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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Contingency

Faithful readers of the blog will know that I am no friend of the model of management which underpins the European Commission system of procuring Technical Assistance; and that, indeed, I have suggested it has many similarities with the Stalinist model which preceded it in the countries in which I work. Target setting; requirements to stick to activities decided hierarchically a couple of years earlier; tight monitoring - all betraying the confidence that their planned interventions can and should conquer the complexity of the world. And that failure to do so is the fault of those (lowly) individuals trying to implement the ordered change rather than the systems in which the intervention is located (or of the leaders who maintain those systems)
Aid on the Edge- Exploring complexity & evolutionary sciences in foreign aid - is a thoughtful blog which often explores these issues and had a good post this week on the debate which is apparently going on in the development field about a "results'based" approach
On one side of the results tug of war are those calling for more and better results, more rigour in analysis and more discipline in reporting. The failure of development, they argue, is basically about the failure to focus on results. ‘Modern management techniques’, especially those that are embodied by ‘results-based management’ are seen as the answer.
On the other side are those who argue for a ‘push back’ against this approach. Such reductionist approaches are seen as only suitable for certain kinds of development interventions, and that at their worst, these approaches inhibit the creativity and innovation needed to achieve results in the first place. The danger here is that we throw out the results baby with the reductionist bathwater (see here for a previous Aid on the Edge post on this).
Appropriate strategic approaches (and by extension, results approaches) need to be based on:
(a) the nature of the intervention we are looking at, and
(b) the context in which it is being delivered.
Reading across these approaches we can suggest a preliminary framework which may prove useful in bringing together different results approaches in a productive and mutually beneficial way.
First, imagine an agencies projects and programmes being distributed across a spectrum of the ‘nature of interventions’, placing relatively simple interventions on one end, and more complex issues, at the other.
Then let’s add in a vertical axes on context. Again, think of a spectrum, this time from stable/identical to dynamic/diverse. This gives us a 2 by 2 framework for analysing and mapping different development interventions. Where exactly an intervention is positioned on this framework has implications for the kinds of results orientation we can take. In the top left corner of simple interventions in identical stable settings, is the Plan and Control zone – here ‘traditional’ results-based management approach, conventional value for money analyses and randomised control trials work well.
The bottom right corner of complex interventions in diverse, dynamic settings is what I have termed Managing Turbulence. Here we need to learn from the work of professional crisis managers, the military and others working in dynamic and fluid contexts.
In between is what I have called Adaptive Management, where either because of the nature of the intervention or the nature of the context, multiple parallel experiments need to be undertaken, with real-time learning to check their relative effectiveness, scaling up those that work and scaling down those that don’t
.
Sadly, my blog does not allow me to reproduce the matrix - but it is the sort of "balanced", "appropriate" or "contingent" approach I admire. I know it's fashionable to attack a "one size fits all" approach - but I find that political and managerial leaders generally find it difficult to resist the latest managerial fashion. If only more of them could develop and use such matrices!!
"Balance" is a word I have noticed this year pops up quite a lot in my writing. It was one of the central points of my Revista 22 article which appeared this week; and the importance of getting the appropriate balance between demand and supply factors is a central part of my approach to the development of effective training systems. As I thought about this, the word "requisite" also came into my mind - and I remembered the work of the sadly neglected organisational theorist Elliot Jaques

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