In a post last year (time flies) I discussed the application of a framework known as Cynefin to Humanitarian Response. The below post, which I plan to be the first of several, goes into more depth around some of the conclusions drawn from the earlier article, particularly as relates to how organizations manage their staff and operations in complex and chaotic contexts. I hope later articles will look at other aspects of complexity and aid work, and exploring more adaptive approaches to emergency management, and I look forward to discussions with various readers who, I know, are far more conversant in this stuff than I am.
I won’t go over the original framework in detail. Please see the article for more detail or if you’re not familiar with Cynefin. The framework was initially developed by Dave Snowden (@snowded) whose work and that of his associates can be followed on their blog “Cognitive Edge“
In brief, Cynefin assumes that contexts and systems fit into one of five realms- Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disordered.
In Simple systems, cause and effect are known and linked through direct, predictable causality. In Complicated systems, cause and effect again have a direct relationship, but this may be through several stages in a process which may require a level of investigation to understand. In Complex systems, cause and effect are related, but the influence of feedback mechanisms an external forcings mean that they are hard to perceive or predict. In Chaotic systems, cause and effect may not be perceptibly linked and the context is changing rapidly, with factors contributing to change often unknown and a high level of uncertainty. In Disorder, cause and effect are not linked at all.
As Humanitarian organizations, we can apply systems to contexts within these realms. However, systems must be applied to contexts in the same realm. If we apply Simple systems to a Chaotic context, or Complicated systems to a Complex context, we will end up with disfunction.
Most of the systems that we as NGOs utilize to do our work are either Simple (Finance systems, procurement processes, audit requirements) or Complicated (project designs, logical framework analysis, problem tree analysis). However the places that we work are either Complex (the majority of communities we work in in rural and urban areas) or Chaotic (rapid-onset disaster responses).
Take, for example, a Response Manager who has deployed into Port-au-Prince five days after the earthquake of January 2010. It is her job to ensure that assistance reaches affected communities as quickly as possible. To do this she requires supplies and equipment (which costs money) and people. To source supplies and equipment she must follow procurement procedures which state that 3 bids must be submitted in a transparent manner and then selected via a senior committee meeting, all of which must be documented and backed up with tender calls, invoices, receipts, bank statements and goods-received notes. To get people she must follow HR procedures which require posts to be open for a certain amount of time, a certain number of interviews, a selection panel and review process and careful documentation.
These are all Simple systems.
Her context is Chaotic. She can’t find 3 suppliers because many would-be suppliers have either been killed or injured in the earthquake, had their stores destroyed, or are looking after injured relatives. Communication networks have been destroyed so the only way to find suppliers is to travel around looking for them, but roads are blocked and there is insecurity. Her team is scattered all over the city doing assessments so there is not enough people for a committee meeting- nor is there time. The printer is not working properly because the generator keeps switching off, and they can’t buy paper yet. And there is no time to follow lengthy HR procedures because work can’t begin until they have local hires.
Our Response Manager has two options. The first is to do as the organization and its systems tell her, and comply. However if she does this, the response will choke to a halt for days, even weeks, while systems are fulfilled. There is a good chance she will not meet indicators for program success related to goods delivered and numbers of people helped, and her work will be judged a failure.
Her other option is to work around the systems. Go ahead and purchase from whichever supplier she can find. Let documentation lapse below expected standards. Hire staff who are recommended by other local staff or organizations without following full HR protocols. However if she takes this route, she will be deemed to be in breach of company policy. At best, she will have to spend time at a later date documenting her decisions and/or justifying to an audit panel why processes were flaunted, creating more work for herself and others, and in the eyes of some parts of the organization, failing in her workplace integrity. At worst she may face disciplinary action from the organization.
While this may appear to be an overly simplistic narrative (and indeed many organizations have a different set of expectations around some basic protocols such as finance and logistics, to ensure operations in emergencies can continue), the point is valid across most aid agencies. Staff are deployed into highly Complex or Chaotic situations, and are expected largely to adhere to Simple or Complicated systems which do not match that context.
In this way we end up with a duality in how we operate and how we measure success. We talk about being ‘Humanitarian’ organizations and existing for the wellbeing of the communities we’re trying to support. But we actually measure our success through how well we comply to the systems we use to run operations- Have finance processes been followed? Have audit requirements been fulfilled? Have human resources protocols been engaged?
