Changing Mental Models to Change the World?
If you look at program evaluations, the experience across projects, regions, and even countries, a pattern emerges. There is tremendous investment in training individuals and the results of these investments mostly fall short of delivering the desired results. This is not an issue unique to food and agricultural systems; this pattern appears across all development work, independent of sector, donor, implementer, or problem faced. Seeing the pattern, however, does not mean that development work is not productive. If we look at how many people came out of poverty and improved their lives, we certainly see enormous achievements. Still, there is always room for improvement and we hope that the ideas we will discuss every Thursday during the upcoming month can contribute to make this difficult work even more successful and rewarding.
Through this video series, we are going to talk about performance improvement, which in USAID terminology is called Local Capacity Development, which builds on and expands the former concept of Human and Institutional Capacity Development. Now you might ask, “How do I improve performance if not by training people and building their capacity to do better in their jobs?” This question is at the very core of the issue. The way you frame the problem immediately frames what is possible as a solution. Let’s look at a seemingly trivial example that illustrates the point in question perfectly. If you frame the problem as “we need better drivers”, the solution will be to train existing drivers or to hire different ones in the future. If you frame the problem as “we want to get products to market faster”, better drivers might be part of the solution or might not. In any case, they will not be THE solution. There are many factors influencing how fast products can get to a market, only one of them being the capabilities of the drivers. Equip a good driver with a car with flat tires and the driving skills of the driver will not play much of a role anymore.
Now that example is clearly an oversimplification, yet it still illustrates that in whatever situation you are facing, the thinking should move backward from the desired results. What is it what we want to achieve and what are the factors influencing that desired result? This opens up one’s perspective to more possible solutions and does not prematurely narrow the search to a limited number of options. Moreover, where one sits in a larger system determines what one sees as possible parts of a problem. Thus, when seeking solutions that process should be inclusive – everyone who participates in the system has a say in analyzing the situation and brainstorming potential ways to improve.
There is another core insight that always has to be considered when looking for solutions. Individual contributions are hugely overestimated. “We should rely less on gifted individuals to weave their magic, but more on designing and building organizations that can be run by people who are merely professionally competent,” as Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England put it so succinctly. Individual performance depends heavily on the organizational context people work within. When it comes to performance, usually organization is key and not individual performance. We live in functioning societies not because we are all geniuses, but because we have institutions that scaffold our activities. Porsche does not build first-class cars because they have 35,000 incredibly talented and highly trained people. The secret sauce is organization. It is the way to achieve world-class results with professionally competent people. One has to also recognize that professionally competent people are not enough to achieve these results. One needs competent organizations.
Through this month we show the possible effects of shifting attention from individuals and trainings, to organizations and organizational development. It can yield surprising results. And we will do this not as a motivational blog that preaches aspirational values. We will demonstrate this from a technical hands-on perspective. Think of an engineer who wants to build a bridge. That effort needs sound technical understanding, professional tools, materials and a professional organization behind him/her supporting it. We will take such an engineering perspective, only our question will be how to engineer improved performance.
Coming back to the question in the title, yes, mental models are important and hopefully we can challenge yours a bit. We will argue for mental models as neither the core of change nor the most important thing to achieve. Join us on an exciting journey every Thursday in July seeking to better understand performance in any context. In order to guide us in this journey, please feel free to put your questions and issues in the comment space below this blog and we will be sure to address them during this series. Looking forward to seeing you all again on July 9.