What different environments have in common from a leadership support perspective

In our work, we move between different environments. We work sometimes in development organizations, and on other days as advisers to business people. We move between assisting the Dean of a University to assisting a value chain practitioner in an NGO. Sometimes we help a policy maker, other days a team leader working in a rural location. We work with a diverse range of economic activity, from informal trading to retail, from home industries to advanced manufacturing, from agriculture to finance, local industries to international value chains. People ask us how we do this, what kind of expertise one must have to advise such different clients in such a wide range of industries.

The answer is actually quite simple. We are not engineers, nor are we knowledge workers for rent. We understand how to design processes of exploration and change; how to help people in systems recognize or become more sensitive to patterns and to then we assist them to carefully shape or influence those patterns. We have learned that a complex system does not become simpler by studying it. We also know that what people say they think and how they actually behave in the moment are not always consistent. Complex systems can only be understood by trying something to improve it and then carefully observing how the patterns change, typically through some low risk experiments or probes. These experiments must be done in a reversible way as far as possible, and should also try many different approaches to improving a particular situation. That means that without calling it that, we help organizations of all kinds to learn by doing. Most organizations simply pay lip service to this idea.

What decision makers in businesses, governments and development organizations all have in common is that they are trapped by long term visions of an ideal future state, trapped on narrow paths of the ideal way to reach their objectives. Planning instruments that work well within an engineering management environment have been applied to the management of organizations, of networks and of people. Many managers are frustrated because projects don’t go as planned, especially when it comes to collaborating with other competitors, counterparts, customers and supporters Their views of what is possible and acceptable behavior is often confined by ideology, organizational culture and inertia. Everything seems to be shaped or influenced by everything, and the consequences of making a wrong decision could undo the hard work of getting many other things in order through hard work. We have witnessed how in the last few years increasing numbers of leaders we work with have become despondent, risk averse and frustrated by instructions from above and demands from the outside.

Our job is often to be a management coach or adviser. It starts with listening to a leader’s description of their current challenges and the issues that they are frustrated by. We listen to what they are struggling with, what they are trying, and more importantly, why. These existing ideas and actions we capture as hypotheses that describe the boundaries of a system from the perspective of the leader. We help them to capture some of the data and some of the patterns that appear to be constant, but this is often not the real value add. Our real value add is when we help these leaders to design portfolios of carefully designed experiments that are implemented simultaneously to test what is possible within a particular context. The purpose of the experiments is to not only “solve problems”, but to intensify learning and adjustment of the organizations. We help leaders and their teams sense better what is possible, what is within reach, and what is not possible within current constraints. This strengthens the resilience and the collaborative culture of the organizations that these leaders are responsible for. Often it results in strength through diversity, which is healthy for organizations, as opposed to strength through alignment, which only ever can be healthy for a short period until the context changes.
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A new blog post on Systemic Insight at IDS

Shawn and I wrote a blog post on the IDS website about our recent article for the IDS Bulletin. Here is how it starts:

The company we work for, Mesopartner, supports development organisations to address the challenge of innovation and change towards economic development, cluster and value chain promotion and the strengthening of local innovation systems.

In our work in economic development, we often find ourselves in situations where we don’t know which interventions will work and what exactly a good outcome will look like.

As a result, those working to plan and deliver development interventions may have divergent views on what must be done and why. These situations are complex (PDF)  and uncertain (following Frank Knight’s definition of uncertainty).

Read more at the IDS blog

Systemic Insight as a guided process of discovery

The first week of July is traditionally the week of the Mesopartner Summer Academy. This year, the 11th Summer Academy took place in Berlin – the 4th in the German capital. Systemic Insight was again a central pillar of this year’s Academy. We introduced it in a whole day session as a process of discovery in situations where solutions are not obvious.

systemic insight overview

A process guided by Systemic Insight enables organisations and networks of stakeholders to search for solutions to improve the performance of complex systems or emergent networks. This instrument draws on cognitive science and complexity thinking as well as experiences in the design of participatory social and economic change initiatives such as social labs or cluster platforms. At the same time, Systemic Insight was designed to allow stakeholders to work within complex issues without having to know the theories and understand abstract complexity thinking.

Systemic Insight is an iterative process where stakeholders explore the boundaries and constraints of a system in which the possibilities or solutions are unknown or uncertain. The format of collaboration, be it a multi-stakeholder platform or forum or purely bilateral interaction with the involved actors, is thereby not fixed but depends on the circumstance and can change over time. A high level of self-selection of participants into the process is encouraged. Self-selection means that local actors take ownership of the process by actively opting in, contributing to, investing in, and incorporating change in their own operations based on their interest to solve a problem or their identification with an issue.