In the same vein: Have SMART indicators been reached? Have activities and outputs been acheived? Do gender audits measure up?
Systems that make sense in a Simple or Complicated paradigm, but which do not work in a Complex or Chaotic one.
What to do then?
Our Response Manager, as mentioned, has two choices. Which one you would pick probably depends on whether you are a field-based program manager operating largely in a Complex paradigm or an office-based grant accountant operating largely in a Simple paradigm; whether you see success as operational output, or system compliance; whether you (or your boss) understand your primary client to be the target community, an internal auditor, a donor, or a senior manager. Please note, in this comparison, there is no denegration implied in the use of the word ‘Simple’- it is an organizational context and nothing more or less in this discussion.
Most field practicioners have tales of when they or colleagues with them have ignored head-office regulations and bent or broken the rules to make something happen in the field. Generally they get away with it.
I remember working during the rainy season in a famine response as a junior field worker (but token expat) in the car with a local field manager. I took a call from our logistics officer. He could get 10,000 mosquito nets for the program today- an outlay of a very substantial amount of money- but if we didn’t make the purchase straight away, it would be four months before the stocks returned and we wouldn’t get any more before next year. What should he do?
Normal process required layers of approval for an item of this cost. The field manager and I held a brief conversation, agreed that the nets were crucial to helping slow the spread of malaria during the rainy season and which was killing children, and we then told the logistics officer to make the purchase.
It was a breach of organizational protocols. Way, way, way outside my level of authority. Or the field manager’s, for that matter. But it was also the right thing to do for the communities we were serving. Malaria wouldn’t care that we’d followed procedure.
That certainly isn’t the last time I’ve broken company policy- and I don’t expect it to be, as long as policy restricts my ability to do the work I need to.
Talking to other aid worker colleagues, I hear stories like this all the time. ‘The rules say this, but I ingored them and got the job done instead.’
Most aid workers out there reading this probably have your own stories- times you’ve broken the rules, or watched others do it. Please do share those stories in the comments section below.
I want to draw out three points from this:
1. Principle versus Protocol
An underlying tension here is that aid work is a principled industry. When I say that, I recognize the contradiction that implies. An industry is soulless- literally. It is a set of rules, regulations and institutions geared to a particular set of outcomes. It is amoral by nature.
The people who populate an industry, by contrast, are not. They are people with beliefs, experience, motivations and interests.
The people who make up the aid industry tend, on a whole, to be a principled bunch. Many work for organizations whose values they align with. Many work for less pay than they could earn elsewhere because they believe in the task they are working towards.
By operating in the manner we do, overlaying Simple-realm systems over a Complex- or Chaotic-realm situation, aid workers often have to choose between following protocol (what is the right thing to do according to Simple rules) or following principle (what is the right thing to do according to the Complex context). And, where you deal with principled people, you end up with people working around the protocols to fulfil those principles.
I’m serious. Ask any field aid worker and see how many stories they have about doing just that.
But in acknowledging this, we also have to acknowledge two truths:
a) We are making more work for our staff in the field- i.e. they have to circumnavigate the barriers we put in their way
b) Our systems are, apparently, not appropriate to context in Complex and Chaotic situations
2. Decision-Makers versus Compliers
If we put staff who are good at complying into a complex or chaotic context and give them simple or complicated systems to comply to, we will end up with a situation where the boxes are ticked, but the context is not responded to appropriately.
To avoid this, we need decision-makers who can work around compliance hurdles and still acheive organizational objectives.
And for this to happen, we need the right sort of decision-makers.
We don’t want to throw compliance issues out of the window here. These systems are there for a reason. To measure program effectiveness, or to prevent corruption, or to create accountability to donors and communities. All good things. Just done in an appropriate way.
We don’t want people who ignore the good intent behind inappropriate systems. We want people who can internalise these intentions, then base their decisions accordingly. Then we have people who don’t allow systems to prevent them from reaching the aims they’re trying to acheive, but who also ensure that the principles behind those systems are maintained. Such as transparency, integrity, accountability…
What we’re talking about is value-based decision-making. We need staff who can be trusted to make decisions based on principles (whether organizational or humanitarian- probably both).
What’s important is not the process which the decision-making follows, but the outcome. Does the decision reflect organizational and humanitarian values? Does it move the team towards acheiving goals that will benefit the communities we’re serving? If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’, does it matter whether or not the decision can be fitted into an organizational checkbox?
