First written June ’09 revisited ‘12, ‘15 and February ‘16
Work related to being able to understand how we best use the myriad of possibilities for ‘knowing’ the future continue to develop from early use of scenario planning, work on scenario development and related tools regarding visioning and articulating how we, as people within a social system, are able to take perceptions and rationalise what the future may be.
An altruism noted by a number of researchers is the only thing we know of the future is we do not know the future; we can be in danger of losing ourselves in conjecture, perspective and projection of past trends. All are important, but how to use individual knowledge and institutional learning? Are we, truly, learning as institutions? With the United Nations seeking integrated missions which sometimes can appear remarkably introspective: how to ensure we have an institution which is truly integrated and not a continued collection of entities paying lip service to integration through coordination without building coherence and added value of singular programming? Programming reflecting the issues of state and those of people who are being forced to act for self preservation hoping, rather than anticipating, a better tomorrow? How to back up these deliverables with experienced people and the employment of tools and techniques to rationalise all the available data and information?
Work is on-going with regard to the use of scenario planning and scenario development. People within the system have heard of scenario planning and want to have it incorporated in how the internal strategic planning processes of the UN work. Possibly the lip service paid to this thinking is already out of date with regard to the turbulence we see in certain, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Libya to start the list, cases. Certainly, how scenarios are to be employed is critical if we are to make the best of them. Simply taking various (personal) perspectives and rationalising these into worse case, best case and status quo does not grant a planning tool whereby we can look at our own capabilities to respond to the worse case, best case or simply carry on in the vein we are in.
From notable research conducted over the last half a century, this issue of how to use techniques to manage in conditions of increased uncertainty has been recognised –
‘The dynamic properties arise not simply from the interaction of the component organizations, but also from the ground itself. The “ground” is in motion’1.
Perhaps it could be argued we are so busy looking at the ground in motion we have forgotten how to look at our own organizational ability to work in such shifting conditions? This is to say, we always find it easier to undertake external analysis, what is now usually coined a political economy study, without looking back at the capability to input, let alone impact, key factors at key decision points; points of bifurcation. Thus, reports, accurate and well argued with recommendations, do not look at the capability to implement against recommendations and regularly reinforce the status quo.
To operate in such environments others have posited the need for extraordinary management. This is a major divide within organisations such as the United Nations where global remit entails the need, and agreed need, for rules and regulations; the type and style of organisation can stultify innovation. Often what then happens is maverick behaviour, still girded if not guided by these rules and regulations, which pushes the limits. Perhaps here is the paradox and the need for quality leadership as well as managerial systems. A system of management rule based and, within this, a leadership that is more adaptive and offers extraordinary capability to ensure rules flex so as not to break whilst delivering compliance that is principled reinforcing the underlying need for fundamental change. Such change will not be evolutionary but rather step change requiring leadership and a will to cause behavioural adaptation and the removal of impediments to the next levels of development.
This invariably comes in the form of a personality able to offer leadership but sometimes not able to articulate the vision for everyone’s delectation. What is also apparent in these settings is strong leadership can become isolated by offering a dominant perspective on what may, or may not, happen in the future. This can produce a situation where the rigour of debate is challenged as organisations become self-referential, self-sustaining and self-fulfilling; we can always justify our action (or inaction) and continue in a manner no longer fully impacting or being impacted on, by external forces. This is to say, quoting another researcher on futures Ralph Stacey:-
‘The world people act in is the World they have created by acting in it’.
The need for humanitarian intervention will continue to be there; should we seek a ‘Kuhn-esque2’ leap in techniques within the broader development work to search for ways of addressing, and using existing humanitarian response work, in new ways to build a way forward from the present setting of Fragile States?
How to allow, create, a situation where individuals offering insight and challenging self-referential, and self-reverential, behaviour? How to sponsor real dialogue where the process builds outcomes of good governance and a sense of inclusion? This inclusion absent regularly as we witness disenfranchisement becoming radicalisation thence extremist action creating further downward spirals.
