I had the pleasure of giving a talk to the Institutional Effectiveness Learning Group earlier this week, hosted at Action Aid. This is a group that includes a number of INGOs, and they are focusing on the need for organisations to be adaptive. I was talking, first, about how complexity thinking illustrates why we need to be adaptive. It was a great and lively meeting.
So, the argument, in a nutshell, is that we have taken over one particular form of science, one theory from physics – the idea that things operate like machines – into the social world as it gives us the feeling that we can predict the future and control outcomes. But in fact the world operates more like an ecology than a machine – interconnected, quirky, evolving, organic, affected by the particularities of context and history. Complexity theory is how physics explains ecological evolution and gives us a model more in tune with social reality on which to base practice in the social world. As I said in the talk, it also mirrors our personal experience of how the world works, how our lives unfold. When I explain complexity theory to my old Mum, she looks at me quizzically and says, ‘Isn’t that common sense, dear?’ She is right of course.
I also explored what ‘being adaptive’ might mean. Complexity theory is a middle ground between machine-like certainty and random chaos where we can predict nothing. It is certainly sometimes important to react to changing circumstances, to seize unexpected opportunities, and mitigate unexpected difficulties or unintended outcomes. But that is not to say that we have to be passive, that we have to just wait and see what turns up. We should also make efforts to analyse the context, understand how the present is built on the past, take of view of the wider context, ‘foresight’ into the future, and do our best to determine a direction, clarify our intentions and decide how best to achieve them. The issue is that, as we implement our plans, try to move towards our goals, we stay alert to what is working and what is not; to whether the wider context is changing unexpectedly; to whether some of the emerging outcomes are different and indeed better than we expected and need extra focus. Finally, being adaptive includes piloting, experimenting, and also allowing approaches to be modified to suit particular local conditions.
So ‘being adaptive’ is (i) reacting to change (ii) moving ahead with strong, well-informed intentions but reviewing often and being prepared to adapt to the unexpected (iii) experimenting, piloting but also allowing approaches to be customised to suit local situations.
I added a bit at the end to my talk, because people often feel quite despairing about these messages. They get it, but feel that they work in a bureaucracy, which, for the very good reasons of wanting to be efficient and ensure funds are spent effectively, minimise the ability to adapt, be flexible and seize opportunities. What can you do then, to try and influence the powers that be? There is no perfect answer to this question, but here are some suggestions.
(a) Gather evidence over and above any established indicators, of emerging unexpected outcomes and track these as they emerge, and if possible support their growth. This focus on tracking emerging outcomes can give confidence to funders that loosening up may actual lead to greater not diminished effectiveness.
(b) Spend more time in the field understanding the past, exploring what other agencies are doing, looking into the future to see if any ‘critical junctures’ may be looming and use this evidence to argue for a degree of flexibility and customisation of approaches.
(c) See where it is possible to add other projects around a core project so that work becomes more systemic, more able to deal with a range of factors that, together, influence reduction in poverty and powerlessness. Show how this can lead to more sustainable and effective change.
I hope these suggestions do not feel obvious, impossible or irritating. I think what I am trying to say is that ‘embracing complexity’ can make things simpler, can lead to great effectiveness and more sustainable change – and if this is right, then there will be evidence to support this statement, which you can find. People know things need to change, and there is a lot of interest in this thinking – about complexity, adaptive working, resilience and so on. ‘They’ just want some assurance that if they loosen the grip, things will not all descend into chaos.