I had no idea that working across disciplines (on innovation, complexity and scale) was this painful, but it might be worth it

I went off to New York last week at the invitation of the UNDP Regional Center in Europe and Central Asia to discuss using complexity thinking to designDarwins_finches_by_Gould a new ‘Finch Fund’ to support innovation and scaling up. Most scale-up exercises take successful pilots and just try and replicate them (one of the UNDP organizers, Millie Begovic, memorably likened it to trying to turn a particularly cute baby into a really enormous baby, rather than an adult). The Finch Fund is looking for a better way, and thinks complexity and systems thinking could be the answer, so it decided to try a bit of ‘interdisciplinarity’. I spent the day with a handpicked group of psychologists, ecologists, philosophers and economists all working on complex adaptive systems. It was horrible, but productive (I think).

Leaving your discipline is traumatic – akin to being suddenly infantilised and made vulnerable. From being a bit of a development know-all, I became a know-nothing, resentfully observing an incomprehensible exchange of references, books, jargon and gossip (oh, Bob’s at Yale now, is he?). I got angry, sullen, even contemplated walking out in protest.

But I didn’t flounce out, and instead (perhaps inspired by Robert Chambers‘ call for greater reflection in our work)  started musing about what was going on in my head.

Lesson 1: ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is tough: be prepared for some serious mood swings.

Lesson 2: Beware geeks bearing gifts. What kinds of people do you want in the room? I would say the ability to empathise is probably more essential than being top of the field. Choose on the basis of emotional intelligence as well as the more academic kind. Some of this lot failed pretty heavily (maybe they were exacting revenge for being bullied at school) – if you ever see me give a furtive little smile of self satisfaction when someone says they can’t follow what I’m saying, please give me a slap.

Lesson 3: I found myself veering between ‘oh wow, this is a whole new way of seeing the world’ and ‘this is just describing what we do already in a new vocabulary’. Need to resist both temptations, and try and sift through the murk for the occasional nugget.

Yeah, right
Yeah, right

But how you do that depends on whether you are trying to immerse yourself in a whole new paradigm (painful, you have to leave aside your reference points, with no idea of where you are going to end up, or whether the journey will be worth the pain). The alternative, which I tend to prefer, is to enter enemy territory, briefly immerse yourself in ambiguity, uncertainty, alien vocabulary and ‘OMG I know nothing’ vertigo, then grab whatever is useful, and retreat back behind the development stockade to recover.

In real time, there is also a difficult choice between trying to follow every word (very difficult, and means you have to keep interrupting and asking for explanations, which gets humiliating after the first couple of times) or surfing the conversation, gliding over the bits you don’t understand and trying to grasp the overall shape of the thought process, but never quite knowing if you’ve missed the important stuff.

What, if anything, came out of my day of rage?

Actually it may prove quite productive. At a minimum, the Finch Fund (so named after the Galapagos finches that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution) will look for projects that include:

  • Multiple parallel experiments on a similar issue, where it’s OK (in fact required) to fail on some of them (a bit like the Tanzanian accountability project that I go on about a lot)
  • Positive deviance: clear evidence that the teams have studied what is already happening in their countries and issue areas and identified particularly positive or negative outliers as part of the experiment.
  • Fast feedback, especially from poor people, which determines how the set of interventions evolve and change.
  • Don’t overdesign: built-in flexibility will allow any given intervention to morph and evolve in response to feedback.

If it just stops there, the Finch Fund will be pretty unique and I think could provide a really influential model for how to think more intelligently about ‘going to scale’. Innovation cartoonSome other, deeper ideas may have been lurking in the fog of jargon that could make it even more interesting. They revolve around how to identify systems that are particularly propitious for rapid evolutionary change. In general these have a steep gradient of difference between different parts of the system, a high level of ‘microdiversity’, and feedback systems with costs that fall as a change goes to scale. Not sure quite what such ideas would mean in practice – let’s see how the Fund gets on.

Two other dilemmas: what is the right response to a complex system; study it really hard to try and understand it better, or accept that you cannot fully understand it, so trial and error is a better approach? Reminiscent of the evolutionary culture wars between intelligent design and random mutation + natural selection!

Secondly, the toolkit temptation. If we want this approach to be adopted, we will have to set out guidelines for how it works, what questions to ask, what to avoid etc. i.e. a toolkit. But isn’t that contradictory, if a central point about complex systems is that they defy blueprints and best practice? Time for the padded cell………

And for some early thinking (and good discussion in the comments) on the Finch Fund from the UNDP’s Milica Begovic Radojevic and Giulio Quaggiotto see here and here

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10 Responses to “I had no idea that working across disciplines (on innovation, complexity and scale) was this painful, but it might be worth it”
  1. Cornelius Chipoma

    Here is an excerpt of Elinor Ostrom’s responses to two related questions.

    Question: What are the dangers of this separation between macro and micro?

    Elinor Ostrom: Well, I’m more concerned about the broader separation of the social sciences. I think that is a real danger because we can, I call them the silos, if everyone works in their silo, rather than learning from one another, so I work across disciplines and always have. My PhD committee, I had sociology, engineering, economics, and political science on it.

    Question: Should the social sciences be more integrated?

    Elinor Ostrom: Yes. But it’s not integration, it’s that people are learning their own discipline. I don’t want to get rid of the disciplines entirely, but it is then that people learn how to work together and that the, we have very bad incentives. If you publish outside your discipline, frequently inside your discipline, that’s not counted for tenure. And so there are very substantial dis-incentives to do interdisciplinary work. So interdisciplinary and integration are different.

