Development- as non-linear as a tightrope

Development in complexity is like walking a slackline.

Development in complexity is like walking a slackline.

In the opening of this video on messiness British economist  and thinker Tim Harford  carefully adjusts the angle of his pen on a desk ordered as precisely as an operating theatre. He’s parodying the ideal we are presented for success and efficiency in work. He then goes on to explain why order and working within structure is not necessarily ideal. Creative genius and novel solutions to problems where the answer is unknown are often unlocked in disordered spaces. The ideas are expanded in his book “Messy” which a friend handed to me with knowing grin. “You’ll get this” he said. 

As a New Zealand development consultant who lives in the Indian Himalayas and works all over sweaty, messy Asia most of the "interesting" development problems I prefer come without pre-definable answers. I often find myself mediating between precise funders and messy projects. Funders from well-managed offices in well-off countries often want to present results and accountability in well written evaluation reports. Field teams in steamy offices under clanking fans in developing countries want my evaluation to suggest how they might implement the project better. I have to communicate with both sides, get them to hear each other's questions, feel each other’s realities. Sometimes I feel I’m mediating between order and mess. 

Donors need clarity and accountability. They often need to know a project or programme fulfils funding criteria. They may have to show “meta-donors”* that the money has been well spent. This needs ordered accounts and well structured reports that show how their money was spent and prove it did indeed bring closer that world described in the project vision. The funder end of a development issue, always simpler than the implementor end, is where all the power resides.

Out there projects teeter on the taut tightrope from funders dollars to vision. Yes, they have a clear proposal (ideally one they wrote) and a budget they are accountable for but the vagaries of the real world in which that money has to be spent keep bursting in. Their work space is complex dynamic and emergent. Linear thinking reduces problems to their essential elements, solves them, designs reductionist work-plans to tackle them, and neat reports describe how the problem is solved. But the messy real world is not reducible- something unpredicted always emerges. Predesigned rigid plans don’t bend around things like the team-leader’s mother getting TB, the government arbitrarily changing its education policy, the river flooding or an electrical storm and  power surge frying the project computer just as that report was being written.

I am often expected to write recommendations on how the project should do X Y and Z to better fulfil targets and supply the information the funder wants. Such recommendations are sometimes valid but at other times it feels like saying “Straighten the angle of the pen on your project work desk, the boss wants order”. The project would prefer I to talk to the boss. 

 Recommending the funder changes is difficult for me too (funders pay me, the power ball is in their court). Funders, even as they call themselves “partners” in the projects they fund,  do not expect suggestions about themselves in my evaluation reports. But what should I do if I find rigid reporting requirements inhibiting the team's responsiveness and iterative capacity? Should I recommend they do not demand a three year proposal because the “correct” solution can only emerge as the project runs, and "correct" will inevitably mean something different in three years to what it means now? Can I say they should avoid demanding a results focus and instead ask for a process focus? How do I ask for funders to let their projects run in conceptually messy workspaces?


It is hugely gratifying to be in didcussion with a funder genuinely turning over the possibility of trying to fund a complexity aware team, to encourage iteration, to remove delivery dates infact to even remove delivery targets because a project's best contribution will only emerge as the project evolves. Risky stuff but fantastically energizing for me. A question I am enjoying turning over with this funder is “if not results, targets and hard deliverables, what should we ask for ? 

I am exploring these ideas myself but right now I'd say funders genuinely trying to enable implementing teams to work in complexity should first and foremost build relationship with the implementors (partnerships that really are partnerships- trust, friendship, shared chai, games of petanque).  Then, from a position of trust they should fund principles (the rudder by which the Implementor navigate the turbulent waters of their complex world) and process (the tactics by which to make progress in the swirling currents). But don't force projects to promise results (if it is complex who can predict and promise results?) And nothing should be tied down- anything – even core principles- might change.  

Amazingly this funder is willing to entertain these ideas for  small team working in a rapidly changing context. I think I will suggest they ask for  project proposal that sets out the context and the issue - perhaps just a rich picture- and then the team’s principles, their processes, their needs in terms of skills and resources and biographies of their members. Basically just show them a messy desk. Nothing more. No descriptions of what will be achieved in 3 years. No intricate matrices specifying activities and timelines.  No strictly itemised budgets..... Shockingly simple. Wildly exciting. 

Watch this space.   

*A smaller Australian donor channelling Australian Aid (government)  money is an example of donor and “meta-donor”