Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty.

This quest for certainty is based on the idea that thinking proceeds action, and that this thinking needs to be of an ideal kind. So before recognising what is already going on in the second organisation, where staff are working experimentally and experientially, acting, questioning, acting again, reflecting, involving their stakeholders in opening out their thinking, my reviewer seems to be looking for an idealised model of how people ‘should’ be working. Equally, in the first example, with my interlocutor’s question comes the idea that we can guarantee the results of the experiment without undertaking the experiment (in which case, why experiment?). Of course, there is a great deal of anxiety in many organisations about being ‘wrong’, or appearing unprofessional. Professionalism is largely understood as having the answers and mapping out the future in every direction, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. There is very little accounting for the radical incalculability of the future, particularly if that future arises out of our collaboration with others who are our moral equals. We have our intentions, but so do they.

In the third example the donors are rushing the organisation I was supporting to produce an abstraction, a model of working, which can be ‘applied’ elsewhere and guarantee results. Despite the proposal to the donor which suggested that ten years was a reasonable time frame to bring about a noticeable change in a complex society, in year three they are looking to pull the plant up by the roots to see if it was growing or not. Of course, and at the same time, the organisation I was supporting have got themselves into a bit of a bind, a victim of their own persuasive powers. Because if the programme does ‘succeed’, depending on who is asked and what success is taken to be, this will be largely due to the quality of relationships between people and the trust and co-operation that they can generate together. Trust, co-operation, and the experience of messy improvisation is very hard to reduce to abstract models which can be taken up and ‘used’ elsewhere by others. The more complex the interaction, the harder it is to codify.

In my experience it is sometimes the very organisations which are most in favour of innovatory ways of working and learning that are the most risk-averse. They assume that innovation can be engineered and planned out in advance and the uncertain can be made certain. Instead, and drawing on the three examples above, I would argue that risk, experimentation and both knowing-and-not-knowing at the same time are central to developing responsive ways of working in conditions of  uncertainty. This is not an argument against making plans, but it is an acknowledgement of their limitations if we don’t know what we don’t know.

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