My (current) default suggestions when asked about almost anything to do with ‘strategy’

I realised recently that I have a fairly standard playlist of topics I bang on about to people during the frequent ‘blue blue skysky’ (well, the initials are BS, anyway) sessions after someone phones up and says something like ‘can I pick your brains as part of our strategy refresh?’ So I thought, if I am going to give the same answers whatever the questions, I could save everyone a lot of time by writing them down in one place. Also, I’m getting a bit bored listening to myself (hate to think how other people feel).

So here’s my playlist, with links

Systems Thinking and Ways of Working

Writing How Change Happens threw up some recurring issues about the way we think and work:

Shocks and Critical Junctures: Change in complex systems occurs in slow, steady processes such as demographic shifts, punctuated by sudden, unforeseeable jumps. These discontinuities are often linked to crises, shocks and scandals: the status quo is thrown up in the air, and when it returns to earth, things have changed. That stop–start rhythm can confound aid agency plans and processes. The one bit of the aid business that is designed for such a rhythm is the humanitarian/emergencies bit – the rest of us need to learn from them about how to identify, analyse and respond to critical junctures and the opportunities and threats they create.

Adaptive Management, Doing Development Differently and Alternatives to the Logframe: Traditional aid projects often resemble baking a cake; a neat, linear process of ingredients + recipe → result. Reality is much messier in complex systems such as polities, societies and economies: prediction is a fool’s errand; attribution elusive; we are navigating in a fog. That means setting up systems to get fast feedback, and to respond to that fast feedback through ‘adaptive management’.

outliers-positive-deviancePositive Deviance: this involves identifying and studying the positive outliers on any given issue, to try and understand where the system itself has thrown up solutions to any given problem (child malnutrition, school drop-out rates etc). It attracts me as an approach because it respects the system, and is not ‘all about us’ and our projects. So why isn’t it a standard entry point when we are considering a new area of work?

Getting to the Grassroots

Immersions: Nothing like spending a week in a village for jolting aid wallahs out of their assumptions and arrogance. Why don’t more organizations make it obligatory?

Diaries: Portfolios of the Poor is a wonderful book that explored how 250 poor families managed their finances by sending the same researchers back every two weeks to talk to them, building trust and uncovering a previously invisible financial ecosystem. If we are serious about understanding how poor people live, allocate their time, resolve their problems etc, why don’t we learn from that and do diaries on governance, environment, health etc etc, before jumping in with our idea of what is needed? We’re currently trying it out on governance in Mozambique, Pakistan and Myanmar as part of our  ‘Action for Empowerment and Accountability’ research programme.

Who we work with: Unusual Suspects

Beyond the state/CSO mindset: Missing out crucial ‘non state actors’ like faith organizations, traditional leaders, informal civil society networks (eg  cultural associations, savings groups or funeral societies, women’s networks) seriously undermines our ability to understand how power and influence operate in any society.

Supporting individuals/leadership (inc Universities): we need new ideas for identifying and supporting progressive leaders, whether at the grassroots or further up the food chain. We could even revamp some old ideas, like scholarships. We also lack a clear universities’ influencing strategy where we identify and target next generation leaders by university, department or role (eg student union leaders), influencing them via curricula, lectures, immersions or internships.

Grey Panthers: why do we equate campaigning with young people, when retired folk have time, contacts and experience? More broadly, we need to think harder about the life cycle of activism.

Spin offs and seeding the system: You can’t turn a supertanker like Oxfam into a scrappy, innovative, experimental start up, so why don’t we deliberately spin off a bunch of our projects with a bit of funding every year, to seed the ecosystem with new ideas and approaches?

What we work on

From the Exotic to the Familiar – the end of the ‘development issue’. Why aren’t tobacco, alcohol or road traffic corecauses-of-death development issues? After all, they all kill many more people in poor countries than, say, malaria.

The world is urbanizing; effective social movements are more likely to emerge from shanty towns than rural villages, so why do many INGOs find it so hard to go urban?

My Rules of Thumb

Beyond specific suggestions, I have a set of heuristics – ways I screen the conversation. These include:

  • Do you have an explicit power analysis or theory of change about what you are trying to achieve? If not, why not?
  • Have you thought about gender? What about other aspects of exclusion/inequality?
  • Can you point to successful examples of what you are proposing? Conversely, if your suggested has never worked, anywhere, maybe you should think about why that is!
  • What mechanisms do you have in place to identify what you are doing wrong, and change course?

