Robust Management for Social Change

February 07, 2012 | Adrian Gnägi | Learning Elsewhere |


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Recently, there was a meeting in USAID on complexity theory and development. DEVCO is developing guidance on political economy analysis. The World Bank just published a research paper on participation that singles out standard management approaches as main reasons why participatory approaches normally do not work. In our business, when the big ones start talking about something, there is change in the air. And in fact similar developments are taking place in most donor agencies.

By Adrian Gnägi

So what is happening? Roughly 10 years ago, “managing for development results” became mainstream. The main impact of MfDR was on reporting, where the focus changed from input/output to development results. 10 years down the road, it becomes increasingly clear that we are able to report on results when the problems we address have an easy to understand cause => effect background. When the issues at stake are more complex, typically in the realms of governance or institutional reform – or more generally in Social Change, we have problems to show convincingly that we have done good. The first reactions to this were a stronger focus of aid on those things where success can be measured easily (a tendency criticized succinctly by Natsios), and an increased effort to produce better result measurement methodologies for Social Change. Now agencies are realizing that the problem goes deeper. We have problems reporting on the good we do for Social Change primarily because we are not doing much good. I have never seen this spelled out and backed by evidence as clearly as in the above mentioned World Bank research report on participation (I will comment on this report in a separate post on this blog in April, when there will be a several-day SDC head office event to discuss its results).

The dominant MfDR discourse on “how to do” development was and is challenged by two minority narratives: one on complexity, and one on political economy. And there is a minority alternative management discourse – Outcome Mapping, also being practiced since roughly 10 years. Now those minority discourses are starting to merge in their recommendations, and their recommendations start to resonate within development agencies. Agencies start revising their management practices to become more effective in influencing Social Change. Today’s post is about my reading of what robust management for Social Change might be in the future.

Starting out with an understanding of the trends we try to change

Political economy analysis is a minority discourse from within development agencies. Not surprisingly, its main message was heard early. The main message from political economy to development is: social change is driven by (local, national, international) politics. “Political will” should not be treated as black box; we should not develop all conditions necessary for change, and then assume that alone will lead to change. Social, institutional, organizational change always depends on individual change, and on individuals wanting change. Bringing individuals and behavior change – agency – onto stage provides the entry point for Outcome Mapping – a management methodology designed for behavior change.

The main corresponding message from complexity theory is: social change is emergent, only history can identify the drivers. At first sight, those two messages seem at odds with each other. But in fact they are not, they complement each other:

  • there never is a point zero in social change, it always is about influencing ongoing trends;
  • social change in any given moment seems quite predictable, the same drivers that shaped yesterday will most probably also shape tomorrow;
  • the future is shaped by reflective human action, key actors can change trends; continuity comes with a probability tag.

Trying to understand past trends and projecting insights into the future is probably the best strategy there is to come up with change assumptions. The draft DEVCO paper on Political Economy Analysis (see link above) for example recommends to distinguish between foundational, stable factors that fundamentally shape the social, political and institutional landscape (in the past and in the future); rules of the game that shape the incentives, capacities and relationships of key actors (drivers of change); and contextual influences that are appropriated by drivers of change as resources or constraints. The main message from both political economy and complexity theory is: better understanding the trends we try to change will allow us influencing Social Change more effectively in many cases, but it should not lure us into the illusion that we can precisely predict change.  

A dire need for lighthouses and navigators 

The message from political economy to development on planning and implementation is: engage with politics. It is people, their interests, their alliances that shape the future. People are able to consciously strive for change when they pursue high goals that allow for the bundling of change vectors over time. Complexity theorist equipped us with two metaphors I find highly useful: “lighthouse” and “navigation”. Lighthouse-like orientation statements were around in the development world in the 1990ies (for example the “Oberziele” in ZOPP), but then they were replaced by MDG targets and their indicators of achievement. Lighthouses are not to be reached or achieved, they provide orientation and motivation. The development vessel is carried along in the sea of history by the existing currents (trends), the task is to steer it towards the lighthouse.

Using lighthouse statements as guidance for programs asks for program managers who understand their task as navigation. “Engaging with politics” or engaging with the forces that drive the trends we try to change equals the social science research formula: “If you want to understand a system, try to change it”. We think we understood the trends we want to influence, we derive steering hypothesis from this understanding when looking towards the lighthouse, and we engage with the system and provide those steering impulses. The navigation metaphor indicates that then we need to pause and observe what happens. Maybe the direction changes as we expected and we get on course towards the lighthouse. But maybe the butterflies intervened (non-linearity of system responses), maybe we had the system’s boundaries wrong and had overlooked important drivers, maybe we underestimated interdependencies (resilience mechanisms typically only become visible when change threatens), or maybe we got one of the many other complexity facets wrong.

