Rules of Thumb – good idea or double-edged sword?

Spent a fun couple of hours last week helping the Centre for Good Governance (CGG) in Myanmar identify its ‘rules of thumb’ (RoTs) – the default questions and instincts that govern an organization’s daily decision-making, rather than the long-winded strategy documents that no-one reads.

One of the national staff nailed the difference ‘The theory of change comes later than the RoTs, it suits what we believe in and trust.’ So what do they believe in? Their suggestions for RoTs they use to assess new ideas and opportunities in bold; my comments in italics.

Do those pushing the new idea (CGGers, officials, others) have power to check and balance the government? Or can they acquire such power in the near future? V clear-eyed view on whether an initiative is likely to get anywhere.

Are other, bigger players already doing it? Sensible question for any relatively small organization that wants to avoid just being part of the herd.

Will this open a door for significant reform? It may be worth doing something that doesn’t meet the RoTs (e.g. designing a monitoring and evaluation framework for a ministry) in order to build relationships that allow you to do the more strategic stuff later

Is it innovative? Is it a new idea, or involve a unique level of access to decision makers? I’m wary of innovation for its own sake, but what they are really saying is ‘what’s the edge – what makes this special?’, which seems fair enough

Will it be possible to institutionalize this within government? Veteran CGGers have seen numerous new and cool ideas fail to last, so they put a high priority on things that stand a good chance of being adopted and scaled up by the state. That eased my anxiety over the innovation issue.

Is it  locally owned? Either by Government authorities or a legitimate Ethnic Armed Organisation who run large chunks of the country. CGG increasingly works with EAOs (Covid-19 has provided a new point of entry for this). I liked their emphasis on ‘wait and hear what they come up with’, because it is resolutely demand-led, resisting the urge so common in the aid sector to try (and fail) to impose what ‘we’ think is needed.

Is it the right time? The most common answer to this question is ‘no’ – impending elections, Covid, the wrong minister, government decision-makers not focussed on this particular issue. Lots of reasons for putting good ideas on hold until conditions become more propitious.

Are things stuck or moving? Much easier to get results by climbing aboard when something is already moving – a department is embarking on a reform process, a new leader is looking for ideas. CGG has strongly ‘Working with the Grain’ instincts – ‘we flow with the government reform’.

For people used to reading, writing or practicing ‘thinking and working politically’ this may all seem pretty obvious, but it was interesting to hear one new CGG joiner explain that she still thinks like a traditional project manager, and is only just beginning to learn from the others about asking the political questions first, before getting onto the bells and whistles of project design.

There were some more general twists and nuances to the RoTs idea.

Firstly, a lot of influencing is about entering a piece of work in which CGG and the officials/politicians involved start off with very different objectives (eg the officials just want more power and money relative to other departments). But then each influences the other and some kind of convergence takes place. That requires a more subtle judgement – do we think a convergence along the lines of our RoTs is possible, even if the initial point of entry isn’t ideal? How long are we going to stick with this before we decide if any convergence is in sight?

Secondly, it’s not a series of judgements on individual, free standing ideas and suggestions. CGG operates portfolios of activities, with particular bits of the state or other partners, so an important RoT is ‘does this complement and strengthen an existing area of our work?’

Thirdly, some RoTs are more honourable than others. ‘Will the donor like/fund it?’ is not something people are particularly comfortable highlighting, but it is an unavoidable part of the aid business.

Fourthly, what if your RoTs are different from those of your donor or partners? For example, CGG has quite a short term, working-within-the-possible set of criteria. What’s the opportunity to deliver some change in the next weeks and months coupled with how do we nudge and be ready for bigger changes in the system. Other aid sector players think purely longer term – what kind of Myanmar do they want to try and support? – either because they are not across the day to day opportunities (which can be invisible to outsiders, for example) or because they just don’t think that way.

When I shared the draft for this post with the CGG team, it triggered a discussion about where this discussion of RoTs diverged with its written strategy. For example, staff did not refer to working with the marginalized (GESI – Gender, Equality and Social Inclusion, as an example). Is that because GESI is so deeply ingrained that it goes without saying, or the opposite? Can’t answer that here, but it suggests that this kind of exercise could trigger a useful internal discussion on the divergence between actual rules of thumb and what’s formally written down.

But that also reinforces my customary moment of self-doubt. If RoTs are implicit, maybe there’s a good reason for that? If we write them down, won’t they lose their authentic, instinctive quality, as institutional culture becomes just another page in the logframe/theory of change? Won’t donors start trying to lobby to change them to conform with their own RoTs?

On the other hand, as people on the call pointed out ‘we think and decide automatically, but we don’t explicitly reflect. This helps us think about why we do these things (and not others).’ CGG actually does a lot of thinking and reflection (that’s why I signed up to work with them), but the point, as in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, is that organizations (and individuals) inevitably function with a mix of automatic and reflective thinking. Should those two streams be kept separate, or be explicitly interwoven?

[If you’re interested in reading a bit more about this topic, check out some of my blogs on rules of thumb here, here and here]

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5 Responses to “Rules of Thumb – good idea or double-edged sword?”
  1. I spend a lot my time trying to help programme teams work out what they can do to make a defined difference in any given context. The point of tension nearly always comes down to the difference between what donors (say they) want, and how programmes want to engage. (And the process of negotiating with a group of donors is perhaps ideally suited to squashing any creativity or innovation out of good ideas.)

    So I find myself wondering if the process of identifying and capturing Rules of Thumb is also partly about helping programmes understand and express who they are; and what their distinct contribution to overall change might be? The point being that if they can pause and reflect – and capture – then they will inevitably blend their world view (articulated in their Rules of Thumb) into their engagement with their donors and partners. Influence by subversion, I suppose you might say.

  2. Matt Desmond

    “I still think like a project manager”. What a brilliant insight. She can be on our team. In the same country and the same city, I am reading though the reflections of another local team. Here’s two. “Our procedures have already become highly projectised. It’s possible we have forgotten other ways of working. ” and “A skilled “project officer” (or finance or M&E officer) can deliver project-driven or donor-driven support, but cannot deliver demand-driven support. We will need to start from the beginning (with this new initiative)”

  3. Good piece.
    One step further: running an administration is firstly creating “flow” routines, zo we don’t have to think, reinvent every action. Keeping the thinking for innovation. Good management is not innovating a lot, but managing to bring successful innovations into routines.

  4. A rule of thumb is s best guess/estimate that helps an experienced artisan move forward on a project without having to measure precisely or to wait for expert go ahead because that takes too much time. Absolutely useless in the overdesigned, path dependent, nailed down projects that are typical of the development sector currently. If ‘rules of thumb’ are to be useful the overall project designs have to be more flexible and have a higher tolerance (to borrow an engineering term) and these have to be used by experienced ‘practitioners’ who know the context intimately and see the potential of results despite them not being spelled out in the plan.

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