Episode 205: A Re-Design Worth the Time – Featuring Sinapis

Sinapis Group started in 2010 in Kenya as an accelerator program for entrepreneurs. Since then, they have grown to operate in 9 different countries. Scaling up meant stepping back to take a hard look at their training design. Sylvie Somerville, Director of Training for Sinapis Group, and GLP Senior Partner Jeanette Romkema talk with us about their collaborative effort to re-design Sinapis’ training program to maximize impact for their entrepreneurs.

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This show is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR.

Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst.


Read the transcript for the episode below.

Meg (10s): [MUSICAL INTRO] Hello and welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast, where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. Welcome to Shift the Power. We are your hosts Meg Logue —

Peter (31s): And Peter Noteboom.

Meg (32s): Today, we’re joined by Sylvie Somerville of Sinapis Group and GLP Senior Partner, Jeanette Romkema. They’re here to talk about their recent experience using a learning-centered approach to strengthen Sinapis’ entrepreneur training program. Welcome Sylvia and Jeanette. It’s so great to have you here.

Jeanette (50s): Thank you!

Sylvie (50s): Thank you so much.

Meg (52s): So to start us off, I would love for each of you to just briefly introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your organization.

Sylvie (1m 1s): Great. So I’m Sylvie. Sinapis Group is an entrepreneur training program and suite of entrepreneur support services that was launched in Kenya in 2010, and has since scaled up to work across nine countries. We’ve trained nearly 6,000 entrepreneurs in these nine countries in the last 10 years. So we have a couple of training products, kind of like a mini MBA for entrepreneurs to learn how to grow and scale their products, along with a bunch of other services, kind of designed to help support entrepreneurs from the moment they join the Sinapis network. We walk with them in every part of their journey where they might need support.

Meg (1m 42s): Thank you, Sylvie. It’s so wonderful to have you here with us. And Jeanette — I’ll kick it to you.

Jeanette (1m 47s): Thank you. My name is Jeanette Romkema, I’m in Toronto and I am a Senior Partner with Global Learning Partners and the Strategic Director. Happy to be here.

Peter (1m 59s): Super, I know this is going to be an interesting conversation. I’m wondering, in terms of a learning-centered approach and entrepreneurial training, what sort of brought you to want to work on updating your training program or refining it, or strengthening it? What was the challenge you were facing that led you to begin this work?

Sylvie (2m 17s): So Sinapis has some great content that we developed together with a partner back in 2010. We’ve again, used it to train many entrepreneurs. I think the issue that we were facing is as we were scaling. So, you know, we started training seven and 15 and 30 a year. Now we’re scaling and training four-hundred plus per year in one region. When you, when we, when we scaled up, we realized that every individual student wasn’t getting the same attention that we were giving previously. So whereas we could use that great content and connect it with an individual and help them walk the journey of the content, to make sure it was implemented — the more you scale up, the farther you get away from that individual accountability.

So I think we realized over time, we’ve got this great material, but it’s not always translating to entrepreneurs taking away and applying the learnings. And at scale, we just need to find kind of a scaled way to do that. So our, our main reason for seeking help and revising our curriculum was, we just wanted to be more effective. To actually get entrepreneurs to learn and apply concepts. We feel like we have the right content, but the way the content was being delivered was not necessarily so effective. We were also looking at just to professionalize. Again, I think we had great material in there, but the look of it was not quite up to a professional standard, and the more we scaled the more we needed a product that matched our growing brand. So those were our main, our main challenges.

Peter (3m 51s): You know, that it sounds like a very common challenge actually — that scaling up, having good content, and still though when you’re scaling up, how do you maintain a genuine, authentic connection with the learners, and make sure that it’s relevant and that it can lead to a change or the kind of learning that everyone wants? How did the path of doing some work on that, how did that lead to GLP?

Sylvie (4m 14s): So we were recommended to GLP by friends and former colleagues at HOPE International, which is where I used to work.

Peter (4m 21s): Right. Here, here!

