The development sector could learn a lot from the approaches being used in instructive digital organisations. The digital approach promotes the idea that organisations can and will thrive by understanding their customers, being data driven, and using fit-for-purpose methodologies in their work. The principles of Lean-Agile are key to the performance of digital organisations, but their purposes are quite distinct:
Lean is used in environments where the work is predictable and repetitive, and where waste is minimised and performance maximised through efficiencies of scale and production.
Agile on the other hand is used in complex environments where the outcome is not clear, and where experimentation is required to test and validate approaches. Knowledge is key to Agile organisations, which must engage in iterative learning cycles and be able to pivot at speed as they learn.
It’s clear that the approaches and ideas of Lean-Agile have long left the IT department, and are being widely used in business today. They are seen as core to the performance and impact of disruptive, successful, deeply customer-centric businesses, such as Amazon, Alibaba and Tesla.
But these principles are not new, and are not confined to business. The military, for example, has been using the principles of Agile for decades, adapting through rapid cycles of experimentation and learning as conditions have changed over time; while hospitals typically use the principles of Lean in order to optimise resources and reduce waste in their environments. In a range of contexts and sectors, digital approaches are impactfully used to ensure performance and success.
“The development sector could learn a lot from the approaches being used in instructive digital organisations.”
Whatever the context, being digital requires a relentless focus on the transformation that is required at all levels of an organisation in order that sustained change can be achieved, and that the necessary culture of learning and adaptation can predominate. It’s not easy. Challenges facing organisations today include driving and sustaining innovation while at the same time meeting compliance requirements. It’s hard to keep abreast with new technology; and it’s complex to align the innovations of IT with the business and ensure governance. A particular issue facing any digital leader is how to embrace and implement innovative change while at the same time ensuring that core business is not jeopardised, and can proceed as usual.
It has become increasingly clear in the work that we do that digital principles, so ubiquitous in business, are not widely used in the world of development; and that this is to the detriment of beneficiaries across a range of sectors. It is typical of donors and corporate social investment departments to engage their beneficiaries in multi-year strategic and funding cycles, and to commit them to long-term outcomes against which their work will be measured. However, complex and multi-stakeholder systems like health and education do not lend themselves to this. A child requiring educational support is one component in a wider and very complex environment. The home, culture, political environment, socio-economic conditions, teachers, principal and government of a child all play a part in determining the type of life and educational chances he or she will enjoy. Wealth, for example, is influential in South Africa, where the learning gap between the poorest 60% and the wealthiest 20% of Grade 3 students is approximately three grade levels.
In the context of this sort of complexity, an intervention can only ever claim to make a contribution to change. It importantly should not seek to resolutely determine future outcomes for any component of the system when the future of the system itself is so very difficult to predict. On the contrary, Agile approaches to funding and development would be more appropriate. They would allow for rapid and repeated burst of experimentation and learning.
In its coaching work with the CEO of a large South African foundation which aims to improve the lives of learners and provide a pipeline of skilled young people into its sector, The Field has encouraged the adoption of an Agile approach. Beneficiaries are involved in determining the design of the programme, and all partners contribute to the programme logic and to deciding how to monitor and evaluate it. In this process, the entity has shifted from a grant-making CSI into a corporate foundation that has a shared value strategy. Extraordinarily, it has committed to a six-year intervention of being a learning organisation, operating in an Agile manner.
The theory of change regularly changes as lessons are learned about how to maximise impact and implement change. It’s time for this to be considered more broadly.