what you get here

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!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Theories of Change - mine and other people's

For the past few years, people in the “development” field have been encouraged to have a “theory of change”. The global technocracy had at last been forced to recognise that its attempts to make political institutions in “developing” countries more open to economic development had not been working - and that a different more local, inclusive and incremental approach was needed if there were to be any prospects for improving the government systems under which so many citizens are yoked….. 

Practitioners of this curious field often use the phrase “Doing Development Differently” – there is a nice short powerpoint presentation here of the main ideas to complement the OECD paper which is the first hyperlink
I.ve had my own theories of organisational change – whether in Scotland in the 1970s and 80s or in central Asia in the 2000s – always (I have just realised) with the assumption that "we" were facing the implacable force of what the great organisational analyst Donald Schoen in 1970 called “dynamic conservatism
When I was lucky enough to find myself in a position of strategic leadership in a new and large organisation in the mid 1970s, we used what I called the “pincer approach” to set up reform structures at both a political and community level. The organisational culture was, of course, one of classic bureaucracy – but, from its very start, some of us made sure that it had to contend with the unruly forces of political idealism and community power. The regional body concerned was responsible for such local government functions as education, social work, transport, water and strategic planning for two and half million people; and employed 100,000 staff but not has been written about it.
You’ll find the full story of the strategy here – and a short version here. 

Thirty years later. I was doing a lot of training sessions in the Presidential Academies of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and developed there what I called the “opportunistic” or “windows of opportunity” theory of change against what I started to call “impervious regimes” ie so confident of the lack of challenge to their rule that they had become impervious to their citizens -

“Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity”. And the preparation is about analysis, mobilisation and trust.
·         It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to speak out about the need for change.
·         It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and helping create and run networks of such change.
·         And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement that people will follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”.

I realised that it would be difficult to implement such an approach in Beijing when I arrived there in January 2010 to take up the role of Team Leader in a “Rule of Law” project and made a fast exit from a project that was supposed to last for 4 years – for reasons I tried to explain in a note called Lost in Beijing.
A year later, I tried to share some of my concerns about how the European Commission was dealing with capacity development in “transition countries” with participants at the annual NISPAcee Conference in Varna. But The Long Game – not the log-frame was met with indifference.
As it happens that was the year the World Bank published its quite excellent People, Politics and Change - building communications strategy for governance reform (World Bank 2011). And it was 2015 before this guide on “change management for rule of law practitioners” saw the light of day    

I said earlier that I had always assumed that reformers were facing “implacable force” in their intervention but need now to question this..…not just because 1989 showed how easily certitudes and legitimacy can crumble….. but also because management writing has in the past 2 decades paid a lot more attention to chaos and uncertainty – even before the 2006 global crisis (eg Meadows and Wheatley).
As someone who has always felt compelled to try to intervene in social processes (ie of an “activist” mode) I readily admit that my initial responses to those who argued that every force attracts a counterforce and, most memorably, that “the flap of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately contribute to tornados”…has been one of impatience. Quite a lot of the writing on “chaos theory” and even “systems theory” seemed to me to run the risk of encouraging fatalism.
One of my favourite writers - AO Hirschmann – actually devoted a book (”The Rhetoric of Reaction”; 1991) to examining three arguments conservative writers use for dismissing the hopes of social reformers:
- the perversity thesis holds that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
- The futility thesis argues that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
- the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

He was right to call out those writers; but we perhaps need a similar framework these days to help us make sense of the world of chaos in which we live. I had been aware of systems thinking in the 1970s (particularly in the writing of Geoffrey Vickers and Stafford Beer) and again in 2010 and, finally, in a 2011 post which focused on complexity theory. My brief foray into the subject didn’t greatly enlighten me but I have a feeling I should return to the challenge….
I have therefore a little pile of books on my desk – including The Web of Life (Fritjof Capra 1996); Leadership and the new Science – discovering order in a chaotic world (Margaret Wheatley 1999); Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows 2009) – as well as a virtual book Systems thinking – creative holism for managers; Michael Jackson (2003). 

So let’s see if my older self is capable of new insights……. 

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