Adaptive Development must Monitor Organically

If I wasn't in development I'd be a field biologist.  No, an ecologist. The constant interplay of  sets of genes with each other and the physical elements of a complex and changing environment fascinates me. And I love being outside. But I'm not.  I'm a development specialist.

I’m fascinated by the same thing now but in a development context -the iterative interplay of development projects, the people whose strategies they try to modify and dynamic contexts in which they’re nested.  In biology natural selection improves the fit between genes and their contextual baskets not deliberately but statistically. Good models survive and reproduce, poorly adapted models die. Development on the other hand deliberately attempts to improve the fit of people to themselves and their context.  But in complex contexts it’s hard to be deliberate- stuff emerges, unbidden. Much of my work is finding ways around this dilemma.

Pushing the biological analogy further I see that the environment feeds information back into gene pools by testing the anatomy and physiology of individuals,  removing the worst fits and selectively favouring the best adapted models. How to let the context feed back to a development project's anatomy and physiology? In the most extreme cases ‘bad’ development strategies are removed (project fails) but that's very coarse adjustment. Much better to fine tune projects to their contexts, continuously make them better, not wait for them to fail. How?The answer is good monitoring, and for me that is at an outcome level.

The context is telling  us what is happening all the time. We have to learn to listen.

The context is telling  us what is happening all the time. We have to learn to listen.

Continuous feedback is always available, just that projects have to be aware enough to gather it, smart enough to understand it and agile enough to respond. I increasingly see monitoring as the heart and soul of a project. The key questions are:

  1. -what information do we need to gather.
  2. -how do we gather it (and the subsidiary- how much resource do we put into gathering information)
  3. -how do we understand this information.
  4. - how do we respond to this information.

For any specific development project the answers to these questions will be different but my big picture, general answers are:

1-We need to gather outcomes- changes in behaviour, attitudes, relationships and policies (in other words early cultural changes). Development is deliberately trying to improve the ‘fit’ of a culture to itself and its context, so lets gather culture specific information i.e. outcomes. And lets ask how the project contributed to these changes. Those are  the essential dimensions of what we need to know. Other  things we might want our monitoring to tell us is how much resource we put into various activities (added to knowing which activities effectively produce change this could be very useful), also where we are putting our effort in (is this also where we see the most change), who or which teams do which activities,  etc. Monitoring links the project activities (in biological terms its anatomy and physiology) to changes in the context. 

2- There are  formal and quantitative indicators which will be relevant to every situation – collect them. But also make sure you're collecting lots of qualitative indicators (narrative) from multiple points in its context.. Fundamental to complexity is that we do not know a priori what the key changes are and where they might happen so we have to be aware of what is happening everywhere. A project must listen to people all around its context  and needs those most able to understand at each level doing the listening.  So at the grass roots grass roots community workers should trained and listening attentively, looking carefully for what is changing, how and why. Meanwhile, it might be the project doctor who is sensitive to how health post staff are thinking and behaving. The project director should be attentive to changes in government policy and asking what contributed to the really empowering new policy. The whole project has to be monitoring aware or outcomes at the place they work. 

And how much resource  to commit to monitoring? Lots! If this genuinely is a complex situation then we do not really understand cause and effect so it is worth gathering the information on what is changing and why it is changing. This tells us what to do.

3-OK so I’m saying gather lots of micro narrative from all around the system because no single story has a complete or even the major insight. Meaning comes from of all the stories together. But how to extract that meaning? In nature natural selection deletes some genes and multiplies others and then lets them mix and mingle and interact and repeats the process with the next generation. I suggest a similar approach with development stories. Let them mix and mingle and interact. A few years ago the only way to do this was a reflective team sitting with their stories.  I still use this approach. Last week I was on the roof of an NGO office in winter sun with the Himalayas looking on sharing and reflecting about outcome stories. Now there is also computer software, which can “mix and mingle” stories in ways human brains cannot and can deal with the large volume of stories this approach generates.  In Cambodia I used NVivo which can find all stories with one keyword or one theme, or link stories via place or person etc. When I put stories into NVivo and coded themes emerged by themselves (quite the opposite of imposing our ideas on the data). I loved it.(Note: I am not promoting this product. It is great but expensive and uses a lot of  memory on your computer. I am experimenting with another product now)

I don’t have a complete answer to how to make meaning of stories (who does?) but definitely recommend both time with a well connected team reflecting on what people are doing, how they are thinking and how they are relating and strongly recommend exploring qualitative research software and using its capacity to store, compare and search stories. Both together will enhance your project.

For a description of making meaning out of lots of narrative with a community team and software see my "nugget" on the Outcome Mapping Learning Community website:

4. Finally, there is no point gathering information on how people are changing unless the project responds and changes because of what is happening in the context. Note the reversal of the traditional thinking “the context is going to change because of us”. While not denying that we in fact hope we can contribute to change in the context,  I also say  a good complexity aware project adds “we are going to change because of the context”.  We have to be agile.

Again no hard and fast rules for how to do this but definitely avoid demands that are going to restrict your agility. Discuss with funders and try to change their minds if they are telling you what you will be doing in three years time or demanding specific long term deliverables which might not be relevant or achievable by then. Do not let them and their needs for cut and dried information limit your agility. You need capacity for change in your project, make sure your funders know that.

 So there it is,  my biological, complexity aware view of development. Just like natural organisms a project has to always be sensitive to its context and be continuously fine tuning itself - i.e. adapting organically. .… Or in biological terms gathering and responding to information about how the people a project works with think, behave, relate and make their rules- aka monitoring,  should be embedded in the project's DNA…