Complexity and development management

In an article coming out next month (Vol 30, 2010)  in the Journal of Public  Administration and Development I responded  to an invitation to write about the future of development management from a complexity perspective. This involved forming a view as to whether there is such a thing as development management, as well as dealing with ideas about how the future arises from the present. On what basis might one predict a future for anything, and what would these predictions say about our theories of causality?

The article argues that development management borrows heavily from management ideas that prevail in other sectors, particularly but not exclusively, New Public Management. In other words, many of the concepts, assumptions, grids, frameworks and instruments of management that get taken up widely in the public sector, and in the private sector, are also widely used in development organisations. One is just as likely to find managers in development organisations talking about their ‘niche’ and their ‘brand’, undertaking strategic planning, setting ‘stretch targets’, and worrying about effectiveness and efficiency as in any other sector. There are obvious differences, but at the same time managers in development organisations are working with very similar theories, implicit or explicit, to those adopted by managers in all kinds of other organisations. Is this such a surprise if they have management qualifications from the same business schools?

So I could not agree with a number of scholars who have still argued that development management is a distinct discipline for a variety of reasons: for example, because the managers in such organisations are well intentioned, or because the organisations themselves have emancipatory objectives. In my view, whenever managers of development convince themselves that what they are doing must be worthwhile because their intentions are good and they are trying to bring about ‘positive change’, then they are starting to skate on thin ice.

Nor would I agree with some critical scholars who see development management in its current managerialist form as merely another manifestation of  a capitalist/colonialist project. In my own view, the effect of liberal market capitalism has been so pervasive that it has begun to shape our very sense of self. To this extent, development organisations and their managers are not separate from the society from which they have emerged and continue to be sustained, and could not have resisted market disciplines fully. Managers in development organisations are neither victims, nor do they have false consciousness. However, I also think that managers in development organisations could have developed a much stronger critique of the dominant managerialist discourse than they have done, gvien the sector that they find themselves working in. So what might have prevented them from so doing?

One characteristic of modern management thinking, which we have explored elsewhere on this blog, is that professional managers and management scholars and teachers are also making an ideological claim for the efficacy of the theories they espouse. Employing professional managers who bring with them systematic and systemic ways of organising,  is presented as being simply the best way of getting good organisational results. A professional manager with a qualification from a good business school is thought to be uniquely qualified to run an organisation, even if they have no experience of the sector in which they find themselves managing. There are a number of very high profile development organisations which have appointed chief executives with no experience of development. The same is true in the private sector. However, without experience  they are likely to reach for standard responses and methods to situations which may require very specific and contextual approaches. Their automatic response is likely to be to standardise. It is already possible to see the likely turbulence that development organisations enter into when an ideology claiming to be based on techno-rational thinking, standardisation and instrumental control, simply the best way of organising something, comes up against a highly contested, politicised practice such as social development which is predicated on addressing power figurations and difference.

So how might analogies from the complexity sciences help us think about this? The first thing to say is that the current social figuration we find ourselves in has not come about because anyone has planned it, and nor will we plan our way out of it, at least, not exactly as we intend. Similarly, no one planned the financial collapse, and no one has planned the situation where fifty percent of all money donated to aid in the UK is now given to just four organisations.  A small number of very large players, including donors, have a significantly larger impact on the way that the aid and development game is framed resulting in the fact that managerialism as ideology has taken a particularly firm hold. It has become very hard to call the game into question, particularly when people disposed to play the game insist also on trying to  frame the way that resistance and critique can be expressed (‘So what would you do instead?’)

Secondly, if we accept some of the radical implications of insights from, say, complex adaptive systems theory, then we would argue that it is only in the local interactions between employees in the domain that these particular global patterns are sustained and renewed. There is nowhere to stand outside the patterning that we experience and of which we are part. To come up with an idea of  a model of wholesale change would simply be to replicate the dominant conceptual paradigm, which presuppose a rational, choosing manager who can design wholesale change for the good. This does not prevent managers in the sector critically engaging with the way they are obliged to manage, however, as some of them do, in the many, many interactions in which they engage. To critique, to question, to reflect, to strive with others to understand the political and contextual implications of managing in a  contested context may produce small differences of interpretation and patterning which get amplified over time to bring about large scale changes in the way that development management is practiced and thought about. The future emerges directly out of the interactions that we are engaged in, in the here and now and is not separate from it.

The article concludes that to adopt this way of thinking would require managers in the sector to take seriously and in a continuous way the effects on others of acting with their good intentions.  This demands more of managers than just a fluency with the often managerial models that are prevalent in the sector, but requires them to enquire into the effect of taking them up in their local context. They will need to be more adept at thinking about how they are thinking, and what this means for their practice. Reflexive and reflective methods are at the core of the project of transforming development management, and I do not intend to use the word ‘transform’ in the highly idealised and instrumental way that it is commonly used. Managers of development are not in a position to transform or empower anyone else: however, in their practice, and with serious attention, they are in a good position to pay attention to and notice the potential for transformation that arises from the quality of  their very engagement with others.


2 thoughts on “Complexity and development management

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      What I’m trying to say is that similar ways of managing have been taken up in all sectors as though management is a techo/rational discipline which is everywhere the same.


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