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.
In our work in economic development, we find ourselves often in situations where we don’t know what interventions will work and how exactly a good outcome of these interventions could look like. Even the probabilities of certain things happening is unknown, and people may have divergent views on what must be done and why. Under conditions of such uncertainty, a more exploratory approach is called for to start with, where development programmes and practitioners see their role as introducing options and variety into a given context. Such an approach encourages development actors to help stakeholders explore options beyond what seems to be optimal or silver bullets from the donor’s perspective.
To give direction to such a process and enable development actors to make a judgment on whether the change that is observed is positive, we suggest agreeing on a strategic intent rather than a fixed goal or target. After an exploratory phase, we can scale up interventions and solutions that were found to work in a consistent way, spending more resources on them to see wider spread change. A move-out phase could subsequently focus on capitalization and communication with the intent to capture learning and communicate achievements.
We have recently published a journal article where we reflect on our recent thinking and experience of applying complexity thinking to the economic development field. The article was published in the IDS Bulletin (Vol 46.3) and is titled “Explore, Scale Up, Move Out: Three Phases to Managing Change under Conditions of Uncertainty”. A pre-peer reviewed version of the article can be found here.
Here is the official abstract:
Private sector development is dominated by the use of ‘good practice’ solutions, driven by a desire of the development donors to control the outcome of development initiatives – with limited success. Bottom-up participatory approaches are more appropriate to find solutions for the complex challenge of market and private sector development. Theory-based approaches are used to design and deliver solutions to economic development challenges. We argue that these approaches have limited potential to manage interventions that target systemic change in complex contexts. On the other hand, alternative approaches based on emergence have some essential shortcomings from the perspective of the international development system. Based on our own working experience, we propose a pragmatic way forward that aims to build on the strengths of emergence-based approaches in complex contexts but is designed to work in the current development environment.
This article is based on our experience in working in economic development and our study of complex systems sciences and complexity thinking. Until now, our work has predominantly focused on helping existing projects based in developing countries when they are stuck, or when they realize that their original planned approach is not yielding the desired results. In a sense, this is easier than trying to set up a completely new project that is following all principles and heuristics of emergent approaches. Thus, we need to take an experimental approach to this as well. We need to find a donor that is ready to test these ideas and can also absorb some failure before we have come to a fine-tuned approach that works. Management and steering arrangements have to be developed and tested. The relationship between donor and implementer has to shift significantly from one based on top-down control to one that is marked with the motivation to achieve change together.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts, concerns and experience of introducing options in order to increase variety in economic development.
Shawn and Marcus