So now, if people still insist on BS sessions, I can at least save some time by sending them this post in advance, and saying this is where we will begin the conversation.

But what have I missed?

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12 Responses to “My (current) default suggestions when asked about almost anything to do with ‘strategy’”
  1. Ken Smith

    From a fundraising perspective – Immersions: Nothing like spending a week listening to donors and tax-payers for jolting aid wallahs out of their assumptions and arrogance. Why don’t more organizations make it obligatory?

  2. Jose Barahona

    I propose another question given that I face that ugly reality check often here in DRC:

    * Who will pay for that brilliant idea? which donor -if any- will give you the money to implement it?

  3. Samuel

    If shocks and critical junctures are what happen out there, the processes and habits we need to embed ‘in here’ are all about horizons scanning and scenario-planning, and not leaving these till the next call for proposals or bi-annual BS conference. Doing these little and often is better than a huge corporate grind once every super blue blood moon.

  4. Samuel

    P.S. as someone who got you to feed into one of these sessions Duncan, I think/hope I’m right to say both that your inputs were immensely valuable in giving us external perspectives, and that not everything we discussed was the bovine kind of BS 🙂

    I think the trick is to do this more frequently and as part of the programme management cycle, not as a knee jerk to a funding cliff edge, or crisis in a context of operation, as it often is!

  5. Annette Fisher

    while I agree that immersions can do exactly what you say above here Duncan and that is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of communities which it so often can. They are often badly managed and badly set-up and can leave communities with little information on why random foreign strangers pitched up in their village and took up their time and energy. There can also be something extremely unpleasant and colonial about a group of (likely mainly) white privileged foreigners from the capital city, turning up to ‘watch’ how poorer people live their lives for the learning benefit of the foreigners and with little to no advantage to the community.
    If the purpose is to enhance learning and really bring insight to improve donor and government policy then a different approach with fewer of the challenges I mentioned above, is the Reality Check Approach – the reports produced from this research approach are invaluable for teaching donors and government about the real challenges and opportunities in the lives of poor people and communities and the approach is more respectful and less extractive.

    Additionally, the diaries you mention, which A4EA is implementing, will make for very interesting and informative reading and will hopefully also help in this regard.

  6. SF

    Brilliant post. As per the immersions… their cost is certainly far less than any strategy discussion process held in the capital. I had myself witnessed how people can change their thinking when they are exposed to the reality on the ground. More immersions and/or projects run in adaptive ways would give much stronger and solid insights to persuade tax payers and donors. Fundraisers should actually be amongst the first ones to experience an immersion. My experience is that this increases their insights, their capacity to persuade and motivate others on different options to bring about change, and increases their credibility. An immersion within projects + an immersion with tax payers and supporters are an ideal match. It is no joke: some organization had even tried the latter, sending communication team to stay with their supporters.

  7. Monika

    One aspect I would add is: Check your assumptions!
    Often, at the basis of our theory of change there are assupmtions that are not made explicitly and might never have been tested. A “development-proverb” gives a good example: “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime”. Does this theory of change really hold the line or will it rather be: “Teach a Man To Fish, and he will take out every fish he can untill the lake is empty”?

    • John Sayer

      The man’s a woman. She knows perfectly well how to fish. The government have leased the offshore waters to overseas companies with mechanized fishing fleets who have used small mesh trawl nets to drastically reduce stocks. The only buyer of fish usually waits for hours on the beach until the fish begin to lose their freshness, forcing the price down. His brother, who is also a local councilor, owns the only ice factory in the district, will not sell to small fishing communities, only to the man with the van — his brother. The only supplier of fishing equipment and boats on this part of the coast is the mayor’s brother, who is also the deputy head of police.

  8. I really like this (on Positive Deviance): ‘to try and understand where the system itself has thrown up solutions to any given problem’ rather than flying in with solutions from outside. That would be the end of aid as we know it!

  9. Daniel Bassill

    If more people spent time doing the reading and reflection I suspect the conversations would be richer and the solutions more innovative and effective. Let us know how many who talk to you say “I read this first”.

  10. Mary Sue Smiaroski

    The one reflection that I would add is that you need to ask people how and what they are learning: do they know what their programs know? do they know what they need to know to be better? How are they going to get there? It isn’t only about setting up fast feedback loops, but about making choices about what you need to pay attention to. This also has to do with whose voices you choose to listen to – which affects the feedback loops.