This is the third post of a series focusing on how we can better incorporate the complexity paradigm as a key framework to tackle the challenges and questions shared by many of us interested in the interaction between research and policy.
So, welcome 2015! We usually start the New Year with hope around potential changes that we desire, and often re-energised in terms of envisioning what we could do to push for those changes.
Planning is certainly an ideal practice where complexity could be better acknowledged and reflected in our field. Even if in theory we generally agree that the dialogue between ideas and politics is a challenging one, with multiple layers of possible conversations, and diverse speakers trying to communicate differently, we often approach the design of a project as if life was so much simpler. How can we avoid being too simplistic? Is it fine to just lay out our intentions with a tacit understanding that a lot of flexibility will be required? Is it enough that we conduct a good after action review and make sure our lessons have been learned?
At P&I we would like to walk out of our comfort zone and enhance how we design our projects. We are eager to open the door to complexity and deal with some of its challenges while making decisions on where to head to. For this purpose, one of the most insightful resources we plan to use is this excellent paper by Patrizi et al. Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty.
The authors have identified three typical traps when planning that are very familiar to me (I fell into them many times!): the linearity and certainty bias, 2) the autopilot effect; and 3) indicator blindness.
The first one alludes to the fact then even when we talk about complexity, most of our planning documents end up presenting lists of recommended interventions or actions, outputs, outcomes, and impact, sometimes with reasonable links between these, sometimes with not even clear connections. Nearly all of these documents filter out any indication of serious challenges or factors that might impinge our aims.
Moreover, few documents offer serious examination of the major assumptions behind how larger impact will occur, and when they do, they tend to be underdeveloped. Theory of change was in fact developed as a tool to drive home the point that strategy in complex settings is a highly conditional proposition. However, how many “ifs” do include in our projects/plans? Are we really being conditional?
Conditionality is clearly linked to an understanding of the changing and dynamic environment that surrounds our work. This is not only linked to unforeseen complications and obstacles but also to arising new opportunities that we sometimes cannot seize due to our stickiness to original plans. Indeed, as the authors point out, the context surrounding a strategy is rarely treated as being dynamic or of consequence. They go on stating that “Unfortunately, many of these factors often are ignored until undesirable results emerge. Then “issues of context” are introduced post hoc as plausible explanations for what went wrong. However, could we have envisioned them or did we have an “if scenario” that would allow us to test assumptions as we make progress and make changes in directions when some were proven wrong or incomplete?
This takes us to another important consequence of this trap: very few documents “address how a strategy will incorporate new information so that it can be adapted during implementation. In other words, few strategies articulate the questions that should arise from recognized uncertainties, which in turn would provide the impetus to learn more as the strategy unfolds.” Do we anticipate how learning will be systematized and used throughout implementation phases? Or do we reflect only at the end?
The New Year brings the opportunity to plan better, hosting complexity as it should be hosted. How can we concretely do that? In our case, we´ve decided to make some changes in future project proposals from P&I:
1) We will include written assumptions on which we base our activities/ideas, including specific times to revisit them.
2) We will concretely state our challenges and factors that may affect outputs and outcomes and we will ask partners and funders to add to these and help us be as systemic as possible.
3) We will be open to make changes to proposed activities based on reasonably important threats, obstacles and opportunities that emerge from our partners/context and will make sure our budgeted time and resources allow for that. We will require those who support us to endorse this flexibility.
Anyone willing to share his/her ideas/practices to embrace complexity when planning? We may be able to push for a wider change if we start thinking collectively on concrete methods/mechanisms to do so.