Asking the Tough Questions

November 12, 2013

Through the wonderful technology of livestreaming and a number of conference organizers who planned livestreaming into their events, I was able to travel recently to conferences and workshops in Rome, Washington, DC and London while still carrying on work based elsewhere.  Here is some of what I have been listening in on and what I’ve been learning:

  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)’s FailFaire –  October 29, 2013  – http://www.ifad.org/events/failfaire/index.htm  Some takeaways:
    • Of course it’s not just about saying we’ll do something, the doing is always harder.  As organizations and managers can we ask ourselves: “How do we set up incentives that encourage learning from failure?”
    • We need to have effective feedback loops to ensure problems are reported.
    • Diversity of viewpoints in a group can help those with ideas that don’t conform to voice them – encourages a culture of critical and innovative thinking.  “Great minds think alike is actually the problem.”
    • Calling something a pilot can solve some of the problems that result from failure.
    • Practice discussing failures in smaller, ‘safe’ teams.
  • World Bank Youth Summit – focus on entrepreneurship –  October 23, 2013 http://live.worldbank.org/world-bank-group-youth-summit-2013 Some takeaways:
    • Humility, self-reflection, and similar ‘soft skills’ are as important for entrepreneurs as the more publicized ones.
    • The ability of young people to bounce back after initial entrepreneurial attempts is an important skill.
    • When we engage in multigenerational dialogue, we strengthen our ability to move forward.
  • Book launch for Aid on the Edge of Chaos – November 6, 2013  http://www.odi.org.uk/events/3572-aid-chaos-complexity-ramalingam  Some takeaways:
    • As with the FailFaire discussions, Ramalingam’s book acknowledges how strong the structural systems are as barriers to change.
    • Incentives keep organizations stuck on business-as- usual: “better to fail at conventional approach than try something different”
    • Resilient communities come from the intricacies & complexities of people’s lives which local organizations understand best.
    • We should move from being people who know the answers to people who know what questions to ask.

And indeed in all three events it was clear that there are no easy answers and it is important to keep asking and discussing with team members probing questions.  Some great questions to consider were posed including:

  1. How do we know when to stop being persistent and call something a failure so we can make adjustments and move on?
  2. How will organizations know when it’s important to adopt complexity approaches & when simple models are ok?
  3. How do we transfer the ‘power of interpretation’ and analysis (not just the ability to tell stories) from donors and ‘experts’ to beneficiaries?
  4. Do we have the appropriate measures to judge ‘success’?
  5. How do we deal with the lessons of failures?  How do we make our inevitable mistakes and failures, successes?