Sylvie (4m 21s): Shout out to a HOPE International. Who just speak so highly of GLP. And honestly, HOPE has a really, really strong training culture and the best trainings I have personally experienced came from there. So I think that experience and just seeing how it has transformed this really learning-centered– to, to a really learning-centered culture at HOPE, we wanted the same. I think HOPE also did a great job kind of scaling up and having these really successful training of trainers all over the world. And that’s kind of the position where we were as well, like, all right, we’re moving from two or three staff and program managers to now we’ve got dozens and dozens of external trainers that we need to be able to train effectively without so much hand-holding. So we wanted to have a similar experience as, as HOPE did with that.

Peter (5m 11s): Right. Yeah that sounds like a, a direction to go. It’s always is striking to me too, that we, we often learn from others who have gone before us and want to see that, you know, carried out. When you were thinking about bringing a stronger learning-centered approach to the Sinapis work and to the entrepreneurial training, what was your wildest dream, your biggest vision, your real hope for, for the project?

Sylvie (5m 38s): I remember Jeanette and myself going back and forth thinking, “okay, what’s the ultimate impact we want to see?” And when you’re training entrepreneurs, of course the ultimate impact is you want to see businesses grow and that’s kind of a hard goal to reach. It’s a, you know, it’s a lofty goal to see business growth happen, but really that, that was our vision. How do we make sure the impact on business is growing and transforming is even stronger than it’s been before. So that was kind of the long-term vision. We are also really wanted our trainers better equipped to handle this curriculum as a tool and not like a Bible, right? So rather than reading directly line-by-line, kind of spitting out content, we wanted them to be able to use the curriculum creatively, to be empowered to train in their own way.

And I, so I think that was another kind of vision for the project, particularly with the training of trainers — for our trainers, how do we equip them to use this curriculum?

Meg (6m 35s): Hmm. Oh, that’s so important. You know, making sure that it’s not just regurgitating the training that you set out, but really that it- it feels like they can make it their own.

Sylvie (6m 45s): Right.

Meg (6m 46s): Wonderful. So Jeanette, I would love to hear from you — when you are considering these very concrete, tangible goals, and then this larger vision of increasing the success of these businesses and the success of the entrepreneurs that you’re training. When Sylvie and you were having these initial discussions, how did you initially approach or, or think about approaching this, this challenge?

Jeanette (7m 13s): I didn’t know the Sinapis Group or Sylvie before our first conversations. And so, as I discovered more about Sinapis Group and all the work that they were doing, you know, it was clear that they were a very strong academy, and they were growing in the world as far as locations and reputation. And you just heard there had been thousands of graduates. And at that time, I think it was about 700 graduates a year. So clearly they were doing so much right. And then I was very, very impressed and wondering what we were talking about in the early conversations.

However, Sylvie and her colleagues had a vision. She really believed, and they really believed that it was time for the program and the work of Sinapis to move to the next level. She believed it was time to pause and have a close look really at what was going well, but also where they could strengthen their program in the future. And she deeply was convinced that by doing this, that it would extend their reach, extend their reputation, deepen their reputation and increase their impact in the world. However, there was one challenge that the money available did not necessarily match this vision.

So I think that’s the first thing that had us both really stop and wonder. And when we discussed the possibilities together, it was clear that there was not a mandate or resources offered by the Board at that time. And the reason is quite obvious, that there was not yet buy-in from the Board, who were mainly made up of the original creators of this amazing program. So this makes a lot of sense, but it was hard. So the more we talked about doing something small within the mandate of the Board, the more Sylvie was convinced that we needed something big.

But, but how in the world will we get there? We talked about training the trainers, but it was clear that this would not meet their, the real need and the vision that she and others had at Sinapis. So in our many conversations things evolved, and we realized quite quickly that we needed to work first on, on buy-in and clarity at the Board-level. So what we did was we took the first step toward that and with all the resources available, we did a deep and full needs assessment or learning audit. Global Learning Partners was invited to look at everything that was part of this program — the curriculum material, the elements of the 16 week program, the contact with the students before and during and after, all of their surveys, they have an amazing alumni program and systems and we looked at that, the application process, everything.