Scenario planning is not enough; it remains wrapped in our own bureaucracy with scenarios developed tending to be more about the external environment (and our dominant personalities showing how they think these will be with regard to the way the ground will move). It is not about how we can work given knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of how events can be predicated with thought not of guessing the future but understanding the factors at play for the future. As noted, rarely do we see evolutionary development bring change of significance in places where we have seen the breakdown in the institutions through which we normally envisage change happening incrementally. The institutions broke down for a reason, catastrophic circumstances are apparent and real actions must not only respond but also step ahead and be proactive if we are to build back better.
To this end, work has been done on how the natural sciences may show ways of thinking for the social sciences. What is contended here is the situation in the vast majority of fragile states is not a stable setting. With a number of settings, this is not altruism but rather placing the historic context we have had stability in terms of predictability even within a seeming chaotic setting. In 2015, a security expert noted the similarities and parallels between Freetown, Sierra Leone in the late 1990s and Mogadishu emergent in this decade clearly noting history is linear and parallels offer perspective without being predictive
Taking the Somalia example further, what we have are a number of issues at play on taking the ‘Somalia system’ far from equilibrium, and present circumstances moving us to the point of bifurcation whereby fluctuations now will determine the direction of ‘the system’ for a period until other forces come into play (since the Somalia system is not a closed system). This same analysis could be placed on a number of fragile states where the United Nations systems tends to act as if these are closed systems whilst, then, seeking to have regional coordination or lesson learning across operations without the understanding of systems and how, particularly, open systems function. Witness recent events in Darfur, South Sudan and Burundi (without even leaving the East Africa region nor being comprehensive of other interventions that have taken on lives of their own; often with further appalling results: Congo).
This is to say, Somalia for example, as with any ‘system’ cannot remain far from equilibrium; it must move toward, if not achieve, a state whereby the factors acting on it/in it are able to balance to produce a steady state which allows the major forces at work to achieve an equilibrium serving the wider population beyond the powers who have kept southern Somalia in a form of stasis for a generation plus. If forces do not achieve a form of equilibrium amongst themselves, then the tumult of a dissipative system results; a system throwing out more energy than it takes in. Undoubtedly, as with the laws of physics, energy cannot be extracted without the system either reducing in power or seeking new ways of drawing in other energy. If we continue to ‘simply’ act and feed energy into a system without challenging it to move far from equilibrium (to meet a point of bifurcation)3 then we are perpetuating the smaller fluctuations only serving to undermine longer-term work. By clearly pressing a singular process then we are caused to think about points of bifurcation and challenging us to look at how we can act or simply react when these occur. The rider remains, the United Nations has become introspective on any number of levels and thus self serving where delivery of singular issues can be done as a box ticking exercise rather than a means to place key stakeholders, those with power and/or influence, in positions of accountability with necessary resources to meet their responsibility.
By challenging the systems thinking,4 we open minds as to how we can work and understand the factors at work; we change our mind-sets from one of the ‘permanence’ of our organisations to one of change and how we, and our organisations, can learn in the setting that is complex volatility when first viewed. Even within the most volatile of settings, patterns emerge; however in the Somalia context, and elsewhere, it is not to say trends and ‘simple’ historic cost accounting by political analyst quoting the various factions and factors grant a view with capability to influence Kuhn-esque style challenges. This moves toward seeking the themes whereby we can look to not perpetuate the expert view or even guess where this change will take us but seek understanding, hence a degree of control (note a degree of control), over the factors at work at key points of change. Thus expert input is worthwhile to inform and not a fundamental to define.
The thinking is one where we see order emerging from chaos by realising what we can and cannot do; how individuals and specific authorities at points of influence in time can cause the system to take different routes by defining these points and working accordingly. By defining our own remit in relation to other influences at work and seeking to refine how we can cause energy to be either injected or removed from the system at critical points we are able to cultivate the impact of our interventions.
