Learning to Do Development Differently

I was immediately a fan of the Doing Development Differently (DDD) manifesto. It was launched in 2014 while I was an ODI Fellow in Zanzibar. I recognised that “too many development initiatives have limited impact” and fail to address the complexity of their context. I saw this all around me: well-meaning and talented outsiders arriving with enthusiasm but leaving little in the way of impact. In my more self-critical moments, I included myself in that category.

Therefore, I was excited to hear about this community that brings together people who recognise this and are trying to do things differently. This means focussing on local problems with local ownership and working in an adaptive, flexible way, taking ‘small bets’ and using feedback loops.

My initial attempts to work in this way were unsuccessful. At the time, I was busy planning how to review and then replace Zanzibar’s medium-term economic growth and poverty reduction strategy. There was a deep faith in detailed planning and a need to specify everything in advance, even when everyone knew any implementation plan would be out of date even before it was finished. Precision was valued at the expense of accuracy or flexibility. While I like to think the strategy was better for my contribution, I didn’t get very far in persuading anyone of the value of a different approach.

Humbled by this experience, I’m now equipping myself to do things better at the next opportunity. To do this, I’ve been trying to identify which skills are valuable for someone who wants to do development differently, for instance, adaptive management, facilitation and measuring change in complex systems. Once I identify these I think about strategies for deliberate practice and deep work. I’m learning in three main ways: by doing, through courses and by reading.

1. Learning By Doing

One of the things I like about the DDD movement is the emphasis on doing (it’s in the name). It moves past saying what’s wrong to suggest a suite of tools, frameworks and useable concepts. You select which ones to use based on the context. There are also emerging ideas about the mindsets and characteristics needed in this work. For example, Brendan Rigby lists six attributes needed by the next generation of development practitioners in a complex world, such as being an innovator and being well-networked. One DDD practitioner I’ve spoken to suggested that emotional intelligence is crucial and often overlooked.

While you can learn about these tools and characteristics through courses and reading, this is different from being able to use them effectively. For instance, I wrote an internal briefing on Agile for ODI at the end of last year and a few weeks later I found myself thrust in the world of planning poker, sprint retrospectives and daily stand-ups, working for the Transformational Index (TI). I’ve learnt a lot about the psychological barriers to Agile from going through the fortnightly sprint cycle and experiencing the resistance to working in such an open, flexible way where delays are more exposed.

I’m trying to weave learning opportunities into things I’m doing anyway. I’m delighted to have a role with the TI where I regularly facilitate workshops and focus groups, honing my skills in empathetic listening and asking beautiful questions. I am also constantly thinking about ways to think about and measure change in complex systems, and build feedback loops. And through coordinating the London International Development Network, I get better at convening networks and building a sense of community.

(The next LIDN meet-up is on Tuesday July 11th – come and join if you’re around!)

2. Learning Through Courses

After initial skepticism, I’ve become a MOOC aficionado. Courses from the likes of the Harvard Kennedy School, Acumen and IDEO have emerged which cover some of the elements of DDD. Earlier this year, I was delighted to participate in courses on Principles of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results, Human Centred Design, and Lean Startup Principles for the Social Sector. The first was the most intense in terms of reading, written assignments and reflections, while the others placed a greater emphasis on working in a team to put ideas into practice.

(Here are some more courses that I haven’t done but were recommended in a thread on the AdaptDev Google Group – a great learning resource in itself:

3. Learning Through Reading

Over the last year especially, I’ve read some excellent books that underpin the ideas and practice of Doing Development Differently. Some of my top recommendations from among them are:

  • Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown & Isabella Jean)
  • How Change Happens (Duncan Green) (my review)
  • Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows)
  • Building State Capability:¬†Evidence, Analysis, Action (Lant Pritchett, Matt Andrews & Michael Woolcock)
  • Lean Start-Up (Eric Ries)
  • Developmental Evaluation (Michael Quinn Patton)
  • The Art of Focussed Conversation (Brian Stanfield)

These build on previous favourite books such as: White Man’s Burden (Easterly), The Origin of Wealth (Beinhocker), Adapt (Harford), Little Bets (Sims) and Seeing Like a State (Scott).

For anyone who is looking for further reading, there’s a useful list of books, articles and reports recommended by DDD practitioners at the end of this report.

Bonus: Learning By Proximity

Who you spend time with influences the person you become. I, therefore, look to associate with people who exhibit the characteristics and skills I’d like to have. I’m lucky to have colleagues and friends in those categories. Being around masters makes it easier to be an apprentice. Doing Development Differently is easier with allies.

This is why I’m excited to once again be working on Doing Development Differently as a consultant with ODI over the next few months.

So how are others approaching this? Am I missing something obvious? Is learning by doing the best way forward? Is it possible to isolate skills that can be learnt through deliberate practice? What are the implications for recruitment? There are many more questions that I’m excited to explore.

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