And we discovered so much, it was a rich discovery process. And we discovered a lot of what Sinapis knew already about their strengths: that their program was engaging, and it was very personal; it was rigorous and cutting edge in the field; it was innovative and interesting; clearly many people are being drawn to the program and graduating from the program; that there was an intentional building of community of entrepreneurs, many years beyond graduation, which for me was the most impressive discovery; and that it is faith-focused and value-based.

And it was a very rich, what I discovered was very impressive. And we also discovered that there were indeed some areas of strengthening, and this supported Sylvie’s vision that Sinapis needed a consistent and clear articulation of an approach, learning-centered approach, that it needed to be even more holistic as a program, and that it needed to be even more learning-centered. And I think the one thing that was the most helpful model for, for me anyways — and Sylvie, I’m not sure what your model you’d pull out — but for me, I was thinking of the 4-A’s.

And the 4-A model is one that Global Learning Partners uses and teaches in everything we do: Anchor, Add, Apply, and Away. And so when we started strengthening the program, what we learned was the need for every lesson and the entire program to start with an anchor — anchoring in the learning, the reality of the learners — that, of course, we need to add new content for the learners to be successful entrepreneurs. And then the big piece was really invitations throughout to apply the learning, inside the program and outside of the program, inside a classroom and outside the classroom.

And lastly, to support learners to make personal plans during the program, throughout the program, and for life itself and moving away from the program. So now at the end of this process, what- this learning audits, we had a compelling proposal for strengthening the program and a clear rationale for the Board. And this is exactly what Sylvie needed. So it was just a really powerful and insightful first step.

Meg (13m 3s): No small first step! Sylvie, what was that experience like for you, taking that initial vision and proposal and, and then taking that first step?

Sylvie (13m 14s): Yeah, I just remember at the time thinking, wow, we’re, we’re spending way more time than I expected in setting it up rather than jumping into the work. And for my personality, that was tough. But I think for me, it was really helpful to just take, you know, again, the vision that we had was, okay, our curriculum needs a brand refresh, we want it to be more effective. But we didn’t know exactly what that looked like beyond “lets take all the feedback that we’ve collected over years from all our entrepreneurs of what would it be more helpful to them. So we knew all the feedback that we had been reading and we knew we wanted to address it, but it hadn’t really come together into, well, what does this translate into.

Like when I say learning-centered design and we needed a learning-centered design, I think at the time that was still becoming clear to us. What, what do we even mean by learning-centered design? Like we knew we needed it, but we didn’t know the words to use, right, to describe what we needed. So I think that process of these, these long proposals and this like learning audit we did — really helpful, even for me to be able to explain to the-to the Board. And I think, you know, when Jeanette says “the Board, the leadership, there wasn’t buy-in initially,” I think it’s tough to have buy-in for something that you can’t quite tangibly put your finger on, for what it is. And I think, so this process of figuring out, well, what is the real problem and how could it be better?

I think, unless you are a learning-centered design expert, you honestly don’t know where that problem is — that’s what I came to realize. Because as I spoke to Jeanette, we all think back to these great training experiences we’ve had in our past where we really learned. Now to get that kind of experience to actually happen, you need to really know what you’re doing. But I think unless, if you haven’t experienced that sort of training environment, you don’t know what it looks like. So I think part of my-my role in communicating this, the need for this to our Board, to our managers was we don’t even know where our problems are because none of us are experts in training design. And so, figuring out those gaps and clarifying how it could really improve was-was really helpful.

Peter (15m 27s): Meg, may I jump in for a sec?

Meg (15m 28s): Oh, of course!

Peter (15m 30s): Could you make them visible for us? Could you give us an example of what the change looked like with, I don’t know, a module or a particular learning experience or activity or a particular outcome at the end. How was it different before and after?

Sylvie (15m 44s): So an example would be the way the curriculum was structured before, you came into class, you spent an hour going over your milestones from the previous week and then having to pitch in front of your class on how well you did on these milestones. Then, then we launched right into five hours of content. And typically there were breaks, but they were all we skipped ’cause there was no time to have the breaks. There was so much material that discussions were often skipped, activities where often skipped, just because again, so much good content and we have to deliver at all. So I think now, the way it’s been restructured is we take that first hour. The issue before was that if students were late or– which happens a lot in East Africa — or if they didn’t have time to do their assignments, that was just a dead hour where they weren’t really engaging with anything because they didn’t really have anything to report.

