, is all about building something – be it a product, service, or program – in collaboration with the people it’s intended to serve. It’s a key value of ours at Impact Hub Ottawa, and putting it into practice for Better Together involved a few key steps:
Identify and design for participants’ needs. We designed an application form that encouraged participants to outline their unique challenges, goals, and wants with respect to their businesses or careers, allowing our team to finalize the content and scheduling of the program based on participants’ self-identified needs rather than our own assumptions..
Don’t go it alone. You could say that collaboration is the Hub’s bread and butter. So, we made sure to dedicate ample resources to designing and delivering this program collaboratively with a team of people representing a range of backgrounds and areas of expertise. Our design team comprised 4 specialists in program design, equity, entrepreneurship, and career coaching, and we selected facilitators and storytellers whose lived experiences reflected those of participants.
Hold yourself accountable. Setting up processes to monitor and evaluate progress – and knowing when to change course – is key to the success of any pilot. We collected anonymous feedback from participants and partners after each workshop and began subsequent sessions with a recap of what we heard and how we responded. At the program’s end, an in-person celebration and retrospective allowed participants from both cohorts to share their feedback on what went well, what was missing, and what they’d recommend we do differently next time.
Flexibility is great; structure is essential. Our commitment to iterating on the fly sometimes meant that new elements were added to the program with little notice, which disrupted participants’ schedules and prevented them from participating fully. Being up-front about potential changes in scheduling or agreeing to a firm schedule ahead of time can provide the clarity that some participants might need to be able to participate fully, making for a more equitable experience for all.
Be realistic about expectations. Participants’ needs will shift and evolve over the course of a program and it’s unlikely that every activity will have the same outcome for everyone. Creating generative space for open communication about how participants’ needs are evolving – and how the program is or isn’t meeting them – is critical to building trust in the group, as well as a more evidence-based and impactful program.
Resist the temptation to over-program. With only 3 months to achieve a long list of goals, we hosted 8 meet-ups per cohort and brought in a total of 10 subject matter experts to provide live, content-based workshops. In hindsight, we may have made better use of our limited time together by sharing a few core lessons via recordings or readings and taking advantage of live group time to hold space for facilitated reflection and peer learning. If it’s done with intention, less is often more.
“I rediscovered how much I enjoy and thrive when working with like-minded and positive people.” – Better Together participant
Ambition #2: Prioritize Inclusion & Belonging
As is true for all of the Hub’s programs and services, it was critical that inclusion and belonging were baked into all elements of Better Together. For us, this meant creating an experience and environment where each participant felt recognized for the value they bring to the group, supported in navigating the pressures and obstacles they face, and safe to be imperfect or vulnerable as they grow. Here are some of the ways we worked toward this:
Define your values. Our team kicked off the design process by agreeing on a set of values and program principles that would guide our design and delivery. Clearly defining what we mean by terms like ‘equity,’ ‘belonging’ and ‘inclusion’ is the first step toward being accountable to those commitments. We imagined how these concepts might concretely show up for our team and participants by asking questions like, ‘How do we want participants to feel in this program?’ or reflecting on our own experiences and filling in the blanks for statements like ‘Equity feels like ______,’ or ‘I feel valued in a program when ______.’
This process helped us see that we wanted to create a learning environment where each participant felt:
- Recognized for the value they bring to the group;
- Supported in navigating the unique pressures and obstacles they face, and;
- Safe to be imperfect or vulnerable as they grow.
Design for your values. Putting these ambitions into action meant asking similar questions about different aspects of the program, from participant intake and curriculum design to monitoring and evaluation. Here are some ways that our values showed up in the design and delivery of Better Together:
Application & intake: Too often, people self-select out of opportunities when confronted with application forms that are heavy in jargon, restrictions, or other barriers to accessibility and inclusion. We took a few steps to simplify the application process and enable more people to find out about and apply to Better Together, including sharing application information with 50+ partners and organizations across Ottawa; encouraging applicants to apply using simple, bullet-point responses or over the phone; offering tiered pricing with the option to pay in installments or waive fees entirely; and, sharing the evaluation rubric with applicants ahead of time for transparency in the selection process.
Content delivery: We attempted to challenge the traditional ‘expert vs student’ dynamic by building elements of storytelling into every workshop, where subject matter experts would share stories of personal growth and invite deeper discussion and sharing on the topics in question. We also took care to work with storytellers and facilitators from equity-deserving groups to better reflect the background of participants themselves.
Wraparound supports: To honour our commitment to meet participants as whole people, we offered no-questions-asked subsidies for transportation and dependent care, to recognize that home life can’t always be left at the door when professional development opportunities arise.
Monitoring & Evaluation: In order to hold ourselves accountable to our goals, we prioritized regular data collection and shared our findings with participants as we analyzed it. This also enabled us to iterate and keep participants meaningfully involved in the design process.
Communicate your values and design principles. While principles like equity, diversity and inclusion might be self-evident to you or your team, they may be less obvious to project stakeholders, especially if they are first-time collaborators. Once you’ve identified the values and principles that’ll guide the program, be sure to communicate – in clear terms – what that means for the participants and guests you welcome into that space, and have an action plan for when those values aren’t respected.
Community building isn’t an accident. Better Together was intended to distill and share the best of Impact Hub Ottawa’s community with two groups of people at similar stages in their career or entrepreneurial journeys. As vibrant and accessible as our community is, it’s not enough to bring people together, sit back, and watch the sparks fly. Rather, we learned that clearly mapping out the services and resources within our community (and within the cohort) and how to access them is critical to improving engagement.
Leave space for the magic of the in-between. Designing for community building and connection often means stepping back, checking in, and adapting based on emergent needs and – yes, I’ll say it – group vibes. In terms of our core principles, we were reminded that leveraging the skills and expertise of the group requires emotional safety as well as space for them to step up and shine. A well-facilitated impromptu conversation on one participant’s immediate challenge may well be more valuable than a structured workshop on the same topic. Participants come with a lot of expertise and wisdom, and it’s often in the ‘in-between’ spaces where the deepest connections and learnings are made.
The takeaways above represent just some of our learnings from this process, and we know that our approach will continue to evolve and take new shapes as we collaborate with incredible people to meet our community’s needs.
We like to think that what makes Impact Hub Ottawa’s programs different from other incubator and accelerator programs is the support participants receive from joining a vibrant network of experts, change-makers and curious people who call our community home.
With that in mind, we’d like to extend our gratitude to the committed team of experts who lent their wisdom and expertise to the co-design and delivery of this project, with special thanks to Lissa Appiah, Karla Briones, Sharon Nyangweso, and Eva Oloumi.
Better Together was a step toward sharing the Hub Effect with a small group of people working toward shared challenges, and we can’t wait to continue to learn and rebuild the program into the future. If you’d like to get involved, either as a designer or a participant, we want to hear from you. Drop us a line anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to chat.