  2. John Magrath

    Good blog. Maybe its not ‘a whole new way of seeing the world’ but a whole old one. A recent visit to the Jenner (vaccination) Museum made me wonder why there don’t seem to be any cross-discipline polymaths like Jenner – or Darwin – any more; when “science” spanned the range of “natural philosophy” someone like him could be simultaneously a medical doctor, naturalist/biologist (an expert on cuckoos), experimenter with balloons and a paleontologist. In both cases they cut through a fiendishly complex problem (smallpox, evolution) through close observation but without understanding all of it and came up with what was essentially a very simple, practical solution/answer.

  3. Thalia Kidder

    Thanks for honesty and wonderful, recognizable anecdotes about how hard it is to work with people who have very different fields of expertise. This can also happen in a remote village, but I’m not sure that ‘experts’ really listen adequately in those circumstances. Could development organisations give staff incentives for doing this more often? We might end up as better practitioners in our own disciplines (and/or a little more self-aware, emotionally-intelligent besides…).

  4. Ian Thorpe

    Duncan – thanks for sharing these insights from the “finch fund” discussions – wish I could have been a fly on the wall. It was a conversation on scaling up with Millie (one of the organizers) that led to my recent post on the link between spreading good ideas and scaling up.

    I think many of the most promising ideas in development, or perhaps best ideas in general, emerge at the intersection of existing disciplines since these areas of thinking have been less explored. A challenge you identify in this post is how to make it easier for people to communicate across disciplines when each has their own language (jargon) and culture, and their won sense of exclusivity and clubbyness.

    I think part of this is to build trust or mutual respect i.e. that we are all smart but know different things and these differences in knowledge and perspective are where the value of interaction lies.
    This requires the creation a space where people can be vulnerable enough to admit what they don’t know, and not be afraid to ask if they don’t understand and need clarification while giving and receiving respect for useful insights shared. Feeling vulnerable and frustrated may be an important part of the discussion since you need to go out of your comfort zone to create something new but this needs to be channelled into something productive so the group can work together effectively.

    This requires a special type of facilitation to be able to make people feel comfortable to exchange with each other and to smooth over misunderstandings and draw out the common threads. I wonder if investing more in learning how to do this might bring more benefit than taking any specific new or old approach to development.

  5. Tess Newton Cain

    I agree with Ian, we should be looking to work with well qualified credible people whom we can trust to guide us and others appropriately once we reach the point where their specialist expertise starts to leave the ‘visitors’ behind. I am wary of ‘cross disciplinary’ when it is used as short hand for ‘I set out to cross many disciplines and along the way I picked up some bright shiny things and left behind the bedrock because I didn’t understand it’.

  6. Nicholas Colloff

    Transmission is about giving people the opportunity and space to be immersed in different educative spaces and learns ways of being and thinking rather than imagining there is a ‘shortcut’ to it by producing a toolkit (or the ten rules of complexity thinking) and so the challenge is do ‘we’ allow the right teams to emerge, working towards the most appropriate challenges with the right level of vigilant trust to flexibly deliver results -and though that might sound esoteric, it is exactly what a venture capitalist (or philanthropist) does and, of course, essential to this model is the reality of failure.

    Rather than toolkits, maybe it is developing courses of ‘how to fail gracefully (and try again)’ for development institutions (and funders) that we need!

  7. Rudolph Saint Jean

    Duncan – It is unfortunate that the overspecialization of fields of knowledge – in sciences particularly – has made it much more difficult to see the larger picture or to put research issues in a context braoder than their respective intended fields. In an ever complex world, multidisciplinary views and understanding are necessary requirements for finding comprehensive and inclusive solutions to big problems. This is even more important in development work where the challenges are not simple, but a complex mix of needs, wants and goals, that are depending on economic and power structures, customs and location, systems and knowledge, etc…
    Moreover, the “hyper-jargonization” of these fields (from policy to technolgy to business to social sciences) makes the diffusion of ideas even more difficult as you report here; the accumulatoin of knowledge remains vertical and sharing becomes a challenge. I am afraid we will continue to miss the big picture unless we actively act to bridge the gaps between bodies of knowledge that are so determinant to advance the solutions to develoment issues and so interdependant to achieve comprehensive results.

  8. Cornelius Chipoma

    Nice points Rudolph. To your ‘hyper-jargonization’ I would add ‘discipline opacity’. Nothing more frustrating than finding an article that might be relevant to an issue of interest but getting lost when the languages switches from English to….

    y = f(x1,x2,…,xK)+ε
    = x1β1 +x2β2 +···+xKβK +ε,

    ‘Wait. You lost me there…’ Yes, disciplines (as Ostrom points out) are there for a reason, well so is communication. English is hard enough for a lot of us. Besides, the reality of the world we live in can not just be represented in fine formulaic language. To communicate, there is need for both ‘methods and language augmentation’.

  9. Stephanie Draper

    Hi Duncan – what a great blog. Reflects so much of the challenges and paradigms that I face day to day. At Forum for the Future we are in the process of trying to get a good enough practical framework for scaling up impact and your dichotomy rings really true. We can’t afford to constantly reinvent the wheel in terms of ‘how’ we do things, but there is an essence to what we do that you can’t quite put in a bottle (sorry too many metaphors). Anyway thanks, very insightful. I really recognise the grumpy participant too…thanks for reminding me to take that moment to reflect.

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