So we’ve restructured that hour a bit, so that it’s more focused on networking, discussion, kind of rapid pairs discussion, switching pairs, so that you’re still fully engaged talking to other students, talking about what you’ve done in the last week, but it’s less focused specifically on, on a milestone that you did or didn’t do. So it’s, it’s looking at like how are we focusing on learning and growth, regardless of whether you ticked your assignment box. And then I think moving through the next five hours of class, we restructured to add warm-ups, to add or questions even while you were arrived before other students come. So there’s those questions there’s, there’s warm up, there’s more open discussion and more types of discussion, more work in pairs, more work in small groups, more work individually, kind of a blend of different types of activities so that you can let the learning sink in, in different ways.

We added a lot more moving around. So taking something that we always did before, but now making it something that you do live while walking around the room. I just did this, actually I was training one of our classes in Egypt a few weeks ago and we did this and it just, just the richness of the discussion that happens when now you’re moving physically from one point to another, discussing around different topics. Simple concept, but mind blowing when done effectively. So we added a lot of these things into the curriculum that just now made the learning sink in because of the way in which it’s delivered. So I would say the content largely stayed the same, but we just added in so many different tactics for delivering the content — more movement, more discussion, more open questions, more warming up — so that the most important piece of the content can sink in more effectively.

Peter (18m 23s): That sounds like a heck of a journey. Wow!

Meg (18m 27s): Yeah. Thank you so much Sylvie for, for laying that out. And I can really feel just in, in hearing the story and, and the examples, how different it must have felt for the learners in the room or in the virtual space. Jeanette, I’d love to hear from you, what kind of trouble did y’all get along the way as you were making this transition and really teaching folks how to actualize this shift in mindset.

Jeanette (18m 55s): Well. I don’t know about trouble, so maybe —

Meg (18m 59s): [laughing] I’m being cheeky. What, what were some of the things that came up that you had to shift and move?

Jeanette (19m 6s): Yeah. You know, the big thing that’s coming to mind as you shift the focus to maybe the challenges, is the start, you know, the- just the big challenge of tackling an entire curriculum. I still remember Sylvie, when three, it might’ve been four people walked in the room in a line from downstairs and their arms were full of boxes. This was the curriculum. I’m like, “Oh my word!” And the feeling of overwhelm for- just for everyone. I mean, everybody knew the- the curriculum because they were all trainers, and I had seen it also, I knew it.

But just to see it walk in the room, there was a real moment of reality check. I was like, “Okay, are we really doing this?” I’ll never forget that, that image. But you know, in the week we had, I taught the core principles and practices of a learning-centered approach and slowly held up one model at a time. And everyone, through each day consistently dipped in and out of the curriculum. And it was a very powerful journey, of dialogue, decision-making, creativity.

It was absolutely amazing. And we were all, you have to understand, this is Kenya, we found a location, but it was a very small room that we’re all crammed in and the boxes of curriculum where as present the people in the room. So we were sharing space. And I’m really saying this after listening to you as well, Sylvie, about what was the real impact of all of this. I think there were some, some surprising ones I’d love to name in all this — is number one, just thinking again of the sheer mass of work that was presented before this group, but the amazing sense of ownership.

The trainers re-wrote and re-designed, reconceived the curriculum for Sinapis and the world, really, because Sinapis is global. And they were so excited, they had such a, a sense of pride in what they had achieved. And then the second thing that’s coming to mind is what you alluded to, Sylvie, is this amazing capacity-building that happened. They were not only trainers now, they were actual designers. So they were, and they’re different. So now they were designers of learning events.

And they were so grateful, so keen to learn. And what a better way to learn than to redesign hundreds of pages of curriculum. And the third thing is that we together co-created a strong, stronger, more innovative and more cutting edge curriculum. And I know that we would not have done the same if Sylvie and I, or a team of two or three, had tackled what we tackled.

