Think like a system, act like an entrepreneur

First published by Apolitical in 2020:

How do you solve a problem like poverty?

Do you start with health, education, or trade? What if security is more important? And what if these issues are both effects and causes of each other – how do you untangle that knot?

Development professionals will be familiar with these “wicked problems.”

wicked problem is difficult or impossible to fix because it has so many complex and changing parts. There is no single solution and there may even be resistance to those which are available. Moreover, because of its complexity, efforts to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create new problems.

Institutions 4 Inclusive Development was an experimental programme that wanted to solve some of the wicked problems which lead to poverty in Tanzania. Our aim was to empower change agents – from policy makers and entrepreneurs to citizen groups and activists – who were working on the ground in marginalised communities. We believed that their voices could lead a vibrant dialogue to challenge dysfunctional local systems which impose bureaucratic approaches to development.

We conducted a listening exercise with development practitioners, political actors and businesses in Tanzania to explore what they thought were important preconditions for achieving inclusive development. They identified three key principles for reforming complex systems, which apply across a wide range of public policy areas.

A clear “why” and an open “how”

When you are working on any kind of complex issue, the end goal that you want to achieve needs to be clear from the outset.

That goal needs to be co-created with the people who will be affected by it most. Once a common goal unites people, regardless of their other interests, strategic and practical flexibility is required to resolve the question of “How do we achieve this?”. Be open to the different means of reaching the desired end state.

Experiment intentionally

Adopt an experimental approach to finding out which solution works and under what conditions.

Work rapidly and test, test, test. In doing so, generate practical knowledge that improves outcomes. That is, knowledge which can be analysed by others in the system and used to inform continuous improvement.

Learning should be valued over speed and agility. This requires you to develop a learning culture where individuals feel secure enough to expose their vulnerability; to explore the unknowns; and to contribute alternative perspectives. Without an open learning culture where people’s resistance to change can be constructively challenged, it is not possible to fix wicked problems.

Create shared action

Jürgen Habermas’ idea of communicative action suggests that groups of individuals can work together on the basis of reasonable dialogue, in which there is a genuine, mutual search for understanding.

This process of dialogue and forming mutual understanding improves how individuals interact with a system and its impact on the world around them.

Only through nurturing agency and critical thinking can we create the conditions that will enable citizens to demand change from the systems which often let them down

The journey towards reforming complex social systems requires interventions that transform human relationships and understanding. So that individuals (often those who are marginalised) are empowered to discover how the structure of society limits the full realisation of their potential.

This demands careful listening, dialogue, and a shared understanding of the drivers of wicked problems by the people who are most affected by them. Creating sustainable, inclusive processes that develop agency and critical thinking is very challenging for bureaucracies. It requires the following:

  • Creating a safe environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves fully
  • Appreciating the complexity of people’s experiences. Listening carefully to people’s views so that interventions “treat people as they would like to be treated
  • Building trust by empathising with others’ perspectives; speaking their language (literally and metaphorically); and being transparent about whose interests are being advanced.
  • Democratic involvement in planning change, before decisions are made which those individuals are then expected to implement
  • Asking the right questions at the outset and along the way; and asking them of the right people
  • Working with people where they are and not where policymakers think they should be. This requires decentralising power and control

Solving the unsolvable

Only through nurturing agency and critical thinking can we create the conditions that will enable citizens to demand change from the systems which often let them down. And only then will impacts sustain.

If you want to solve complex problems, set the desired ends first and embrace a variety of potential means. Provide a consistent message about what success looks like, while demonstrating openness to innovative solutions and experimentation in how the ends are achieved. This will require you to invest in people and the processes that enable them; buy into risk; and avoid micromanagement.

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