If we want to innovate, we need to disrupt our relationships and embrace tension

Guest post from Caroline Cassidy, Communications Manager in Caroline CassidyODI’s Research and Policy in Development team

Henry Ford famously said ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ The same can be said for our relationships. When it comes to getting evidence into policy no one can dispute that to have any success you need strong working relationships, champions, and collaborators. But rather than moving forward, are we going round in circles by surrounding ourselves with liked-minded people? Do we curse tension, when really it keeps us on our toes?  And do we shy away from our adversaries because it’s easier (and cheaper) not to engage?

I have been grappling with these questions since a recent event on evidence and decision-making in a complex world. The sheer importance of relationships for creating change was the central thread running through the day. But I agree with one participant who argued that we need to get better at ‘disrupting’ relationships to stop things getting stale. More importantly, we need to embrace tension in relationships and work with it, rather than against it, (as any therapist will tell you!).

cassidy 3We love being surrounded by like-minded people

Recent events in global politics have highlighted the various biases that influence our decisions. In our professional lives, as much as our personal, we tend to surround ourselves with those who are like us  – it’s as old as the hills. We filter who we work with like a Google search, drawing on our values, experience and expertise. What’s more, research indicates that the more we surround ourselves with like-minded people, the more entrenched and even extreme we become in our beliefs. This can make it harder for innovation to happen.  So how do you get past this?

There is no easy quick-fix. Exchanges and cross-sector events are just acassidy 4 few examples of spaces that can help create dialogue and expose us to different perspectives. Experimenting is key.  Take the growth of transdisciplinary research, one example of how to bring together different ways of thinking and working.  One such example is Earthquakes Without Frontiers, where natural and social scientists work together with policy and civil society actors, to build community resilience to earthquakes. All parties have different methodologies, approaches and interests and bringing these together is not easy. But it’s essential if there is to be any progress in unlocking the complexities of earthquake hazard and social resilience.

Tension is not going away, and nor should it

At the same time, when it comes to tension, we are often looking for that wand to magic it all away. Donors and implementers, researchers and decision-makers, communications and research teams; some healthy tension is great (and is never going to go away!).

And nor should it. It’s this very push and pull that keeps both sides on their toes and can lead to conciliation, compromise and new perspectives.

Just this week I was talking to a research colleague about how we can improve a communication process based on a few issues that arose; the result is that we are trialling new techniques that we’ve never used before.  We didn’t pretend to agree, but the only way out was to embrace our different interests, be transparent and find a path that was mutually beneficial.

We must seek out our adversaries and engage them

Policy-making, at all stages, is political. Working with adversaries may be challenging but it cannot be avoided, particularly for policy influence.

There’s one quadrant in this stakeholder mapping tool that identifies those who could be considered your ‘foes’. They are not aligned with your perspective, but have a high interest in the area you are working in. Using a tool like this can prioritise these types of actor and think about strategies to engage them.

File 1_AIIM
File 1_AIIM

There is a wealth of literature out there on developing these types of strategy, but I quite like this toolkit, which goes as far as to use psychographics to really understand other parties. Rather than ‘poking’ someone with an opposing view, you can consider techniques to decrease or neutralise tension, whilst being realistic about what can change.

But none of the above is cheap, nor easy

Developing transdisciplinary programmes and projects, engaging with adversaries and taking the time to get to know how others work is expensive and time consuming.  In many cases, it is a lot easier to plough on as before.

However, I think that things are changing. None of these challenges are new, but global politics is reminding us that we cannot continue as before. At a simple level, I think we need to be even bolder and take a hard look at events and fora so often filled with the usual suspects and recognize that overall, they aren’t taking us forward. And lest we forget, we need to assess what works and what doesn’t work in our relationships. The international development sector faces tough times and we must get smarter at how we work with tension, disrupt the status quo and ultimately innovate.  But then you probably know that already…

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