The greatest obstacle to better practice, to better results and to better impacts is the temptation to replicated what has worked elsewhere. It's a huge temptation – reinforced by academic programmes, self-help books and conference presentations that focus on "Here's what worked somewhere else, here are the key characteristics and the process – repeat for similar success."
The problem crops up everywhere – in business, in personal life and, most pertinently in my recent work, in development work around the globe. Success in one area for one person/organisation does not mean that that success can be replicated elsewhere for others. (A few years ago, I recall talking with the World Health Organisation who felt that one of their greatest problems was Country Managers on their second deployment whose first deployment had been a great success.)
Next week in New York, I'm working with United Nations Development Programme who are determined to shift their thinking to something more effective. They've recognised that Complexity and Ecology sciences hold potential keys to what to do next.
With that in mind, we've got fierce minds in the room from a variety of disciplines:
- Lant Pritchett, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard
- Alicia Juarrero, Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Prince George’s Community College and author of the superb Dynamics in Action
- Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s Senior Strategic Adviser (previously their Head of Research) and author of From Poverty to Power. Duncan blogs here – there's an excellent debate in recent days about the pros and cons of aid
- Tim Allen, Professor of Botany and Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin
- Owen Barder, Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development. Owen blogs here and has written a diverse range of materials – I've just grabbed his running book on Kindle
- Dave Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Cognitive Edge. Dave blogs here – as most of you will already know!
- John Parkinson, Current Head of Psychology School at Bangor University, who's focused on the interface between cognition and motivation
- Giulio Quaggiotto, has just taken up a new post as Pulse Lab Manager for UN Global Pulse in Jakarta, but until earlier this year was Practice Leader, Knowledge and Innovation at UNDP Europe and the CIS. It's Giulio and his colleague Milica Begovic who have been the driving force for this whole event. Giulio blogs here and has blogged here as well.
The focus and thinking for the day is simple – the output and end-result may be tougher, but I suspect will be more cost-effective to implement, once the necessary mindshift has been made:
Results are not replicable in different contexts, but by looking at how natural ecologies evolve and what feedback loops, essential criteria and boundaries support locally-appropriate ecologies, new approaches to scaling development activity will mean culturally-effective variations can be developed.
Milica and Giulio have already blogged on this:
- Innovation for development: Scaling up or evolving?
To make an analogy, Galapagos finches didn’t get a memo one day instructing them to come up (or scale up) to 17 different beaks that will allow for a more efficient food gathering, but the different beaks in 17 different types of finches evolved through time and depending on where different finches lived and what type of food they eat.
In our practice, we are increasingly learning that to be effective, we need to spend far more time ‘listening’ and sensing where the system is and where it is moving to (some would call it monitoring), with constant probing (or prototyping) as a way to understand the issue better and inform our next move.
- The evolving finch fund: Two early insights on scaling…and lots of work still ahead!
Our aim is to ultimately come up with a set of criteria that can spur the growth of development innovation activities without falling into the “replication of best practice” or the ‘bigger, faster, cheaper’ trap.
In the spirit of working out loud, and as we gear up for our get-together later this month in New York City, we’d like to present a quick update on where we stand in our thinking.
We have to acknowledge that there is still a major language barrier between the various disciplines and that translating multi-disciplinary insights into tangible criteria applicable to the “finch fund” will require a significant amount of honing. At the same time, we like to think that this is just the beginning of a process of finding a common vocabulary and set of metaphors that can help us move forward.
I'll be honest – I'm extremely excited about the day, and a little daunted by the intellects at play in the room. I'll let you know in due course whether I kept up – and with the help of some colleagues, we'll report back on some of the ideas and applications in due course…