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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New Mesopartner working paper on complexity theory and development

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 12.20.50For the last 3 years we at Mesopartner have been purposefully experimenting with complexity and systems theories in our practice. Not only did we change our company logo and strapline based on our new learning, we started to dismantle and question almost every aspect of our instruments, tools and theories.

This was a steep learning curve for us and for our key customers who agreed that we could embark on these serendipitous journeys together. While we still believe in bottom up development, we are wondering about how to achieve developmental change within the typical timelines and resource constraints that development projects often face.

One of the results of this process is this website, where we want to share our thoughts and invite our followers to contribute to the discussions we have.

A new Mesopartner working paper now provides a theoretical grounding for the work we have done in the last three years and will continue to do. We consider some definitions, ponder the implications and try to formulate some responses to some of the key challenges that systems and complexity theories confront us with in our field of bottom up economic development.

We see this paper as an input into a broader discussion with our close collaborators, our close clients, and the broader network that we form part of. We ask  you to send us your thoughts and add your comments to this and future posts.

Episode 4: Interview with Jeanne Downing

We have just published this interview with Jeanne Downing of USAID under our Podcast page.

Jeanne Downing, Senior Enterprise Development Advisor, Office of Microenterprise Development, USAID talks about the discussions she and her colleagues have within USAID about the necessity of using a systemic approach in development. She mentions the need to switch away from linear approaches towards approaches that are better able to capture the complexities of real world phenomena, especially when taking into account the new focus on resilience, which puts a further layer of complexity on the work in market systems. With regard to Monitoring and Evaluation frameworks, Jeanne gives examples of work that has already been done to make them more systemic, for example the Degrees of Evidence paper. M&E in complex systems mean accepting that the route a project takes from the baseline to the projected endline cannot be planned or predicted. Projects that take a facilitation approach need to be nimble and adaptable, which ultimately translates into increased sustainability. Jeanne also stresses the importance of collaborative learning between practitioners, donors, and researchers.

This episode is part of the Systemic M&E series and was produced in partnership with the SEEP Network.

Episode 3: Interview with Dave Snowden

We have just published this interview with Dave Snowden under our Podcast page.

In this episode, Marcus Jenal interviews Dave Snowden. The podcast explores the recognition that development takes place in a dynamic, complex system and the resulting consequences for monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Current monitoring and evaluation frameworks are built around predefined outcomes and based on assumptions of causal, linear, and attributable connections between a project’s activities and changes at its outcome and impact levels.

Based on complex systems research, these assumptions tend not to reflect the reality of complex systems, such as markets or communities. Dave Snowden introduces emerging theories and tools that allow us to embrace complexity and manage development projects in a way that adapts to realities in complex systems. He discusses possible ways to design monitoring systems, and provides guidance on project design that is informed by scientific research in the field of complex systems.

This episode is part of the Systemic M&E series and was produced in partnership with the SEEP Network.