Theories of change and good practices as navigation support

Navigation without maps and instruments is a recipe for shipwreck. There currently are 2 main navigation support systems for Social Change on the development market, backed by two disjunct communities who behave like PC and Mac users in the 1990ies. I happen to have footage in both, but openly admitting this feels like trying to sit down between two chairs. I am convinced, though, that using both systems in parallel, and keeping very, very alert that both might produce wrong readings, is the only sound navigation support for Social Change there is. Theories of change are the key guidance proposed by complexity theory to work on Social Change. Producing a theory of change means spelling out explicitly assumptions on how and why change will come about. Most development agencies and many academics and practitioners currently experiment with theories of change. I find it useful to keep in mind that the term covers a wide field and is used with different meanings:

  • Some people use the term to refer to the “big”, often scientific discipline based change driving hypothesis (political struggle, ecological determinism, technological innovation, education & enlightment etc.)
  • Some people use the term to refer to the “small”, often practice-induced change driving hypothesis (as recommended for organizational change, individual counseling, mediation, advocacy etc.)
  • Some people use the term to refer to result or influence frameworks, where the known influence links between now a better future state of affairs are mapped
  • Some people use the term to refer to a social process, where the actors who are to cooperate in a change intervention discuss how they believe change might come about, and then try to agree on a common understanding in order to bundle their change vectors

I currently see no consensus yet on how best to use the concept of “theory of change”. Experience tells me that the social process (the last bullet above) is a sine qua non: whenever we had such a dialogue, participants were highly surprised how divergent their views were, and frequently discovered that the proposed change strategy contradicted deeply held individual believes. A “split personality” phenomenon seems to be frequent: development agency staff (personally) believe for example in political struggle or leadership as main drivers of change, but at the same time push their agencies’ change approaches that are based on technological innovation or education & enlightment. Using the “big” hypothesis as catalyst for alliance building discussions seems to work well. When it comes to translating theories of change into change strategies, getting inspiration from “small” change hypothesis can lead to creative approaches. I personally do not work with result frameworks, I am afraid of the “everything is connected to everything” phenomenon they sometimes produce – complexity reduction is the obvious challenge. But some colleagues – especially those development agency colleagues who are forced to work with logframes – like them, because they allow to logically think through the different lines of influence.

“Good practices” come from a different world – the world of development practitioners who condense their years of experience into guidance on what normally works, and what normally does not work. Those people are the natural prey of complexity theorists. There is a whole collection of articles making fun of “best practice”. Experience and emergence seem like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I think this dichotomy is wrong. My take is that “good practices” and “small theories of change” mean pretty much the same thing. Theories of change need good practice- knowledge of what normally works and what normally does not work –  to become guidance for steering Social Change, otherwise they turn into ideology or activism.

Strategy Map and Matrix Planning

One of the main problems with logframe planning is that different scenarios may be considered during design stage, but only one is retained for implementation. That is, as development practitioners know, big gamble because of the emergent nature of Social Change. Strategy Map and Matrix Planning are tools to translate a theory of change inspired change approach into a change initiative that can be communicated, funded, and implemented. The Strategy Map tool was originally developed as part of Outcome Mapping. Its purpose is to systematically think through support initiatives that might lead to desired behavior change. I like the Strategy Map tool, since it helps translating system thinking into system change strategy, and since it allows to conceptualize influencing drivers of change with whom one cannot cooperate directly (spoilers, for example). The Strategy Map tool suggests thinking through support for change in 6 categories: 3 types of support for the driver of change whose behavior we would like to see changing, and 3 types of support to change the driver’s environment.

Stratagems aimed at the driver of change itself: causal (e.g. providing funding, facilitating new mandate, providing equipment etc.), persuasive (e.g. providing training, information, good practices etc.), supportive (e.g. linking to network, providing access to new funder, board development etc.). Stratagems aimed at driver of change’s environment: causal (e.g. improving connectivity or access, changing legal framework, fostering new policies etc.), persuasive (e.g. public awareness raising, “pain in the ass” advocacy, funding relevant research etc.), supportive (e.g. facilitating alliance building, supporting partners working on same issue, integration into global change initiatives etc.).

In Outcome Mapping, unfortunately, the Strategy Map is used as reflection base for planning (called “intentional design”) only. Outcome Mapping intentional design is as mono-linear as logframe planning. Matrix Planning looks like a more promising way. With Matrix Planning, no pre-implementation choice of stratagems is needed. It is enough to say: “Based on our current understanding of system dynamics and drivers of change, it seems that x, y and z stratagem might direct change trends towards the lighthouse – but in case system dynamics turn out to be different, we’ll apply one of the other stratagems”. All stratagems developed in the Strategy Map are retained as intervention options. The main disadvantage of Matrix Planning in comparison to logframe planning is of course that the direct link between proposed intervention strategy and intervention costs cannot be shown. With Matrix Planning, resources available are simply treated as one of the parameters determining intervention (this is a major problem for funders – for implementers it mirrors reality much better than logframe based intervention budgets “that’s the xy $ sum it takes to change from A to B”).

