Thinking out loud: my areas of interest

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.

Area 1: Mapping change in complex societies

This area of interest is based on a keen desire to better understand how ideas from complex systems science (and in particular from a field Dave Snowden has started to call anthro-complexity) can help us to understand (and eventually influence) change in communities. A first step in this is to understand communities, their history, and their current dispositions to change. Snowden suggests to use attractor landscapes to map these dispositions. An attractor can be visualised as a dip in a landscape that shapes a particular type of behaviour. Coleman et al. describe attractors in human systems as follows: “an attractor represents a narrow range of mental states and actions that is experienced by a person or group. These psychologicalstates are mutually congruent in their subjective meaning and thus provide a coherentframe of reference in processing information and deciding how to act towards others. Attractors thus promote stability in thought and behaviour despite changing conditionsand contradictory information.” There are different forms of attractors. Some are very narrow and as such encode a very specific mental state or behavioural patterns whereas others can be as broad that a simple observation of the behaviour would not even reveal that the behaviour is indeed constrained by an attractor (these are often called strange attractors). Strange attractors are extremely difficult to detect from the outside, but in the community they are known – “this is how things are done around here”.

So the main aim of this field of interest is to better understand how the idea of these attractor landscapes can be used to map communities and understand the dynamics of change (or stagnation) within these communities. Cognitive Edge has developed a method to capture narratives from within an organisation and community, allowing people to self-interprets their narratives, and then mapping the resulting quantitative data into landscapes that show dispositions for certain types of behaviour or attitudes. I would like to learn more about how this approach can be applied in whole regions. This ties this interest area also strongly to area 4 below.

A specific question and maybe the place where I want to dig deeper is to use this idea of understanding disposition of a society for change to answer the question of what can be done to make/bring/nudge a community to make more sustainable choices, choices that lead it towards a circular or regenerative economy.

Area 2: Performance management, accountability and learning

As one of many fields, in the field of economic development one has been hearing more and more the demand that interventions need to be more flexible and adaptive and that in complex situations, objectives and targets cannot be predicted in advance. This invariably brings with it the problem of performance management. If one cannot define in advance what success looks like, how do we know if an intervention was successful or not? How can we manage the performance of a team that engages in complex change and how can we be accountable towards donors that spend money on complex change initiatives (donors often ask the question how they can know whether a team is not achieving change targets because of complexities or because they are no good).

These questions are not unique to the development world. Tony Lowe and colleagues from the Newcastle University have been asking the same questions in connection with social interventions in the UK. Before testing a new approach to performance management of social interventions, they made one point crystal clear: outcome-based performance management does not work in the context of complex change. The approach they tested was based on the establishment of ‘Learning Communities’ in organisations that work in caring for people with complex needs. While their results where encouraging in terms of the effectiveness of these Learning Communities to share experiences, exchange, and learn together, they have fallen short of providing a robust means to manage performance of the teams or to provide the necessary accountability to funders. This is where my interest starts. How can we build on the concept of learning communities, adding elements that strengthens accountability and creates opportunities to better understand and manage performance of the teams.

In terms of methodology I am again drawing from Dave Snowden and his work on narrative and sensemaking. I am imagining establishing a methodology that would collect day-to-day observations, experiences and ‘moments forts’ of the people providing care for people with complex needs in the form of narrative fragments. As is done in Dave’s SenseMaker® approach, the people recording these narrative fragments would then give meaning to their own fragments by answering a number of questions in a pre-defined framework. In SenseMaker language, this is called self-signification. Self-signification will then generate quantitative data that can be used in sense making workshops in the Learning Communities. At the same time, they could also be used by managers of these team to better understand the trends and patterns of what is happening on the ground. The managers would then be able to define which types of observations they do like and what type they don’t like. They can then ask the Learning Communities how they could achieve ‘more of these stories and less of those’. In collaboration with donor agencies, a shift towards more ‘better’ stories or observations could also be a means to decide if the donor money is spent effectively.

So this area of interest is actually already quite well formulated. What I need here is an organisation or group of organisations willing to actually developing such a methodology and test it in the field.

Area 3: Achieving systemic change in economic development initiatives

This area is building largely on my work with Shawn Cunningham in the last year, where we reviewed recent literature in a plurality of fields in economics (largely covering what is known as New Economic Thinking) to better understand how change is happening in economies. The aim was to develop principles and eventually improved practice for economic change and development initiative. After a year of research, we have developed seven principles for systemic change in economies (or as I call it now more often: transformational economic change). We have discussed the seven principles in various fora and the reactions have been largely positive. We also found some great synergies with other work, for example work in resilience thinking as well as work on shaping inclusive markets.

What needs to be done now is to find thinking/experimenting partners to gain more experiences in how these principles can be implemented in the real world. Palladium, a consultancy implementing economic development initiatives for DFID and other donors, has done a retrospective assessment of one of their projects in Uganda to see how the findings of our literature review would fit on the overall design of and underlying thinking behind their project. The case study identified a number of challenges that need to be tackled.

I want to work with donors or other organisations who have themselves a long-term perspective of achieving change in a country or region, for example a foundation or larger charity. We think that the principles are most effective when their application starts in long-term strategy thinking rather than in individual projects. But to test the thinking, also individual projects are suitable, we are currently doing this in one project in Myanmar. The important thing is to find a partner who is interested and willing to think implications through together with us and experiment with different ways of applying the principles in practice.

Area 4: Sensemaking in the North East of England

This is a rather personal project inspired by a desire to better understand what is going on in the region I live in. We have moved to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area about 3.5 years ago and so far I have only superficially engaged with what is going on here in this region – largely because most of my work is overseas. Moreover, I do live in a bubble here because my connections are all people who are better off, largely from the academic community.

The North East of England is one of the poorest regions in the country and overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. The narrative of many businesses here is that they cannot find the right talents as nobody wants to live here – people move south, mainly to London. On the flip side, most people I know who are from here or have studied here – also if they have left in the meantime – really love the area for its standard of living and beautiful countryside. So this project is on the one hand for me to better make sense of what is going on but on the other hand also to apply my understanding of complex social change processes. In that sense, it closely links to my first area of interest and is potentially an area to test the idea from that interest area.

What I am looking for here are people who take me along to explore the region and get in touch with a diverse set of local people and their realities. Also, I am very open to support local organisations with whatever value I can add to their work based on my knowledge and experience.

Connecting theme: social change and narrative

There are obvious themes that connect these interest areas. All four areas of interest look at social change, mostly coloured through a lens of economic change and sustainability. Furthermore, particularly areas 1, 2 and 4 are connected by the idea of narrative to capture complex social realities and dynamics. Narratives are a central pillar if not the main way for humans to make sense of what is going on as well as to transmit social and cultural norms and meaning. Narratives are a way to reflect the complexities of every day life. Storytelling is as old as the modern human. In his book Sapiens, Noah Yuval Harari vividly tells us the story of the early Homo sapiens outcompeting the other Homo species because of its ability to form and collaborate in large groups. The reason for this, according to Harari, was Sapien’s ability to talk about things that did not exist. Only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. This includes gods, spirits or organisations and laws. At the same time, working with stories has become an important instrument in organisation change, management and social change research in general. Dave Snowden differentiates three distinct uses of narrative: knowledge management, communications, and research and insight.

I have gathered some initial experiences in working with stories particularly to generate insight and I am keen to experiment more with the idea and use them in all four areas of interest.

This is me thinking out loud. The main aim is to find thinking and research partners and opportunities to explore concepts and ideas in real life. If this list of topics and ideas has inspired you please get in touch. I am very open to discuss and explore new collaborations.

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