This article is part 3 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Background Note A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity.
First, we must decide whether there is clear advance knowledge on how to achieve the desired outcomes in the given context or not. For example, if the goal is to build another school or road, the ingredients and methods required are already well-known, and we can rely on standards and best practices. It is worthwhile, therefore, to elaborate a detailed plan from the very beginning in order to reach the outcome. For other interventions, such as improving the situation of human rights or combating poverty, the means to achieve these goals are not well established, and experience and ‘good practice’ from other contexts may not be appropriate and will need to be ‘re-learned’. If the best ways to address a problem are not yet well-understood, and if alternative routes are available or innovative solutions should be developed, it can be difficult to make a detailed plan to guide implementation from the outset. But it is possible to have a vision about the future and identify useful activities, important influential factors or intermediary outcomes, as well as making use of existing knowledge to guide the intervention.
Second, we should assess whether the intervention’s success depends on forces or trends about which there is little advance knowledge and whether it is possible to manage or control all the key ingredients for success. A successful vaccination programme, for example, depends on selecting the most appropriate target demographic, the right type of medicine and managing its delivery and application correctly.
For other interventions, however, key factors are beyond the control of the project / programme / organisation; many options may be equally plausible in advance and uncertainty prevails. For example, the implementation of strategies to mitigate and adapt to the future impacts of climate change must work with several levels of uncertainty – uncertainty about the physical impacts that is inherent in climate data, but also uncertainty about the likely reaction to changing ecosystems from, for example, farmers or other groups. Even if these uncertainties can be influenced, success relies in part on actions elsewhere. This is particularly true for interventions that require a combination of factors or resources and, therefore, the collaboration of various actors.
Why does uncertainty matter?
Interventions that face uncertain environments, or problems on which there is not a well-established understanding of cause and effects, can not rely only on traditional tools for planning and strategy development. Some approaches for planning interventions and their corresponding attitudes or behaviour patterns are not well-suited to cope with the challenges outlined above and might even be counter-productive.
Many planning and strategy development approaches rely heavily on ex-ante analysis and pay little attention to ongoing learning. ‘Front-loading’ process and emphasising assessment or decisionmaking before interventions begin assumes that the way to achieve goals can be based on existing knowledge and is sufficiently understood in advance. Indeed, the interest in careful planning and ex-ante assessment often increases with the degree of uncertainty, with planning seen as a means to curb it. This is a paradoxical attitude, as the powers of foresight are very limited under some conditions and much of the knowledge required to inform action will only emerge during implementation.
This means that plans can quickly become irrelevant. Extensive efforts at the planning stage can prove to be a false guarantor if parts of an intervention work in ways that differ from initial expectations, or if implementation throws up a series of new challenges. Plans might be ‘left on the shelf’, providing little help to those implementing the intervention and are perhaps only revisited when it is time to fulfil reporting requirements.
Some approaches demand detailed planning from the outset and try to fix as much as possible during the planning process. Implementation is assumed to follow these initial plans rigidly and monitoring is used to control compliance with planned activities or outputs. However, a clearer picture of how intervention modalities will work is only possible once they have been tried in the specific context, and sometimes the correct path can only be chosen in the aftermath of major unforeseen developments or events.
This means that an intervention misses key opportunities, ignores lessons emerging from the ground or becomes irrelevant altogether. Inhibiting learning can degrade performance, deter individuals from trying alternative methods and stifle creativity or flexibility in implementation.
It also means that interventions can be hampered by perverse incentives and behaviour when there is a discrepancy between forced implementation and the realities faced by concerned actors who want to be adaptive. This can include a pretence that implementation is going according to plan, a dissonance between what actors actually do and what they report, and the need to spend as much time managing a system of representation and interpretation of information as managing the projects themselves.
Next part (part 4): Task 2 – Assess the level of agreement.
See also these related series:
- Exploring the science of complexity
- Managing in the face of complexity
- Taking responsibility for complexity.
Article source: Hummelbrunner, R. and Jones, H. (2013). A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity. London: ODI. (https://www.odi.org/publications/583-exploring-science-complexity-ideas-and-implications-development-and-humanitarian-efforts). Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.