The project

An in-person cooperative coaching program by Ventures37 (as part of the Cooperative Development Program) faced the Covid-19 challenge of putting in-person contact on hold. Yet, in rural Malawi without reliable internet and low tech literacy, the American reflexive reach for zoom as a solution was not tenable. We had the pleasure of running a 3-month design sprint with their team of experienced coaches to create a viable solution.

Our task?

Conceive of, create, and test at least 4 distinct ways to deliver customized finance and governance coaching to rural cooperatives—no internet, intermittent electricity, many have never opened a laptop, and a variety of literacy levels. Fun!

Making participatory design remote

We created the engagement as a distinct process, and “recruited” our design team by using the existing coaches and program staff as co-creators on a journey with us. We used team weekly audio only zoom meetings with the entire design team, and additional meetings with sub-groups as necessary to accomplish the task at hand.

Some practices that made this ultimately a successful remote and asynchronous collaboration (radically different time zones) are:


Each meeting we began by reminding each other to host ourselves. Hosting is an important part of any meeting and one we can’t do for each other when we are apart. 

  1. Get comfortable. 
  2. Get something to eat/drink. 
  3. Put away distractions and commit to being present for an hour.

Multiple Channels.

Zoom meetings were supported by an ongoing WhatsApp group chat for quick questions, encouragement, and coordination. Email was used for passing documents and longer instructions and turning in completed work.

Involve everyone. Regularly.

We nearly always took time for an opening and closing individual check-in and/or prompt. We were under a time crunch, but also had to move at the speed of relationships if the work was to be successful.

Checking in and out ensures that all voices are brought into discussion and connects us to each other. Generally these were related to, or preparatory for, the work we were about to do in some way but were also meant to team building—a peek into each other’s life and perspective beyond the specific roles we each had on the team.

Design is messy

The undertakings of a design process are messy—not black and white—and not everyone enjoys them. Understanding the nuts and bolts of a challenge. Zeroing in on the essential purpose and nature of a task. Making something out of pieces from everyone. Trying new things. Listening for results. Coming to conclusions.

Each participant has different affinities and skills to offer, different levels of interest at each point, and plenty of emotions and feelings about acting out change. 

Some ways we sought to make the mess more comfortable: 

Clear Roles. 

Each member of the team took on a distinct role, building on each person’s expertise, coming together to make the whole design team process a success. 

  • Picture Impact were the primary designers, evaluators and hosts of the process bringing expertise in low literacy design, adult learning design, and adaptive management. 
  • The coaches were the primary content contributors and testers bringing expertise in the technical content, coaching skills and the cooperative context. 
  • The critical support staff (program staff based in Malawi) were the procurement and logistics people who helped keep production and process running smoothly. 

Norm setting. Hold a tight container.

We also started meetings by having a group member reading four commitments we asked all group members to make. These commitments remind us of our intention and the expectations of each other and from the experience. 

  • We commit to being curious. About each other. About what is possible.
  • No perfection. Hold things lightly. We will fail. We will try again.  
  • Show up with your best self to tackle this challenge together. 
  • The spirit of what we are doing is adventure, experimentation and going on a journey together.

Solve it alone first. Then working with a group feels luxurious.

We asked coaches for individual presentations of how they would solve the problem if they were doing this task on their own. This necessitated individual engagement with the challenges, created a motivating amount of competition/peer pressure, and gave the whole team immediate ideas from which to build. Their solutions were well thought out, had similar themes and were a strong foundation for moving forward.

Jump in, immediately. It will feel too soon. Do it anyway!

As soon as a design direction was set—pre-recorded videos, audios, and in-person worksheets with a coaching phone call—we immediately had the Malawi team conduct a brief pre-test of the modality using unrelated material. This pretest laid the groundwork for piloting—both for the coaches and the cooperatives.

Pre-testing reinforced our group norm that there is “No perfection. Hold things lightly. We will fail. We will try again.” We did this pre-testing so early that it guaranteed there would be glitches, things that wouldn’t go perfectly, making it abundantly clear that this was an opportunity to learn. It was a proof of concept and inspired much more confidence and excitement from the coaches and cooperatives than we anticipated—they concluded this really might be possible!

Make it worth it. 

Get clear not only about what is at stake, but what might be really possible and delicious.

Not everyone could see the possibility of the project as we started out. It was important to begin opening up the vision of the team, to create buy-in to the project and to anchor ourselves in the belief that our collective capacity could make this successful. 

This was done by acknowledging the emotions in the “z/room” and encouraging the group to imagine that we had been successful already—what would the results be? We asked, “what might be positive or newly-possible about being able to do things remotely?” The team easily identified a range of possibilities—many of which have come to fruition:

  • By learning to do our work remotely we could solve a covid problem that is all over and not just in Malawi
  • Having pre-developed content will give co-ops back-up content to revisit and reference
  • We will be able to use a lot of creativity and have visual aids to support coaching [in new ways]
  • We are excited to be part of a team doing innovative things (this experience) and see that this could lead to future work [experience using design / being part of a design team]
  • Working remotely cuts down on travel time to remote areas. Maybe it would reduce  the costs of the program without all the travel.
  • We could be free to do the training anywhere and reach co-ops anywhere [even in other countries!]
  • Delivering in a remote format might give farmers more flexibility for learning. Being able to learn from home would feel more relaxed to them.
  • Technology is a reality and this will help bring farmers along by helping them gain experience using relevant technology of today.

Remember to celebrate and play 

After the dreaded pre-test produced results that were very promising, one of the coaches was so excited that he combined Fantastic and Marvelous—he felt the experience has been surprisingly “fantamarvelous”. This became a fun team word and one we used for team shirts to be made and delivered to the coaches as a memento of their participation and acknowledgement of their great work. 

Resistance and anxiety

Trying something new naturally kicks up resistance and anxiety for most people involved. The coaches played nice and went along with the process, but it was only through relationship building and experiencing the new thing that they were able to take ownership and truly engage. This is to be expected. 

“To be frank, as an individual coach, when we started this assignment I thought this remote coach concept was insane. It looked like a crazy idea but I just decided to take it up, deliver on the assignment and forget about it. We just undertook the task as a ritual but through the pictures, audios, videos and the feedback from the learning sessions, I actually like it now and will use it!”

Coach talking about his experience

Although it was through the trying and experiencing immediate successes that both the coaches and cooperative members gained confidence it was also a source of anxiety, took a lot of energy, and was not their first choice. Picture Impact, as facilitators, had to hold a strong container and provide firm expectations of positive results in order to enable coaches and cooperative members to overcome the discomfort. 

“Initially, there was resistance and an ‘is it doable?” mind set. But when they saw me [on video] they relaxed and were able to immediately focus on the training.”

Coach speaking about the cooperative members

We did it!

At the end of the design sprint, not only had we produced a product and tested its efficacy that had tremendous potential and exceeded expectations, the design team ALSO felt that the EXPERIENCE of being a part of the design process to build and try something new was transformative, in and of itself. They expressed increased confidence overall and excitement in newly acquired abilities. Here is the wisdom they offered:

“Don’t be afraid to try new things—you won’t know if you don’t try.” 

“Trust others, pair up with someone and know they can help you in your work.”

“I never thought in a million years we could do this, turns out there are many possibilities on how to do things—we should be open to new ideas.”

“You can do more than you think you can, move outside your boundaries and comfort. Unlearn something and learn something new.”

“Be flexible, there are many ways to the same destination.”

“Suspend judgment and try things that may seem hard.”