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ASI Game Changers: Meet Oli in Nigeria

Our “ASI Game Changers” series introduces the people who make our work possible and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition we are speaking to our colleague Oli Bance.

  • Name: Oli Bance
  • Role: Deputy Team Leader, Future Cities Nigeria
  • Location: East Sussex, UK and Lagos and Ogun State, Nigeria

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so?

I came to development from the angle of international relations. I am enthusiastic about the exchange of ideas and knowledge between different countries. A lot of the work that we are doing is rightly focused on the poorest and most challenging problems in complex countries. But addressing longer-term poverty alleviation and conflict resolution hugely benefits from building interconnectivity between countries and economies.

We can make a difference with this kind of work. But from a problem-solving perspective as well, we can deliver results for better, more effective aid and development programming, simply by sharing what we have learnt over the years. The programme we are working on in Nigeria now for example, has a City to City learning component, where our ministry/agency counterparts swap experiences and solutions with other countries in the Global Future Cities programme.

Why aid? I taught English as a foreign language after university, working in Ladakh in India and also in Madagascar. I got the travel bug and really wanted to carry on working abroad, and do something positive. That’s why I applied for a Masters in International Development focusing on Conflict and Reconstruction, hence how I got to jobs like running the Iraq Youth Employment Programme in Basra or being the Interim Fund Manager for the Somalia Stability Fund.

I’ve always been driven by wanting to fix things, or rather, spot things that could be improved. The Management consulting route seemed a good fit. I am always impressed by people who are driven by grand visions, but for me, it’s more of a practical approach: Why is that great idea not working and how can we make it work? We’ve got half the budget expected and they want results yesterday – that kind of thing. There’s a lot of great ideas out there and great technical teams and expertise – but the issue is often not a technical one. Often, it’s human and it’s political, and it’s about learning how to align incentives to reach a goal. How do you unpick a problem to serve those affected? These incentive structures need to be addressed, the value to players in a system drawn out and then change can happen.

That process of meeting reality and having to manoeuvre, change or respond to it is ultimately what drives me.

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be?

Probably ‘problem solver’, but when I was introduced to the Team Leader in Lagos, our Project Director Matt said “This is Oli. He’s going to be bad cop for you.” So often, I’m brought in to tell it straight and name issues as they are. This is an issue here, fix this. This relationship isn’t working, why is that? It’s very much about spotting where things could be faster and how actions could be moved along or made more effective.

So, there’s a fixing element to my role. But there’s also a client management piece. Working with the UK Government to realise their ambitions and interpret them and working with the many partners we have, and negotiating on behalf of our programme to make sure it can run smoothly. I’m also a big fan of intent-based leadership and this is something I try and bring to the job. This video inspires me to be a better leader and colleague, although I realise reality is often a bit messier and I don’t work on a nuclear sub…

What do you like about working in a global development company?

I learn a lot: from the people I work with and meet across many different sectors and country contexts – and the many differences within those country contexts. Between colleagues, clients and the assignment, work is rarely dull – frustrating on occasion, but never dull. I get to see global movements and agendas playing out across the world and it gives me a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise. And even on a bad day, I still feel I’m doing something useful for someone somewhere.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now?

We’ve all worked hard to keep the Future Cities Nigeria funded, through COVID-19 challenges and the UK funding slow down. We have managed to carry and prioritise activities, whilst still staying on course and keeping support from the local government. It also speaks of the quality of the technical team in Nigeria, who have shown great agility and resilience.

What excites me on Future Cities Nigeria in particular at the moment is around connecting the UK with Nigeria and creating a platform for both countries to share knowledge and value with each other. We were just discussing a twinning arrangement between Transport for Greater Manchester and the Ministry of Transport in Ogun State that, if it does get realised, would present a real lasting benefit to both countries. Our donor, the FCDO, is as excited about this idea as we are – what I love most about it is that it came from our technical team’s own contacts and initiative. This was not in anybody’s TOR but it’s this kind of initiative, thinking and manoeuvring that speaks to the best of our work. It’s agility in action.

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now?

