A catalyst. Often a catalyst is seen as a person or event that quickly causes change or action. The causation of a catalyst can vary, but most often or not, the result is usually positive and in the case of this talk we find that to be true. Andrew Lamb, in his talk titled “GIG vs The World,” dives deep into the inner workings of becoming a catalyst and what that means for him. As we listen we find out the causation for his catalyst was burnout – typically recognized by persistent fatigue, sentiments of dissatisfaction, pessimism, and skepticism towards work-related duties’; however, such feelings toward his previous work fostered a breakthrough moment that changed the trajectory of his career and how he sees the world now. 

Andrew Lamb, for 4 years, was the chief executive of engineers without borders in the UK. It started as a Student Club, and what was a charity soon evolved into something bigger. As more and more students wanted to partake in this great initiative of building, creating, and helping to solve problems around the world, Lamb was then forced by this process to learn “about governance, hierarchy, accountancy, project management, budgeting, money, cash flow, logical framework analysis, and theory of change and all of these tools that one uses to run organizations.” 

Engineers without Borders was a movement that enabled one to send “young inexperienced engineers to developing countries all over the world to catalyze change and host organizations that would bring some expertise whether it is around solar energy, rainwater harvesting or road building.” Students so young and processed beginners minds had no authority in the respective organizations, communities, or countries “but they were catalysts.” Although some students did their best with their education, more was needed for future-oriented thinking. Therefore, Andrew Lamb then started working on engineering education curriculum reform. He states, “I thought what we were learning and many other young engineers in university wasn’t helpful, and a lot of companies said the same thing, and this is because what they were learning were things about steel, silicon, carbon and combustion; a diet of toxic substances – the kind of technologies that have killed the planet”. The goal then was to change the curriculum to include global issues, sustainability, and climate change as required parts. All while encompassing areas such as engineering’s role within society and a whole set of transversal skills from critical thinking to team working, socio-economic considerations, sustainability, ethics and entrepreneurship. 

Changing the education curriculum is a challenging feat. Although exhilarated by the movement the constant effort to create change resulted in burnout. The realization of comprehending the way the world is versus what Lamb was taught how it should be for lack of better words was false. Therefore, after five years of constant battle between streamlining an organization and creating change, it was time for rest and change. GIG is an important organization because it’s an interface between the linear structures of working with donors or big foundations or corporate CSR programs. An illustration of this interface as Lamb puts out is best seen when comparing the “black box: micromanger” and “captain metalbeard: the real world”. 

The micromanager roams around the lego planet and makes sure people follow the instructions. An analogy of what we have been taught to do; to win grants from bureaucracies and fight to manage the cash flow. 

Then we have Captain Metalbeard which is the creative amalgamation of all sorts of different thinking. Comprised of moving parts that symbolize the changes organizations have to make which are non-linear; creative, dynamic, and oriented around people and not processes. 

With these two figures in mind, Lamb continues to thread how his relationship with GIG can relate to the two Lego figures. In 2014, Lamb and GIG’s first introduction occurred by building a new small organization called Field Ready. What used to be a repetitive cycle of getting grants, using the grants and then finding ways to attain more became all too cumbersome. Still, with the help of GIG and its members worldwide, the personal connection between members grew; an understanding and trust helped carry this small project into something more significant. GIG combines thetwo figures micromanager and captain metalhead as an interface between both; to cope with GIZ’d contracts, EU contracts and fosters a community. 

The success of Field Ready allowed for some reflection and learning; to question the initial cause of burnout and Lamb’s position where working with Field Ready differed from Engineers without borders. As a result, Lamb came across two theories: Complexity Theory/ Chaos Theory (cynefin framework) and The Viable System Model, in his search for an explanation of understanding the burnout world. As you look at the image below, complexity theory explains this idea as you go from simple to complicated; it is a symbol representing the world of manufacturing, organizations, and planning. Then if you go from simple to chaotic to complex, this becomes a representation of the real world. Ultimately, the Cynefin framework helps individuals and organizations understand the nature of their problems and guides decision-making processes by suggesting appropriate strategies for each domain. It encourages a more nuanced and contextual approach to problem-solving and recognizes that different situations require different approaches. 

The second theory is the Viable System Model, designed to help organizations understand and manage their complexity effectively, ensuring their viability and adaptability in a dynamic environment. In essence, the Viable System Model proposes that a complex organization can better navigate and adapt to a changing or uncertain environment when it consists of independent, efficient, and flexible sub-organizations. These sub-organizations are highly interconnected, operate harmoniously, and share a common ethos, purpose, and technological infrastructure.

With the knowledge of these two theories and the analogy of the two Lego figures Andrew Lamb concludes his talk by saying, 

“Field ready was really small, and it was fighting the world of bureaucracy, and then we met GIG; it gave us an enabling environment that enhanced our abilities and a shared ethos to grow, and because of that, I feel I can better respond to the changing and unpredictable environment.” 

The particular piece of the viable system model that GIG performs best is its function as an organization and a community; a bridge between the two operating at a level of cohesion. To connect locally and act globally. Being a part of a small organization such as Field Ready and Engineers without Borders trying to achieve cohesion took a lot of work, especially with the rest of the world regarding resources, but GIG paved the way. Andrew Lamb, therefore, can confidently say, “I am pretty sure I can look back at what we’ve been able to do over the last few years and say we have been able to change the world together”. Ultimately, the right people take the chance; they choose you just as confidently as you choose them, allowing for a catalyst type of impact around the world.

Please watch the video below.


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