What does your project plan most resemble – baking a cake, landing a rocket on the moon, or raising a child?

October 3, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

One of the main obstacles to having a decent conversation about the implications of complex systems for how we ‘do’ development


(donorship, programming, advocacy, campaigns etc) is the language itself. Complexity geeks may get a kick out of saying ‘it’s all complex/context specific etc etc’, but more normal/practical people tend to find such language offputting and disempowering. Often, they don’t want to revel in the complexity of the world, they want to know how to do their jobs better. Alan Hudson observed a while back that the most useful discussions on complexity are often those that completely avoid using the word ‘complex’.

So I’m always on the lookout for good metaphors or other ways to convey complexity in more practical ways – step forward Chris Roche in our recent double act in Australia. Chris, who’s been banging on about complexity for decades, divides up ways of ‘doing development’ into three broad categories: baking a cake, landing a rocket on the moon, and raising a child.

Baking a Cake: want to make a cake? Then find a recipe, buy the ingredients, mix, bake and voila! Some cakes are better than others (mine don’t look anything like this one), but the basic approach is fixed, replicable and reasonably reliable. In complexity thinking, this corresponds to a simple system and is the imaginary world of the typical NGO project plan. There are some situations where this is the

man on moon

right approach – distributing emergency aid, vaccinations, bed nets, cataract operations (although even these are never entirely simple), but in the increasingly important messier areas of development – governance, accountability, livelihoods – seeking the right recipes is often either a waste of time or counterproductive.

Landing a rocket on the moon: If you can assemble enough smart people, cash and computer power you can build, fire and land the rocket, and even bring it back again. You need to design the plan from scratch (no recipe here), but if you know the laws of physics, advanced engineering etc you can be pretty confident of success. I’m not sure NGOs do much of this kind of thing – sounds more like a giant infrastructure project funded by the World Bank or DFID. In complexity thinking, this corresponds to a complicated system.

Raising a child: This is what a complex system feels like. If you approach impending parenthood by designing an enormous project plan setting out your activities, assumptions, outputs and outcomes for the next twenty years, the chances are you will be a rubbish parent and your kid might quite possibly end up as some kind of psycho. Raising a child is reflexive, iterative, adapts to the evolving nature of the child and their relationships with you and others, and is most definitely devoid of any ‘right way’ of doing things (despite all those ‘magic bullet’ guides preying on the insecurity of new parents). (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I have always instinctively

raising a child

phrases like ‘I am doing parenting/childcare this afternoon’, which suggest some kind of blueprint activity). What really helps parents is often advice and reassurance from people who’ve been through it themselves – ‘mentoring’ in aid world. Working in complex systems requires exactly the same kind of iterative, reflexive and agile approach (wonder what the aid equivalent of ‘I’m knackered and need a cup of tea, why not just stick a video on’ is?). And yes, I’m aware that the comparison with parent-child relationships has potential unfortunate colonial/paternalist echoes, but that is most definitely not the point.

The problem in the aid business is of course that while most project plans follow the cake-baking model, many real life situations are much closer to the complex unpredictability of raising a child. If true, we need to think, talk and act very differently.

Everywhere I’ve tried this out, I get nods of recognition – can you suggest any improvements? Also, any ideas for kinds of aid work that fit the fourth quadrant in the Cynefin framework – chaos?500px-Cynefin_framework_Feb_2011

October 3, 2013
Duncan Green