In Systemic Insight meso level organisations are seen as central actors of change. Systemic Insight helps them to become more effective in managing change and resilient while assisting firms and networks to adapt to change in the environment. It shifts the focus of actors from responding to change towards actively testing ways to anticipate and actively create change.

The process enables stakeholders to challenge their own assumptions, discover and better understand the system and make sense of the constraints and possible opportunities. It guides them to intervene through portfolios of quick win activities or safe-to-fail experiments. Continuous learning and adjustment ensures an iterative and adaptive approach that is appropriate to tackle complex issues. In order to put learning and adjustment in the centre of the change initiative, monitoring and management functions need to be integrated to allow for decision making that is based on facts and current realities and needs.

As part of the Mesopartner research theme on complexity in development, we will continue to apply and further develop this approach. We seek to work with projects that are stuck and need a fresh approach to infuse the situation with discovery and innovative ideas.

Is target sector selection a good place to start

In much of private sector development, the selection of a particular economic sector or sub sector happens quite early in the development process. Typically a sub sector is selected either for its potential in terms of job creation, exports or some other criteria. These indicators are sometimes informed by some preliminary research, other times by careful statistical analysis.

Approaches such as market development (a.k.a Making markets work for the poor) often assume that if a market that is important to a particular sub sector can be improved, then the society (and of course the sub-sector) will benefit. This logic ignores that a market is deeply embedded in a social context, what Mark Granovetter called social embeddedness. Furthermore, market failures tend to be interconnected as markets are interdependent. Thus the chances that a market is failing for a particular good or services in isolation of many other markets is slim. Market development is an evolutionary process that requires the co evolution of product and service markets as well as market supporting organizations and systems (markets are about far more than supply and demand, unless you are a traditional economist). This evolution is enabled or hampered by the presence of social institutions like trust, habits, value as well as formal and informal organizations that provides market guidance, regulations that reduce transaction cost (for instance by providing quality assurance).

The chances that a particular sub sector and its supporting markets, say for instance dairy farming with its small farmer network that is connected to a retail market, will evolve as an exemplary island in a sea of chaos (as in disorder, randomness, inconsistent behavior, low trust and fragmented efforts to improve the system) is highly unlikely.

In these instances, a sectoral or sub-sectoral approach is futile. Of course, it could be argued that working with a particular sub sector reveals something about the society, an argument that we cannot disagree with. However, most development programmes are measured at the micro level (in other words at the level of the actors in a particular sub sector) rather than on the improvement of the overall system conditions which includes adequate or responsive domestic market supporting organizations and supporting social institutions.

If you really want to support faster change in a developing country, perhaps a more promising place to start is with the actors that are behaving differently from the rest. This is a very qualitative or subjective assessment, but with this group of outliers it may just be possible to prove that a different kind of behavior is profitable (or effective), and that the boundaries created by culture, habits and routines may need to be adjusted.

Day 2: Basics of designing a SenseMaker framework

Fragments of Impact ModulatorsFollowing on the brief recap of day 1 of the Fragments of Impact initiative, here a few insights from day 2. This day was largely about SenseMaker prompts and signification frameworks. Signification frameworks are used to allow people to add meaning and interpret their own stories. The fact that expert interpretation usually is missing the point was the inspiration for the title of yesterday’s post: “Why experts don’t get it, and other lessons“.

So instead of interpreting the stories ourselves, we give the people who tell the stories a semi-constrained framework within which they can interpret their stories. Semi-constrained because we need to give it some boundaries in order to get the things out we are interested in. At the same time, we want to give the people the most liberty to express their own meaning of the story. As both, Tony and Dave Snowden like to mention, it happens very often that members of the research team say that the people mis-interpreted their stories when looking at the signifiers. But actually, the person who mis-interpreted the story was rather the researcher.

A SenseMaker framework starts with a prompt. A prompt is nothing else than a statement or question that provokes people to share an experience. Prompts should be formulated as open as possible while still giving the necessary direction to tell the person what experience we would like to hear (from work, home, on the road, etc.). Thus, prompts should place people in a familiar context (like the work place, the pub, home, etc.). One prompt that is often used as an example goes something like this: “You meet an old friend in a pub. He tells you that he has been offered a job in your company. What experience do you share with him if you want to either encourage or discourage him to join the company?”

After the prompt follow a number of signifiers that allow people to interpret their story. Besides interpretation, signifiers also add a layer of meaning to the story that was not evident in what people shared.

Besides learning about prompts and signifiers, the participants also put serious energy into framing their own projects in a way that can be used to design a SenseMaker framework. The idea of the Fragments of Impact initiative is to develop a handful of frameworks that are then used by all projects. So the over ten projects that were present in the room tried to cluster as good as possible in groups that shared some similar issues. Then they started to collect modulators that influence the people or situation in their projects. Based on these modulators, Cognitive Edge will then develop three signification frameworks.