Rubrics to measure progress towards impact, and inter-subjectivity to steer programs

Theories of Change and Good Practices provide us with hypothesis of what might work. Strategy Maps and Matrix Planning provide us with portfolios of possible interventions. But truth is always local, change is emergent. When implementing stratagems to influence trends, we need to know whether trends are actually changing, whether overall Social Change is moving in the direction of the lighthouse. Rubrics are the buoys delimiting the navigation area, allowing us to measure whether we are making progress towards the lighthouse. Rubrics in development cooperation were pioneered by Outcome Mapping’s “progress markers”. Rubrics are scales of qualitative changes, starting with the current state. Each step on the scale is determined by asking: “if change was towards the lighthouse, what would be the first [or next] difference we would see?” Obviously, the steps on the scale can include different markers. If the lighthouse statement is “equal opportunities for women and men”, for example, the first signs of change could concern wages, election results, women work loads etc.

Measuring progress towards impact requires information on three fields of observation: results of interventions, direction of change trends, and contribution of intervention results to change trends. As always with impact, the counter-factual is tricky. Taking emergence seriously rules out any kind of simple randomized control trial. The only reasonable counter-factual is the trend as we assume it would have continued without intervention: projecting drivers of change into the future. Often it is useful to develop rubrics for the assumed counter-factual trend, too. This later allows to compare the observed trend with what is assumed would have happened without intervention. Monitoring the results of intervention is straight forward development M&E. Monitoring trends and monitoring contribution to trends is much more difficult. One of the (uncomfortable) messages from complexity theory to development is that, if we want to be serious in influencing Social Change, we need to spend more money for research-type information gathering on trends and contributions.

Another uncomfortable message from complexity theory concerns information digest on Social Change: our brain is not able to handle complex information analytically; this can be done intuitively only. The main problem with intuition is subjectivity: our intuition reflects our biography. Inter-subjectivity – dialogue between different persons on their intuitive understanding – is the only way to add accuracy and credibility. This implies that program steering, especially the selection of stratagems from the Planning Matrix, needs to be done in a group of concerned actors.


Comments to“Robust Management for Social Change”

  1. Arthur Zimmermann says:

    Most welcome, Adrian! very thoughful contribution. Thanks.
    Indeed we live in a complex world and depend on changes that are beyond our desire to control. In my view, development programmes
    have always been complex due to the multiple stakeholders involved, unexpected effects and unforeseeable changing circumstances.
    For decades, we tried to reduce complexity by means and tools and logical frames which do not really capture complexity, but ensure the financing principles in headquarters and authorties as well as our partners, that we are doing something meaningful. These justificactions might be necessary but can’t hide the fact that we need to learn to live with complexity.
    As you, Adrian, emphasize, we need new ways of looking at political, socio-economic and societal change to apply educated guess and some fuzzy evidence for meaningful and feasible contributions to reforms. Among other competences it may be useful to learn from Steven Strogatz (How things tend to sinc up …) and from Thomas A. Becker, prepariong ourselves for the continuous negotiation in open cooperation systems where involved stakeholders say something but don’t act accordingly and act but don’t say why. So let’s start to better accept and understand that parallel worlds and power games are always present, in our culture and in the ones of our partners, where orders of limited access to rights and resources are controlled by dominant coalitions. Let’s go for it, before the lights are turned out.
    What are the key competencies we should adquire in future? I learn from your Blog that systemic thinking and advisory, reflecting on change and feasibility of reforms, negotiation competencies to forge at least temporal agreements among diverse stakeholders might be helpful.
    Thanks again, Adrian.

  2. Hettie Walters says:

    Dear Adrian
    I have read your blog with interest . At ICCO we have over the last years developed an approach that we call Programmatic Approach which is a MSP for systemic change in short. This practice is based in systems and complexity thinking, inter organisational partnership approaches and a Multi -stakeholder approach. We have developed it in an emergent and learning by doing approach and have now refelected our lessons learned in a document called: Guidance note for the Programmatic Approach inthe ICCO Alliance. In the PA we now promote the application of a Theory of Change approach because we feel that this approach can gelp us , much better than the Logical Framework approach ( in the manner in which it has been used in the Development sector) in working with and in the complexity and the emergence of social change. As you rightly say we never start from scratch, social change will always come about within ongoing processes and trends. A good analysis including political economy analysis of the context in which we try to promote change is essential for creating effective change processes, in a complex context, in which we recognise the dynamics and don’t reify the reality or fix it in a static ‘state’.
    I would like to share the Guidance note with you as well as a short paper that I am developing about the use of ToC in the PA. Can you please indicate where to send it?
    Thank you Hettie Walters
    Cordinator Capacity development
    ICCO the Netherlands


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