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Four lessons from ten years building IDinsight

Esther Hsu Wang 20 December 2021

In 2019, friends and family of the IDinsight Lusaka team gather for the office holiday party.

Just over ten years ago, Esther Wang, Ron Abraham, Andrew Fraker, Neil Buddy Shah, and Paul Wang began what is now IDinsight. This month, Esther is transitioning from the organization, closing out her remarkable decade-long tenure. Esther shares four lessons she will carry with her from her IDinsight journey.

Numbers are important, but people are paramount.

We launched IDinsight with a vision to bring powerful analytical methods to decision-makers making critical, time-sensitive choices about programs in challenging contexts. A decade ago, too many leaders had to work off of anecdotes, guesses, and intuition. We, IDinsight’s founders, believed that data and evidence could speak the truth: That numbers can point to what is right. 

I still believe this, but also understand that black and white numbers on a page may not translate into action. The way numbers are shared, by whom, in what context, is just as paramount for leaders to move from analysis to action. It’s easy to focus on technical excellence and forget that people are the ones who will (or won’t) make changes.

For practitioners to navigate the path from numbers to improved lives, they need to align people’s intentions, consider the political context, solve operational challenges, and be open-minded about what it takes to change. We often share this perspective when onboarding new IDinsighters. The value of remembering the human element is a lesson that I observed and learned myself more than once.

Test assumptions and listen carefully. 

I moved to Zambia for IDinsight and this beautiful place became my home for eight years. It was interesting to identify as an American citizen but assumed to be from China. Assumptions were made about me and I made assumptions about many things as well. The brain creates shortcuts in an effort to simplify and understand as quickly as possible. 

I had to adapt to assumptions about me, while also identifying and keeping my own biases in check. Sometimes, seemingly simple ideas were actually laden with contextual complexity that is obvious to someone who has grown up in a place, but takes time for a foreigner to understand. Other times, coming from outside of a situation was beneficial and provided clarity. But always, listening helped. Especially across cultures, languages, and with few shared experiences, the only way to understand was to listen to what was communicated (verbally or nonverbally) and try to read between lines while separating assumptions from facts. 

Listening is a skill that I am still strengthening today, but I know I benefited from practicing it in a place where I was given grace and had the chance to return it. 

Compassion makes all the difference.

During my years as Chief Operating Officer, when IDinsight grew from 50 to 150 teammates and opened four new country offices, I had to regularly make difficult decisions. They were often not clear-cut, with layers of perspectives and trade-offs. I found that my True North often came back to one thing: the right answer often included compassion. An unexpected message was more gently conveyed when delivered with compassion. Differences of opinion were better understood when approached with compassion. Better ideas were generated from compassionate (and passionate) discussions. 

Compassion is also hard to manufacture. It is carried in small daily actions and words. It is infused in the enduring impression of an individual. It enables trust, multiplies empathy, and gives others the benefit of doubt. One of the things that I hope endures at IDinsight is compassion in our teams, policies, and practices. I received compassion from many colleagues and partners over the last decade and that made all the difference.

Expect to evolve, always.

The world, and the global development sector, have changed substantially over the first decade of IDinsight’s existence. In the quest to bring the best data to bear on the hardest poverty-related challenges, IDinsight necessarily evolved. Our expanded analytical toolkit addresses more kinds of client impact questions in more contexts. Our teams operate differently, with more nuanced and diverse skill sets to reflect our goal of “locally-driven and world-class”. Operations to support work in 24 countries is a different ballgame. Equity is central to many decisions in the organization. Our leadership structures adjusted to fit IDinsight’s future vision. Each of these changes started as an idea but was wrestled into reality. 

IDinsight, as it was 10 years ago, wouldn’t serve today’s world, and the IDinsight of 2021 can’t stand still and expect to serve the world of the future.

I have every confidence that evolution can and will continue. With core values staked in the ground, there are still many paths to pursue social impact, and I look forward to seeing IDinsight flourish in its future iterations.

For me, my professional evolution is ready for the next challenge, thanks to this rich past decade and solid forward path for IDinsight.

My message to IDinsighters, collaborators, and others who have been following our journey: Thank you — for allowing me to share in your decisions, listen and adapt, operate with compassion, and evolve, ready for the next chapter.