So at the end of the day, at the end of that week together, at the end of that work, we were all without exception, very emotional about what was accomplished. It was truly awesome at so many levels. And Sinapis received this amazing gift from their trainers. What better way to keep trainers than to get them involved in the work? So I just think it was so wise, so strategic, so innovative at different levels, and it was a joy to be part of.

Peter (23m 14s): What a huge learning design and facilitation project, and so many different things part of it. You know, thinking now, you know, not so much about the journey but about, let’s say the impact on the learners. If you were to look Sylvie from the other end of the telescope, let’s say, you know after the design work is done, the facilitation of the course has been held, the participants followed along and carried out some of those learning tasks. Could you tell us a story of a difference that’s made in the lives of the learners? Of the work of the actual participants? Could you help that come to life for us?

Sylvie (23m 52s): Yeah. Well, if I can just give a, a COVID story, because I think this was quite timely for us. We did this training of trainers three months before COVID hit. And I’ve actually spoken on a bunch of different panels and meetings in other players in this ecosystem of entrepreneur support, on like, how has Sinapis managed to train online so effectively? And you know, what I keep telling people is I think our trainers understand how to setup a training experience that works, whether that’s online or in-person, it doesn’t matter when you have the right tools and frameworks in your toolkit. So I think what we saw before and, you know, Jeanette witnessed this, we’ve got some amazing trainers.

I think what was missing was taking these, this great natural training ability, this wealth of training experience, this wealth of experience as entrepreneur, but translating that into now, when you’re approaching the specific learning experience — so this particular class, this particular cohort of entrepreneurs, of course, entrepreneurs really vary, each class has a totally different set of entrepreneurs with different needs, different backgrounds — How do you approach that experience innovatively, so that that group of people can learn? It’s really amazing to see that like something changed in their understanding of what it looks like to train. Not just about like, how do we get all this material out the door, which I would say the perspective before was, “we’ve got six hours, we’ve got 50 pages of material, we’ve got to get through all of it, because it’s all good” to, “okay, we’ve got six hours, how do we make sure the most important things are learned well.”

So what does that look like now when you’re structuring what you’re training and how? So completely changing the dynamic of what you’re focusing on, where the time is spent, rather than getting all the content out, seeing it as what learnings do you want to achieve? So I’m just really proud of our trainers. And I think we’re so encouraged that really on a weekly basis, we hear from another student — and we’ve trained several hundred online in this past year — we just consistently are hearing from students, that this online learning experience is better than anything they have experienced before and just how much they enjoy it. And I think that speaks again to the innovation of the trainers, which is really a direct result, I think from this DOT we had with Jeanette, that our trainers are creating an environment that makes students want to show up and learn.

I think, as I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, for us, of course, the, the most significant impact is businesses growing and thriving. And for us as, as a faith-based organization, we deeply care about training these principles for how to align your faith with your business. And I think to, to go through a year, like we went through with COVID and yet see strong business growth, strong perspective, strong mindset shifts in terms of how you’re aligning your faith with your business, and real stories of change related to that, to have all of this come out of this online training experience, to me really speaks to the impact of this, this new structure and just the effectiveness of the curriculum.

So we’re really happy that we just analyzed all of our data for the past year, and in a year when so many businesses closed in East Africa, we’ve actually seen over 30% average annual growth for all of our entrepreneurs in the past year. And of course it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, “okay, where is this business growth coming from?” But I think we are really linking this to the effectiveness of this training, which is so pivotal for so many of our entrepreneurs.

Peter (27m 27s): That sounds like a very persuasive indicator.

Sylvie (27m 31s): Yeah, yeah.

Meg (27m 33s): I’m just- I’m sitting in that for a moment. It feels quite surreal because it, and as you said, Sylvie, this has been a really difficult year for everyone, but for businesses in particular, a lot of businesses have really struggled, and it’s so incredible to me that- that because of this, this training that you all have really collectively redesigned and taken ownership of, and because of the strength of your trainers, you have been able to help so many entrepreneurs. So yeah, I just wanna take a moment to really appreciate that and honor that, and- and thank you for the part that you played in it. It’s beautiful.

