How can better models of change sharpen up our work on development?

March 7, 2011 14 By admin

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I’ve been doing quite a lot of floundering about thinking on different models of change (e.g. what triggered the revolution in Egypt? What does complexity theory add to/subtract from our thinking about development?) Partly it’s because in my ideal world, every time an NGO or research institution publishes some recommendation for change (of policy, practice, attitudes) it would include a power analysis of how/when it might actually come about – the drivers, blockers and waverers among different political and social actors, and the possible triggers for change. The largely meaningless phrase ‘political will’ would be banished forever. Well, I can always dream….

I set out where I’ve got to at IDS last week – there’s nothing like presenting to a room packed with illustrious academics and sharp-witted students to get the mental juices flowing (as well as exposing every weakness and confusion in your arguments).

The powerpoint is here, and you can listen to the lecture here, so I won’t rehearse the whole thing. Rather here’s a few reflections on the discussion.

Levers v Envelopes:
It feels like the discussion on change is getting unhelpfully polarised between two camps. On one side are what I call the ‘levers people’, who prefer to work with predictable, plannable change models – they are basically looking for levers of change they can pull, whether through advocacy or programming, to make change happen. They want lots of rigorous monitoring and evaluation to help improve the quality of such work.

On the other side are the ‘envelope people’, who see change as complex, emergent and unpredictable, essentially an unknowable black box, and so are highly sceptical of attempts to plan (‘log frame-ism’), pull levers or measure impact. Ros Eyben, an archetypal envelope person, reckons (slightly tongue-in-cheek) that if we administered a Myers-Briggs personality test to the two camps, we would find a pretty exact split – levers people need predictability; envelopers relish paradox and surprises. If true, it doesn’t bode well for the dialogue between them.

Horses for Courses:
But surely the most appropriate model of change varies according to the change process? Expanding service 280px-Cynefin_framework_Feb_2011provision, or infrastructure, lends itself to the levers model, whereas social transformation may well be best captured by envelope models. One approach that partly captures this ‘horses for courses’ approach is the Cynefin framework (see diagram), which divides up change processes into four categories:

Simple: relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all

Complicated: relationship between cause and effect requires investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge.

Complex: relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect

Chaotic: there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level

I think we could probably learn a lot from an institution that specialises in (and plans for) working in chaotic environments – the military. How do you combine the planning necessary to make sure troops are equipped, both physically and mentally, for combat, with the improvisation and agility required in combat?

Another (pretty obvious) part of the ‘horses for courses’ approach is that lever people have much more success explaining past changes than future ones (various aphorists are credited with saying ‘I never make predictions, especially about the future’). But we (NGOs, activists, anyone interested in change) live and work at the place where the (largely) unknowable, emergent future and the (on a good day) analysable past collide, namely the present. Shades of TS Eliot and Four Quartets.

The question is, can thinking more analytically about change help us operate more effectively in the present – Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’? I think it can – one example: with better understanding of both envelopes and levers, we should be able to spot opportunities for advocacy much quicker. Change is rarely a single moment, but a process, spread over months and years – the Egyptian and Tunisian upheavals are far from over. Often the earlier you get involved, the more impact you can have. How have organizations been using their change models to develop advocacy priorities, partnerships etc in such countries, or have they merely been trying to work out if there is a humanitarian emergency requiring a relief effort? Indeed, could better change models help development people become as agile and decisive in their response to events as their humanitarian colleagues, showing the same dynamism in responding to advocacy opportunities as we currently do to humanitarian threats?

Which brings me to my final rumination. It’s notable how quickly these discussions revert to what are essentially management and recruitment issues. How do we equip existing advisers on livelihoods, healthcare, disaster relief etc, who may see themselves primarily as technical specialists, to think systematically about change? And that may mean thinking about who we recruit in the first place – working on the cusp between levers and envelopes, spotting opportunities quickly, being entrepreneurial, coping with uncertainty may all require a very different kind of person than simply grinding through the Plan (back to Myers Briggs again).

All comments and suggestions welcome – I’m trying to sort out my work programme on this, and need all the help I can get.

[Update: really useful comments, keep em coming!]