Space travel and the future of humanity – some unpacking required: I’m a bit sci-fi obsessed and keenly follow developments in space exploration and astrophysics – I briefly tried astrophysics at Uni but my maths didn’t cut it. Nevertheless, I can still cheer from the side-lines! I watched the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars (incredible!) and also listened to the (possibly less popular) first audio recording ever made on Mars by the rover –  although it sounds like an accidental pocket dial from someone in high wind, to me, it blew me away knowing where the recording came from. It’s good to know our descendants will live there and expand our knowledge of the universe together….I really hope they find evidence of life somewhere in the solar system within my lifetime –  even if it’s ‘just’ a fossilised amoeba in some ancient river bed.

My other passion is diving and through this I’ve seen how climate change and human activity is impacting marine environments –  the plastic, the coral bleaching and changes in animal numbers and patterns. Diving also brings perspective. You are in a world that isn’t yours and has been doing just fine without you for eons. The dive that made me think the most was in the Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico. The Cenotes are essentially a system of flooded sink holes that ring the Chicxulub impact crater, made by the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. There’s no life to see in them, but it feels like diving in some alien world, and thoughts of extinction were never far away!

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?

I am passionate about mentoring and coaching. A lot of people helped me out when I was building my career and I like to give back that kindness and guidance. I’ve established a company with my brother, called Metamorph Coaching – we are both qualified Agile coaches and work with companies and non-profits to boost team coordination and productivity, plan and facilitate organisational change and accelerate growth. We focus on purpose-driven organisations and how we can help them. We previously worked with Future X, based in Edinburgh for example, helping them plan out their next phase of growth. We were pleased to be asked to be one of their brand ambassadors, promoting the excellent work they do empowering purpose driven companies and entrepreneurs. It was through this engagement I became aware of B Corp’s work and it was great to see ASI becoming a certified B Corp in 2019.

We also do pro-bono work through Metamorph and one exciting product we’ve developed through this is something called “Sprint Students”. It’s a coaching model, based on an Agile approach to problem solving and task management, that is aimed at university students seeking to improve results and prepare for their future careers. We’ve partnered with a Tuition company in the UK and hope to get some students on board in the new academic year.

My other brother and I (I’ve got four – as well as a resilient sister) are also trying to get a cartoon made together through our creative collective ‘Gas Tank Productions’. One of the cartoons we are developing is a comedy for kids called “Sarah and the Half-Mermaid”. Unlike other similarly themed stories, Sarah has legs and can’t breath underwater – which ends up being problematic when she falls out with her human mother and is sent to a new school beneath the waves…. It’s this project that has allowed me to bring in ideas like ocean protection from my other passion, diving, and have a lot of fun. We’re now waiting for feedback from streaming services we’ve pitched the concept to. These stories are my creative outlet and obviously a totally different world to international development.

You mentioned that coaching and mentoring is an important topic to you – what is the best advice you have ever gotten.

I remember my first boss sitting me down and going through my CV to help me improve it. He told me about the “yes-set” and I think this piece of advice can be applied to so many other areas in life. His theory was that I have to imagine a recruiter going through my CV with a scoring criteria and saying “yes”, “yes”, “yes” to all points as they work down the page (rather than “yes, no, ok fine, what’s this doing here?, why did he write this?!” etc) – meaning I have to tailor and order my experience to the needs and situation of the recruiter and end up in the interview pile not the bin. It’s a small point, but with a big impact – ever since I apply this to all areas of work. How I approach pitches, meetings, or situations involving stakeholders and understanding what they need. It’s really about empathy but translated into a professional context.

What’s a quality a game changer should have and what’s your ambition to be one?

A reoccurring theme for me is pragmatism. As a game-changer I think it’s important not to get cynical. Pragmatism is different from cynicism. It’s crucial not to get brought down by the idea that all change has to happen within your lifetime. You are part of change – you don’t have to do absolutely everything. Establishing mentally where one fits into that helps you see the importance of each small contribution and incremental improvement.

It might not sound as ambitious as one would think of a game changer, but the point is that thinking too big might frustrate you when faced with obstacles – particularly in the work we do. Don’t let it knock your confidence and energy, when you can’t do everything or you keep running into the same issue again and again. Realising this doesn’t mean you have to reduce your ambition, it’s just a reminder to retain it. Maintain the energy to work around problems and take one step at a time, no matter how small. If you need a recharge, touch base with people who share your vision, discuss the issue and keep that energy going.

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