Sylvie (28m 15s): Yeah. Well, we are very proud of our entrepreneurs and we’re really proud of our trainer’s as well. And I think, yeah, when you provide the right tools at the right stage in someone’s growth it’s really transformative and its exciting for us to be part of that journey, and just figure out how do we make these tools even more effective and get them in at the right moment? And we were so privileged to work with such an amazing group of entrepreneurs who I think really took this season by the horns and made the most of it. So we’ve just had some really amazing stories of- of growth and change, and even in- in this hard time.

Meg (28m 49s): And thank you for sharing them with us and with our listeners. I’d love to hear one main take-away for you. Of course we have, we’ve already alluded to the fact that many people are struggling with the same challenges over the last year that, that you and your trainers were faced with. If you were to give one main takeaway for our listeners who might be struggling with that same challenge, what would it be?

Sylvie (29m 15s): So Jeanette alluded earlier to Sinapis not having the, the resources to fund this project effectively at the beginning. And I think what I would say to anyone out there struggling with a similar challenge that we were facing with our curriculum or just, our- our training output in general — like I mentioned before, you don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve really experienced excellent training. And I think once it was clear to us what we were missing, it was worth the money. And so I would say spend the money. And as soon as you open that box, of “ooh what does effective training really look like?” You honestly can’t look back and be okay with how your training was before.

All of our trainers are now telling me that now of course we have this curse where any other training we attend, we’re just sitting there criticizing how poorly it’s done, because all we can think of is “wow we would all be learning a lot more effectively if it was done in this way.” So I just open that box and do the work to figure out how training could be improved. And then once you see the gap that exists, you’ll feel so certain that it’s worth the money. It has been for us and I speak for all of our trainers who really feel like they had a major turning point in their ability to train. And we were just thrilled with, with what we’ve experienced since.

Meg (30m 37s): Thank you for- for that, that wonderful tip, I appreciate it. It’s certainly is a, I won’t call it quite a Pandora’s Box, but it is, it is a box that once you open it, you cannot shut it. How about, how about for you, Jeanette? What would you say is one takeaway for you from this experience that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jeanette (30m 59s): You know, for me, I think the most important lesson for me for sure is a need to understand and ensure a compelling “why”. So it was clear that this work would not, and could not be fully accomplished without the Board understanding the why, the importance of, and how the program and Sinapis Group could be amazingly, even more successful. And that makes great sense. Th-they are the Board, but this is true for all stakeholders, and all large initiatives. Sinapis was doing well, but Sylvie and Board members and other leadership had a vision, but we need to slow down to speed up — is kind of a phrase that, that some of you know, I know we, we heard from Elanco too in- in another podcast — but, but that is true here too.

We needed to take the first step only the learning audit and really ensure that we had a full understanding of the need. We had the understanding, the Board has a full understanding and that it would be compelling enough to find the money. But it’s also, there’s so many resources beyond funds, of course, but all stakeholders need to see the situation calling for this thing, in this case a full rethink of the curriculum. So it’s all about the “why”. We always need to be clear on this.

Peter (32m 38s): You know, thank you so much for your perspective and insights. You’re both such experienced teachers and trainers, designers, change people, it’s really a privilege for us to have- to have you with us today on this Shift the Power podcast. So thank you for being with us.

Meg (32m 58s): Thank you, Jeanette. Thank you, Sylvie.

Sylvie (33m 2s): Thank you so much.

Jeanette (33m 5s): Yeah, this was fun.

Peter (33m 7s): We always end this podcast with a question for the listeners, for you who are listening in. So here’s the question for reflection that I’d like to leave with you today: when you’re thinking about scaling up an important training or change program, where will you begin and what will that look like from the perspective of the learner?

Meg (33m 40s): Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR, with music by Una Walkenhorst. To find out more about Global Learning Partners, whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, free resources or blogs, go to www.GlobalLearningPartners.com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcasts or your preferred podcast player. [MUSICAL OUTRO]

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