Now all participants are off to their respective countries and projects. In the following months, we will organise story collection in our projects, test the framework, refine it and eventually start collecting stories. Analysis of the stories will be done in January or February 2016 in another workshop, where we all come together.

Day 1: Why experts don’t get it, and other lessons

This is a brief recap of the first day of the workshop for the Fragments of Impact initiative (I blogged about it here). The aim of the day was to give the participants an introduction to complexity and narrative research with SenseMaker®. Although I have heard many of the things already in earlier events and trainings I participated in, the refresher was useful and there were interesting new aspects I could gather.

Here a few great things I picked up, mainly shared by Tony Quinlan who did the major part of the introduction. I’m paraphrasing here, reflecting the way I perceived the points and why I thought they were.

Many projects in development first pilot their ideas. Then they want to go to scale. Tony borrowed a metaphor from Giulio Quaggiotto (@gquaggiotto) who compared pilots with fish. You put them in a little water and they seem to swim just fine. Then what many projects do is to make a whale. A whale is obviously a totally different beast and will behave in a completely different way. Instead, projects should go for a shoal of fish. They are aligned with the lessons from the pilot but still flexible to adapt to changes in the contexts and new challenges.

In order to show the importance of our history and cultural background, Tony used a simple question: which one is the odd one out from: cow, chicken, grass. The answer largely depends on where you were raised. Psychological research has shown that Westerners choose grass as the odd one out as cows and chicken are both animals. They categorise. East Asians on the other hand choose chicken as the odd one out as cows eat grass. They think much more in relations and networks.

So the above gives already a strong indication that it might be difficult for experts to interpret stories from other people. Especially in multi-cultural settings (which we often find in development). Tony brought three more reasons why experts always get it wrong (i.e. why it is not advisable to interpret stories of others):

  • Metaphors: metaphors are extremely context dependent and difficult to understand if you are not part of the specific culture, region or even village. (Tony made an example related to Cricket and unfortunately I cannot reproduce it.)
  • Sarcasm: how would you detect from a text you read if it was meant the way it was written or not? Tony gave the example of a story he once collected in Pakistan that – reading only the text – would suggest that the person was pretty radical. Using other data collected with SenseMaker, Tony figured out quickly that the text was totally sarcastic.
  • Evolution of language: language changes within generations, if not years. Parents often don’t understand many nuances of the language of their teenage and older children. This makes it difficult for (mostly senior) researcher to interpret stories of others, especially from another generation.

Consequently, the approach used with SenseMaker is to let people interpret their own stories. Today, we will work on a signification framework that we will use over the next six months to collect stories.

SenseMaker® and Systemic Change

Powered by SenseMakerI’m off to Istanbul today. I will participate there in a two-day workshop organised by Cognitive Edge and UNDP. This is part of a new initiative started by the two organisations called Fragments of Impact. The aim of the initiative is to engage with new ways of working on difficult problems in complex and fast-changing situations.

Specifically, the initiative is focused on:

  • generating fast feedback loops
  • capturing data on subtle changes in attitudes, behaviors and perceptions
  • bringing user-centered design methods to development work,
  • implementing projects with the realities of politics and power in mind
  • taking small bets and low-cost prototypes before committing large investments into multi year projects

The initiative will explore the boundaries of using Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® software to work on intractable problems in uncertain, culturally-specific environments. SenseMaker® is a research approach and software package that allows us to capture a large number of narratives around a specific issue. Instead of then interpreting the stories ourselves, SenseMaker® gives the power of interpretation to the people who told the stories. They can interpret their own stories within a given framework. The interpretations give us quantitative material that we can analyse statistically. (There is a brief video if you follow the link above by Dave Snowden, one of the brains behind SenseMaker®).

Mesopartner has already successfully used narrative research approaches and SenseMaker® in various projects. For the Fragments of Impact initiative, I have been asked to support a programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) called Yapasa. It works with rural youth in Zambia engaged in the soybean and aquaculture markets. Mesopartner also supports EDA, an economic development agency based in Banja Luka, Bosnia. EDA is also participating in the Fragments of Impact initiative.

SenseMaker® is a powerful tool to capture changes in the systems we engage with. It does so from the perspective of the people in those systems, not from the perspective of us as a researcher. Using an open prompt for stories, narrative research allows us to find change in unexpected places and shapes. It is not about confirming a hypothesis but about scanning the context widely. Self-interpretation by the people who tell the story empower them to live the stories.

We are very excited that Mesopartner is participating in the Fragments of Impact initiative. We will keep you posted on how it goes.