Wicked problems, evolution, monitoring and project formulation

Developing project strategies and formulating projects and programmes require specialist skills and knowledge.

Developing project strategies and formulating projects and programmes that make a real and lasting different on the ground takes specialist skills and knowledge. One of the reasons is that the challenges to creating markets for sustainable energy are truly wicked!

No – we’re not making a moral judgement, but using a term from the social sciences. As Wikipedia succinctly puts it a wicked problem

“… is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. “

So, how does one design a project that works under these conditions?

Owen Barder, in a recent online presentation, made a powerful argument to consider the priority of monitoring and evaluation over intentional design in development programmes. His central argument is that all complex problems (i.e., development challenges that matter) are solved by evolution and not by design. Thus, variation and selection and feedback loops are the key to success.

While we do fully agree that feedback loops are a key to success, that we certainly must learn from experience, and that we frequently need to experiment and learn from what doesn’t work as well as what does, we’re not completely convinced by the suggestion that random evolution and variation is a good and efficient way to learn when it comes to real-world wicked problems.

We have two concerns: one is that we don’t really have the luxury to experiment, since failed experiments may really mean something to living human beings, often living in the context of extreme poverty! The second concern is that evolution is in fact a REALLY inefficient way of innovating. When random variations are quick to produce and cheap to deliver (such as a computer neural network, or a nozzle for making detergent) then natural selection may be a workable approach. But most great products (and projects) are the result of careful, intentional design. There will certainly be evolution in the design process (poor products will be withdrawn or improved, poor projects will fail and be forgotten, and YES, we must have systems in place to learn from project experiences), but the main innovations come from intelligent design mixed with a bit of trial and error. Surely the optimum is good design building on lessons learnt from experience, not blind evolution!

For us, this means that the intentional design of feedback loops (high quality monitoring and evaluation – M&E, and adaptive management) is a critical factor for success! M&E isn’t just an optional extra in project strategy development, but a crucial ingredient for a successful project.