Of course, this is a risky proposition for an organization. I acknowledge that. And that’s why it’s so hard for organizations to move in this direction. Particularly risk-averse organizations such as NGOs, which are so dependent themselves on the trust of voluntary donors.
3. People versus Systems
What we need, as organizations, is to develop systems that are appropriate to the realms of operation. If we are operating in a Complex context, then we need to have a way of operating that is complex in nature. If we are operating in a Chaotic context, then we need to have an approach that is appropriate to chaos.
This requires a loss of direct control by removed decision-makers and those who hold political risk. It requires shifting from a mindset that risk can be controlled, to a mindset that risk can be managed, and from holding staff accountable to process, to holding them accountable to achievement. Box-tick systems assume that if the box is ticked, risk is eliminated. Chaotic realities acknowledge that risk is always present, and can never be completely discounted.
Instead of investing in systems that govern staff behaviour, we need to be investing in staff behaviour in such a way that the values that drive the systems are internalized. We’re talking about prioritizing behaviour over process. Values over procedures. People over systems.
The Red Cross Code of Conduct outlines 10 key values that agencies operating in humanitarian emergencies should exhibit. It’s very difficult to put measurements around these. You can try. But how do you truly put a numerical value around something like ‘impartiality’? And if you try, how do you avoid forcing frontline aid workers from having to jump through a series of organizational hoops to demonstrate on paper that they are running operations impartially, rather than just trusting them to be impartial? And if you do create such a system, how do you avoid the reality that some people will still flaunt it for their own ends and twist the system to only appear impartial? And how do you avoid adding the organizational cost and burden of subsequently measuring, auditing and reporting on that impartiality? And when you’ve successfully assured impartiality across all your programs, is it now time to do it with neutrality, accountability, dignity, respect, and a host of other values that we should all be abiding to?
Or should we be identifying staff who, by their actions, we already acknowledge as having strong impartiality in how they operate? Should we be trusting that, if we put person X into a relief response, she will by very nature strive for impartiality in her program? What does that cost an organization by comparison? Some risk? Sure. But it results in a lighter, freer response and a happier staff member who isn’t wasting time on internal protocols, who can instead focus on the complexity or chaos at hand and try and make a difference.
I close with the words of a friend on this topic, who summarizes far more succinctly than I can:
“It’s inappropriate to put a staff member into a context, tell her to manage or lead, then prescribe how she must do-so. That assumes a consistency in the context which is not evident in Complex & Chaotic contexts. This results in wasted effort focused on system design which could and should be invested in staff development instead.”
We talked earlier about organizations which have exceptions for some of their systems for emergency contexts. This can shift systems from being simple to complicated, and even complex at times. Managing this shift can itself be challenging in organizations where staff are used to more rigid ways of operating. If staff are used to the perceived ‘safety’ in complying to a set of simple systems (assumption: risk can be controlled), then getting them to adopt a more complex or chaotic form of operating (principled action, decisions based on gut reaction, trust) can be very difficult.
This is where organizations need to do three things:
1. Ensure they have the right people in the right places. People who have appropriate experience, and appropriate training. Ensuring staff are trained in issues such as ethical decision-making and principled action (not just ‘these are the decisions that we make’ but also ‘this is the reason for those decisions’) is central to this. And here we’re not just talking about ‘training’ as a way of telling people what to do, but ‘developing’ staff, enabling them to get the experience they need so that they understand inherently how to apply their knowledge in a given context: that is, wisdom.
2. Invest in trust- trust by removed political risk-holders in their frontline operations staff, and trust by junior staff in on-the-ground leaders who may appear to flaunt ‘normal’ business practices to fit an evolving context.
3. Reconsider their notions of success in an operating environment. While Simple and Complicated realms assume success looks like ticked boxes and process-compliant action, Complex and Chaotic realms base success on change achieved- a results-based measure increasingly regardless of the process used to achieve that change (within the confines of the principles and ethos that guide the organization’s actions providing boundary conditions).
This conversation’s only just beginning. I’ve lots more to say on the matter- as do lots of others- and will hopefully have the space to do so over the coming weeks. Stay tuned. And I’d love to hear your feedback. As with any article of this nature, I can only present a narrow slice of what there is to say, and friends who have seen this article have already identified some room for development and some holes to plug, so input is most welcome.
Aid workers, share your stories: Please tell us about times you’ve had to work around rules to get the job done when you’ve been operating in the field.