Art Thinking: Turning Challenges Into Opportunities in Rural India




Global Governance, Civil Society

By Jörg Reckhenrich

Applying a creative, art-based approach, companies and NGOs work side by side to improve women’s hygiene in Indian villages

It is 10 o’clock in the morning at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. People from across India, from several non-profit organisations (NGOs) and Johnson & Johnson, a global firm engaged in pharmaceutical and consumer goods manufacturing, are sitting together in a Pepal innovation session. The Pepal organisation brings together multinational corporations and NGOs to explore opportunities for co-creation of value.
The participants have a deadline to meet – over the next 6 days, they need to come up with new approaches and possible answers to a crucial and challenging question: how can we improve feminine hygiene in India’s rural areas?

The programme focuses on three topics: products, such as sanitary napkins; hygiene services; and education. Hygiene problems in rural areas are a sensitive topic here, especially for girls and young women. In small villages, girls are usually introduced to hygiene questions in keeping with local traditions. For instance, sanitary napkins are still made of old rags. These are normally washed and then reused. As access to clean water in these areas is becoming increasingly scarce, appropriate cleaning is difficult and infection rates are rising. Using products from the drugstore creates a different challenge – disposal. This dilemma is one of the things that the programme will be looking at and trying to solve.

Jörg Reckhenrich is an artist, a systemic consultant, a member of the BMW Responsible Leader Network and the founder of Art Thinking. It is a method that brings the creative principles of art, such as curiosity for the unknown, exploration of a broad scope of ideas and how to arrange these into a meaningful picture, to projects like this one in India. “Artists are searching in their work for newness. They are used to manoeuvring in open systems and situations. We do the same and apply that kind of thinking and dynamic to the social situation. We hope to find solutions that make a significant difference and that people didn’t have in mind before,” says Jörg. He cooperates with Julie Saunders, the head of Pepal. “It felt very natural when Julie called and asked me to come over to India for an innovation programme. Her projects are a perfect match for the creative approach that I believe in,” Jörg says. Together with Jamie Anderson and Martin Kupp, he recently published the book “The Fine Art of Success”, which takes the Art Thinking approach to the corporate world. Art Thinking, Jörg explains, is a personal strategy through which managers can learn to orchestrate the creative potential within an organisation. It is built on inspiration, initiating deep dialog and building alignment and purpose. “Humans are creative. What we have to do is provide the appropriate space in organisations to unleash that potential,” he explains. Jörg has been a consultant for various international companies. Now, he feels, it is time to test this approach in rural India.

Art Thinking is especially helpful when companies wish to optimise their services for the bottom of the economic and social pyramid. NGOs with knowledge of the field and companies can then work side by side. “We often do not know precisely what the real pulse in rural areas is and whether we have met the needs of our customers. We must first truly understand the actual demand before we come up with any ideas or even a strategy,” the head of a marketing department says.

Embarking on co-creation between companies and NGOs requires walking a fine line between pursuing corporate interests and improving social situations. The basis of productive and successful collaboration is always the same: trust and openness. In addition to thinking jointly about innovative products and services, the core of the programme is to listen, learn from one another and moderate the different interests. One of the most important ground rules is: expect the unexpected.

Both sides go through an intensive learning curve in this programme. After a two-day introduction to business frameworks and current social demands and trends – which offers plenty of new territory to both NGOs and corporations – the whole group sets out on field trips. NGOs, having worked in local communities for many years, are the gatekeepers and give access to environments, such as Indian tribal villages, that corporate actors normally do not have a chance to see. The living standard in those villages, which are sometimes comprised of only a few families, is often very poor. For instance, to get clean water women have to walk long distances. Industrial hygiene products, like sanitary napkins or shampoo, immediately create a waste problem. There is no waste service, and very little understanding on how to deal with that situation. “We had to learn it the hard way, when we heard that dumping waste in the fields attracts dogs. They dig it out and spread it all over the place”, a member of the cooperation says. Therefore, the starting points to deal with the topic female hygiene are quite broad: products, delivery, waste issues, education and engagement…. “Our work is built on trust, because we have been here for many years. We know the needs precisely, but we are also aware that we have to cooperate with companies in order to create momentum for change,” an NGO partner says.

Back from the field trips, the teams have plenty of observations, insights and initial ideas. Now they are ready to start thinking about a new approach for solving issues related to female hygiene. “It is the tricky part of the programme,” Jörg says. “As an artist, I know that creativity is a messy process. You can’t create something new using a linear approach.” This is often hard for managers to accept, who have been discouraged from thinking in a non-linear way. The challenge is that both sides have their own clear and distinct agendas, as becomes apparent during the final part of the programme. While companies want to gain better access to the market, NGOs think more broadly about social impacts, such as female empowerment, education or affordability. Often, it is difficult for them to understand the way that profit-driven companies approach the market. What looks different may however only be two sides of the same coin. Business without a purpose to serve the real needs of people does not make sense in the long run, especially when companies want to succeed in rural markets like in India. There is no question that both sides have to cross each other’s lines and step out of their comfort zones to engage in co-creation.

“In the program we see that it is the proof of everything that we did before. If we are able to leverage both sides through true dialogue and by listening to one another, new solutions can be found. Co-creation starts where something emerges that you never thought about before,” says Jörg. Is it a risk? Certainly – but doesn’t that come with the territory, when working in rural India? Risk is a given. It is always a good start to discover something new. However, if you don’t take the risk to reach out for the unknown, and instead think only about what already works, then this is a clear sign that you are not being very creative. Creative discovery is at the core of Art Thinking, or leading an organization creatively.

In the end, the Pepal programme came up with the idea of a ‘nationwide dignity programme’ that will involve taking a major TV campaign to the rural villages of India to talk about feminine hygiene – thereby addressing topics that have traditionally been taboo.


About the author:

Jörg Reckhenrich is an artist reflecting on the human condition and positive psychology in his art projects and he loves to combine intensive reflecting on art with coaching sessions, focusing especially on personal growth, writing articles and teaching on creative leadership.  

Published on May 09, 2019.

Photo credit: Evecon Productions

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