Adaptive pluralism and intentions…

In a recent meeting on Practice-based change for development, which took place in London, UK, on 20-21 February 2012, and blogged about earlier here by Ewen le Borgne, we discussed Robert Chambers’ work on Paradigms, poverty and adaptive pluralism. Chambers compares the dominant paradigm of neo-Newtonian practice in international development, oriented to things and ‘imposed by powerful actors and organisations’ (2010, p. 3) with the paradigm of adaptive pluralism, oriented to people. Chambers defines adaptive pluralism as:

Paradigmatic elements and relationships associated with people as adaptive agents, with eclectic and participatory methodologies, and with ontological assumptions of complexity such as non-linearity, unpredictability and emergence. (2010, p. 7)

Many of the distinguishing characteristics of IKM Emergent fit within this tradition of adaptive pluralism such as its methods and procedures which are ‘pluralist, iterative adaptation, a la carte and combinations; which have ontological origins and assumptions based on people, the social world, complexity science, emergence, and non-linearity; and which involve goals, design and indicators which are negotiated, evolving and emergent (2010, p. 44). IKM Emergent has been taking place in a context in the development sector which is largely dominated by the neo-Newtonian paradigm which are ‘supervising, auditing, controlling, conforming, complying’. But in agreement with Chambers, we understand that:

 So in the name of rigour and accountability what fits and works better in the controllable, predictable, standardised and measurable conditions of the things and procedures paradigm has been increasingly applied to the uncontrollable, unpredictable, diverse and less measurable paradigm of people and processes. The misfit is little perceived by those furthest from field realities and with most power. (2010, p. 14)

In one of Robert Chamber’s blog posts on this subject Whose paradigm counts part 2, he has made two figures which describe different aspects of the two paradigms: concepts and ontological assumptions; values and principles; relationships; methods. procedures and processes; and roles and behaviours. I have also tried to do the same for IKM Emergent. From this exercise, I realsied that although IKM does fall in the general category of adaptive pluralism, some of its specific emphases are quite different.

IKM mindsets, orientations and predispositions (adapted from Chambers)

A discussion about this figure (left) led us to the conclusion that values are very important to our work but that we very rarely talk about them or even consider them explicitly. One of the really good things of taking this lense to examine your work is that implicit mindsets, orientations and predispositions suddenly become much clear, and can even be part of a process of negotiation.

Jaap Pels was present at the meeting via skype and I know he had some additions to this figure so this is an invitation for his comments :-).

Mulling over these issues after the meeting, as one does, I was thinking that there should be another circle in the figure called ”Intentions” because that is at the roots of everything we are doing. For IKM, and myself, I would think that intentions would be: reforming, more pluralistic, more open, more inclusive, more respectful, more creative. In fact, I’ll have a go at re-drawing this figure with the new circle when I’ve had Jaap’s reflections on what still needs to be added.

Now I have started thinking about the ”intentions” circle for the neo-Newtonian paradigm and I am worried that they might be the same as the ones I’ve listed here. But, then again, I think they’re more likely to be: value for money, control, efficiency. Not that I don’t think these are important, they’re just not my core intentions.

At the IKM table: linearity, participation, accountability and individual agency on the practice-based change menu (1)

(Originally posted on KM for me… and You?)

On 20 and 21 February 2012, the  London-based Wellcome Collection is the stage for the final workshop organised by the Information Knowledge Management Emergent (IKM-Emergent or ‘IKM-E’) programme. Ten IKM-E members are looking at the body of work completed in the past five years in this DGIS-funded research programme and trying to unpack four key themes that are interweaving the work of the three working groups which have been active in the programme:

  1. Linearity and predictability;
  2. Participation and engagement;
  3. Individual agency and organisational remit;
  4. Accountability

This very rich programme is also a tentative intermediary step towards a suggested extension for the programme.

In this post I’m summarising quite a few of the points mentioned during the first day of the workshop, covering the first two points on the list above.

On linearity and predictability:

Linear approaches to development – suggesting that planning is a useful exercise to map out and follow a predictable causal series of events – are delusional and ineffective and we have other perspectives that can help plan with a higher degree of realism, if not certainty.

Linearity and predictability strongly emphasise the current (and desired alternative) planning tools that we have at our disposal or are sometimes forced to use, and the relation that we entertain with the actors promoting these specific planning tools.

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For Complex Development Problems: We Need Bridging Leaders

This afternoon I saw in CNN how residents in Fargo, North Dakota pulled themselves together to protect their town against rising floodwaters by piling sandbags over threatened dikes.

Knowledge management (KM) is about achieving effective group action. During crisis situations — when a common threat is publicly visible and cause-and-effect relationships are known to everyone — effective group action follows easily. In complex development contexts, effective group action can happen if there is a leader who can see (better than most people can) and lead through three kinds of complexity:

  • Dynamic complexity: when causes and effects are far apart in space and time, and therefore less publicly visible;
  • Generative complexity: when the future is difficult for most to predict, or is likely to be unfamiliar or different; and
  • Social complexity: when people who are affected or who should take action do not share similar assumptions, beliefs and interests.
    (Source: Adam Kahane’s book “Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities,” Berrett-Koehler, 2004)This type of leader is called a bridging leader. Continue reading