Humility and courage: strategy and evidence in our complex world

Humility and courage

Stuart Astill, IOD Parc

Here in CECAN, a lot of time is spent considering and analysing policies, projects and interventions. We also think about methodologies, approaches and systems that we can adopt to do this analysis in the best way possible.

At the same time, we all recognise that there is a particular way of thinking that is valuable when working in the complex world – and certainly other ways of thinking that can trip you up quickly.

It is clear, if we take a sideways look at much of what CECAN does, that having the mindset of an explorer, a navigator, an illuminator, a learner and a satisfier is valuable.

Trying to be a ‘finisher’ or seeker of certainty would be inadvisable; being a ‘taker’ of ‘results’ rather than a learner would be foolish and to be a ‘maximiser’ would lead to a lifetime spent collecting information that still turned out to be incomplete. By definition.

However, although we see and appreciate these things within CECAN there is still a primary focus on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. I believe that we can also learn about a valuable way of ‘being’ from the work we have done so far, and that to come. This is especially when I look from my perspective of strategy and evidence in our complex world.

Humility and courage, I suggest, are important ways of being for the kind of success that we seek, and I believe that I have seen CECAN embodying, not by accident, these qualities. Humility is evident, and I think inherent, in the project; courage is building.

To explain…

Strategy

Strategy is an important way of thinking. It allows a thoughtful flexibility and a linking of elements of our action over time and categories. It means we are not stumbling from one action to the next nor merely disjointly taking each decision just as we trip over it.

If you were going to have a ‘plan’, then strategy is the higher-level, less detailed thinking that roughly shapes the goals, boundaries, expectations, constraints and criteria that a plan would work to. With a strategy in place you can decide whether or not ‘a plan’ is a good idea. Under complexity it may not be simple.

In the world of complexity, strategies (and potentially plans) become even more important and it is difficult to settle on the level to which they can be developed and the extent to which they must continually adapt. If strategies are proportionate and adaptive then they can successfully act as navigational aids to increase the chances of going in the right direction as the world swirls and changes around you.

The complex world

It is a project in its entirety for CECAN to explain what ‘complexity’ means.

The CECAN manifesto makes a start on the definitional work by suggesting that the complex world is “made up of many diverse components which interact in adaptive and nonlinear ways” and that “these result in complex systems, both social and ecological, exhibiting tipping points, emergent new properties, and unpredictability.”

It also suggests that what we do, in this world, is to “explore the uncertainty with rigour.”

I will not even attempt to lay out here why the world is ‘more complex’ now than in the past. But considering the “many diverse components that interact” we can start to grasp the basic path to our diversified and more connected world becoming ever more complex.

Evidence

There are two options for building good strategy (whether or not under complexity) 1) you can look around and base your strategy on ‘evidence’ or 2) you can make it up out of thin air (or the existing experience and knowledge in your head).

Nonetheless, in both cases strategy should be robustly tested against ‘evidence’ to see how it stands up: this can be before, after or during its lifetime. Possibly all three. Under complexity this is especially important as the strategy must adapt to cope with the emergent system features.

Good strategy (among many other things) requires good evidence. The evaluation dimension of evidence that CECAN majors on is a very significant and entirely integral part of this – and in evaluation, as with ‘evidence’ more broadly, the correct mindset is crucial.

Evidence should not rule – evidence should be ruled by purpose and use. It is, for example, for this reason that big data can be dangerous – it can lead to the possibility of being ‘data driven’ – which, for me, is a bad thing. Data, or even evidence more broadly, should never be doing the driving. It should always be the question that is driving, and the evidence should be the fuel in the tank for the approach chosen to answer the question.

When we deal with evidence in the complex world we have to be evermore aware of the boundaries between what we can know, or not, and to what extent we can have confidence in and build decisions and action on our evidence. This is a multi-layered type of evidence; the usual evidence about the substantive issue and yet more (meta-)evidence that tells us about the nature and limits of the substantive evidence.

Humility and courage

Now we can see how the two important qualities of ‘being’, humility and courage, should be at the forefront of our work with complexity.

Already clear is the need for a learning mindset (requiring humility) and the likelihood of being tripped up often (i.e. failing) indicating courage.

Going further, CECAN’s manifesto summarises what CECAN has learnt and it reflects how I have observed the collective and many individuals working along these lines.

We must work always by “adapting to emerging findings”, indicating a need for humility, to know that our initial findings will likely not be sufficient and quite possibly be initially wrong.

The approach of CECAN “assumes we can only steer complex systems, rather than control them fully” -  we must practice humility, to accept this and courage is required to be ready to sit behind such a steering wheel at all!

In the end, when handling complexity, we must “accept and use preliminary or provisional findings” – which requires humility to see we have no ‘solution’, and to know we are not, and may never be able to, trumpet that we are ‘right’.

Furthermore, it is proposed that we should “be willing to provide these [findings]”: this may well be face-to-face with people (who have often paid us to produce our analysis) who strongly demand ‘simple’ and ‘concrete’ answers.

We must have the courage to (in the words of the Manifesto) “provide ranges and likelihoods of outcomes” coupled with “enormous learning in the process of their use” – rather than what is often really wished for… a number or a concrete conclusion that is the answer to all the problems.

Bringing these ways of being to the forefront, along with what CECAN and others are already doing in the world of complexity, can, I believe, help us to do better and learn more.