I have been thinking a lot recently about the benefits of not pretending to know stuff, of putting oneself consciously at a place of not knowing in order to be more open to explore what is possible. This is an attempt to write this down. The thinking is not finished and needs much more refinement, so please bear with me – and share your own reflections this might evoke in the comments.
The inspiration for this has come from different directions. Firstly, Dave Snowden introduced a new way of looking at the central domain of Cynefin that used to be called ‘disorder’ earlier this year. It is now called ‘confused/aporetic’, with aporetic being the mentioned state of putting oneself consciously at a point of not knowing. The second influence was a piece on education Nitzan Hermon asked me to comment on, which has unfortunately not been published yet – but he allowed me to use some quotes from it in this post. Finally, I listened to a very inspiring episode of the On The Edge podcast, in which Roland Harwood interviews Steve Xoh, an artist who works a lot with using not knowing (or rather aporia) in a playful way – and a subsequent very inspiring chat with Steve.
The purpose of agriculture is to feed people. That is a good and worthy purpose. From its beginning, smart people who later became agricultural engineers thought about how agriculture could become better in feeding people – feeding more people. In time, while feeding people is still the proclaimed purpose, there has been a ‘purpose creep’ towards making more money for the agricultural industrial complex. Initially, the focus was on increasing productivity, later it moved to creating higher income through increasing efficiency. So the purpose moved from feeding people to increasing the efficiency of agricultural production: larger fields, monocultures, more standardised crops, mechanisation, more chemicals. Indeed, engineers have come up with so many amazing tricks: looking at today’s agricultural multinationals, one has to say that all these smart people have certainly achieved the purpose they set out to achieve. Yet what have they also achieved: land degradation, water pollution, loss of biodiversity (both in crop diversity, but also in all other species either directly through the use of pesticides or by destroying their habitat or food source), massive contributing to climate change, poverty (either taking small holder farmers work and/or market away or by exploiting workers and suppliers), reduced nutritional value of crops, and so on. What a mess! The question is how did we get into this mess as we had such a good purpose: feed the people. The answer is: people are notoriously bad in implementing change following a specific purpose. Understanding this is one of the most important shifts necessary now if we want to save humanity from the looming catastrophes – and I don’t think I’m unnecessarily dramatising here.
For most of my colleagues in market systems development, the dominant questions are about how to create more new jobs for young people, lift more poor people out of poverty or empower more women to start a business or improve their economic stance. These are all important and noble goals. Yet, I think we are loosing the focus on the bigger question: how do we transform our global society so we can live on this planed in a sustainable way – i.e. without overexploiting the resources and over-polluting the environment. In an earlier blog post that I wrote for the BEAM Exchange (which has now also been published on USAID’s MarketLinks), I accused the field of too strong a focus on fixing problems in the current systems instead of reimagining how we could transition these systems to a better way of organising our economies and societies. Personally, I am keen to shift the focus of my work more towards the question of how economic development actors can contribute to large-scale transitions towards a more sustainable, regenerative economy.
One thing I have to admit is that I am not much into doing sports, never have been. I know that it is part of a healthy lifestyle to keep yourself fit, but I’m struggling to put this into practice. The one sport I have tried to keep up is running, because of its simplicity – all you need is a pair of running shoes. But also with that, I have been struggling. For a while I do it fairly regularly, then I drop it again for the one or the other reason. I often struggled to convince myself to go out running during the day, particularly if running competed with reading a book or writing a blog post! So it has all been quite frustrating.
In personal development and self-improvement, using an approach that is based on habits seems more promising for most people than an approach that is based on goals. Just think about the many New Year’s resolutions that were never achieved. I tried to put this advice into practice and it seems to work. By making it a habit, rather than by setting a goal of running a half-marathon in six months time, I am now running relatively regularly, which is good for my health. But would this also help us when we approach systems change? Can we think of certain institutionalised behaviours in systems as good or bad habits? This thought I had while running this morning seems worth exploring.
As external development agents, we cannot create impacts with all the qualities we want them to have: sustainable, inclusive, gender-equal, etc. We can only work with and through the system, so these qualities become an inherent part of how the system does things. Let’s say we call a system ‘healthy’ when it is creating these qualities we would like to see (although I’m not sure ‘healthy’ is the best term, it sounds a bit judgemental, but it has been used by others before). The question is how does a healthy system look like that is more likely to deliver impacts with the desired qualities? And how can we improve the health of a system?
There are various bodies of knowledge, all rooted in systems and complexity thinking, that give us some ideas to help answer this question. They all answer them from a different perspective and some are clearly limited in scope while others claim universality. I want to introduce three sets of principles or maybe sets of favourable behaviours here. Continue reading →
I am aware that I have not been blogging for a while. One of the reasons is I assume well-known to everybody who has attempted to blog regularly: finding topics that seem worthwhile to share with others. Another reason is that I am currently going down quite an exciting rabbit hole on the concept of dialogue, but am not yet really sure about what it means, so it feels a bit early to blog about. I still want to share a bit of my journey here and I am therefore sharing what I’m currently reading that excites me. Continue reading →
When watching one of my favourite TV series I was reminded that in life we can recognise and navigate complexity and uncertainty. When we enter into relationships, get married, have kids, we face lots of uncertainties. Is it the right partner for us? How do I want to raise my kids so they can make the most of their lives? These are questions no-one can answer with any amount of certainty – no quantitative objectives or milestones are fixed. Yet, we still manage to make decisions by using a mix of logical argument and a good portion of intuition. In the end, there are no right answers and we will deal with the consequences of our decisions once we can sense them. We continuously work on our relationships to improve them or in the worst case split up. We navigate the uncertainties of raising children and they grow up eventually. While this approach is natural and works well in our lives, we somehow refuse to buy into it for most aspects in our work. There, we try to find certainty, hypothesise linear causal relationships that allow for plans with milestones and outcomes. When applying this thinking to a complex problem like organising a children’s party it sounds ridiculous and we laugh about it. But we still use the same logic when we try to improve the workings of an economy or a market, when trying to change the behaviour of companies and poor people, or even when trying to improve the empowerment of women in business. Nobody laughs there. Continue reading →
I was catching up with some reading over Christmas and read an interesting article on systems change in the RSA Journal . In the article’s lead, the author states that “To tackle the challenges faced by our public services, we need to learn to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.” I found this thought quite intriguing and not only true for tackling challenges of public services, but also challenges in development. Continue reading →
This post is a bit of an experiment. In it, I want to outline my four main areas of interest which guide my reading, thinking and the work I want to engage in. The aim is twofold. Firstly, I hope that the exercise focuses my thoughts because I need to write the areas down in a coherent way. Secondly, this is intended as a way to reach out to likeminded people who are interested in the same issues, so it contains a call to action, i.e. to contact me. I would be particularly interested if you would like to discuss my ideas presented below, work with me on any of these challenges, or simply tell me that what I am sketching out below is not really as challenging as I think it is and that robust answers/solutions are indeed already available (please do share them with me and excuse me for my ignorance).
My four areas of interest are (1) understanding change in societies from a complex systems perspective and in particular how to promote a more sustainable way of living, (2) developing an integrated approach to performance management, accountability and learning for teams and organisations engaging in complex change, (3) achieving systemic change through economic development initiatives, and (4) engaging more in the area I live in – the North East of England. Some of these areas are more concrete and tangible in terms of potential outputs and activities. I will now describe each of them in turn in more detail. Continue reading →