This is to say, we need to refine what we can and cannot do, look at defining points of intervention and then working accordingly. This entails an open dialogue, truly open going beyond the expert opinion and self appointed political leader to draw in those with vested interests and a stake in making legitimate change we have seen started in a number of settings; then never taken through to levels whereby we get beyond the somewhat sterile terms of humanitarian and development, short term response, longer term capacity building and other such phrases. Phrases, which, when questioned start to reveal a multitude of understandings as to what is entailed and, with differences of understanding, then how can we work cogently on impact of specifics within an open system and its myriad of influences and incongruities? Increasingly, with Global access and social media reach, then expatriates of all shapes and persuasions add to the political economic views rarely bringing real change as those in the status quo setting with power and influence interpret for their own self interest. The energy is fed in and the equilibrium prevails.
For us to achieve anything more than a continuance of the situation we now see in a number of Fragile States requires us to break the symmetry seen in terms of humanitarian response, development where possible, with all shortcomings seemingly put down to donor fatigue and/or security. There has been progress; it has not been qualified nor have we taken a deliberate strategy to fully support processes where challenges to the rules of bureaucracy are met.5 Regularly, the aid and development community build an emergent strategy not fully delineating the points of bifurcation, nor the ability to influence at these points.An approach of scenario development to look back inside our own operations while defining points of influence and change will allow us to work more effectively.
Further points bringing a security perspective:-
Some may dispute the ideas of patterns within human systems; increasingly the disputers are being left aside as we increasingly turn to algorithms ‘showing’ how patterns emerge in seemingly random acts. As is often the case, war has brought advances in plotting geographic patterns. Counter terrorist agencies are increasing finding patterns in ‘random’ behaviour by terror group cells. Personality issues are there to be seen and patterns can be seen. The requirement is the understanding of self, organization and then how organizations interact in what remains an open, complex, adaptive system. Whilst it is important to understand the political and socio-economic dynamics, it is not a prerequisite for the knowledge of motivations and incentives used to predicate actions and decision points.
As with software now developed to assist analysis of extremist actions noting all the contextual factors of social geography in Afghanistan,6 then why not now take this forward to the positives of having organizations gaining a feeling how they work, see the patterns and hear opportunities whisper to positively influence factors beyond going through the process as an end in itself?
Relationships continue to evolve as this piece now asks practitioners, academics and thinkers to offer input. The means to use experience, knowledge and institutional ability to maximum effect requires all of us to ask questions of ourselves as to who we work for? How are we interacting with others with power and influence? What of those we profess to be working for who do not have a seat at the dialogue? Have we critiqued the massive amounts of data and opinions we generate to ‘see’ whether gut feel and expert opinion has led us to new points of discovery? New approaches to challenge the equilibrium?
The points outlined here now require further elucidation allowing the science behind approaches to be applied. Allowing us to experience how we can work more effectively. Where are you in the thinking set out? Able to place yourself, your organisation and your principles and causes in a place where they are able to contribute to understanding the equation and work accordingly to make positive changes?
1 Emery and Trist, 1965 – The causal texture of organizational environments’ Human Relations vol 18 pp21-32
2 Thomas Kuhn put forward the thinking certain ideas become the norm and are not challenged until a body of critique is available to challenge the norms we take as givens. It is often mavericks or scientist working on the edge that challenge but are often ostracized because the mass opinion is overpowering socially.
3 This requires an elaboration in terms of what political, economic and social forces create energy to move something to decision points and how the energy thence the decision points are recognized
4 Systems thinking is used improperly in this context. Here it is employed to show, no matter the intellectual power available, there is an acceptance of following due process set out within Global organizations in order to achieve what is the organizational requirement; often not in any way congruent with the needs of the geographical and temporal setting of the particular actions then being promulgated.
5 First rule of a bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself. Self interest of individuals tends to fit within this as career path is linked either to moving on within the (global) organization or making yourself an expert in a particular political and/or geographical zone thus marketing expertise in knowing the setting rather than building situations of change so the situation is no longer the known of the expert.
6 SCARE-S2 reported in The Economist: Shrinking the haystack January 16 2016