Lessons from the EkStep Journey : The ant and the elephant


This is an excerpt from an article published on The Founding Fuel on March 5, 2021 by N S Ramnath. 

In a conversation with Founding Fuel’s podcast series Virtuoso, hosted by Anna Assisi, Shankar Maruwada, CEO of EkStep Foundation traces the journey of EkStep and distills some of the key lessons for entrepreneurs and builders. 

Here are five takeaways from the conversation:

Designing for scale ≠ scaling up: In fact, in 2015, the goal was by 2020 we will reach 200 million children. That mission was non-negotiable. But in achieving the mission, we realised we would make a lot of mistakes and that's the entrepreneurial nature of things. We realised we would fail a lot. We realised we would meet a lot of resistance. But the questions were more important to us than the answers. Which is “what will work at a scale of 200 million and not what will work, and then how can we scale it to 200 million?

Don’t just focus on scarcity, leverage on abundance: What was abundant was the presence of the humble textbook. We print a billion textbooks every year as a country. How do we leverage the abundance of textbooks in every household? How do we bridge that to the digital world of content and technology that people talk about in education? How do we bridge the existing habits and routines and rituals of actors to the new habits? How do we bridge the physical world to the digital world? How do we bridge the current capabilities that the system has to the new capabilities and how do we use technology to enable the country to leapfrog?

Don’t just ask what’s the right thing to do, also ask what the ecosystem wants to do: It is not what we think is the right thing to do. It is also what the ecosystem—the existing ecosystem of government actors, for-profits, and not-for-profits—what do they want to do? What are they doing? Because finally they are the players. You're just helping them achieve their goals.

Ask if it’s sustainable: As someone said, you can't put 20,000 ants together and create an elephant. The DNA of an elephant is fundamentally different from the DNA of an ant. If you want an elephant, you need to design for an elephant. So a lot of the initial thinking was about what will work at the scale, diversity, complexity of India? What will work in a manner that is sustainable? So tomorrow, whether EkStep exists or not, it should be sustainable at the scale of India.

Practice ‘plus one’ thinking: Plus one is an approach to co-creating solutions, such that those solutions are vaguely familiar to people, but yet minds open. What do I mean by that? If you take the example of QR codes in textbooks, the idea of QR codes, people were familiar with. Textbooks, people were familiar with. But QR code in textbooks, which when you click gives you content… to that particular topic was a mind opening idea because the humble textbook suddenly contained these little windows, the QR codes, through which you could access relevant content. But this came about because as part of the design, what we strived to do was make the change for each of the actors involved as small as possible. So plus one means they should only do one incremental step to what they are already doing—their current habits, their current rituals, their current capabilities, but the end result of everyone making that one extra step is a mind opening transformation for the system. Why is it mind opening? Because, once you have seen this and used it, you cannot go back to the previous status quo.

For the complete article, please click here


To listen to the podcast episode :