I went off to New York last week at the invitation of the UNDP Regional Center in Europe and Central Asia to discuss using complexity thinking to design a new ‘Finch Fund’ to support innovation and scaling up. Leaving your discipline is traumatic – akin to being suddenly infantilised and made vulnerable. But I didn’t flounce out, and instead (perhaps inspired by Robert Chambers‘ call for greater reflection in our work)  started musing about what was going on in my head. Lesson 3: I found myself veering between ‘oh wow, this is a whole new way of seeing the world’ and ‘this is just describing what we do already in a new vocabulary’. But how you do that depends on whether you are trying to immerse yourself in a whole new paradigm (painful, you have to leave aside your reference points, with no idea of where you are going to end up, or whether the journey will be worth the pain). In real time, there is also a difficult choice between trying to follow every word (very difficult, and means you have to keep interrupting and asking for explanations, which gets humiliating after the first couple of times) or surfing the conversation, gliding over the bits you don’t understand and trying to grasp the overall shape of the thought process, but never quite knowing if you’ve missed the important stuff. Positive deviance: clear evidence that the teams have studied what is already happening in their countries and issue areas and identified particularly positive or negative outliers as part of the experiment. Fast feedback, especially from poor people, which determines how the set of interventions evolve and change.
Don’t overdesign: built-in flexibility will allow any given intervention to morph and evolve in response to feedback.
If it just stops there, the Finch Fund will be pretty unique and I think could provide a really influential model for how to think more intelligently about ‘going to scale’. Two other dilemmas: what is the right response to a complex system; study it really hard to try and understand it better, or accept that you cannot fully understand it, so trial and error is a better approach? This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’. Thanks for honesty and wonderful, recognizable anecdotes about how hard it is to work with people who have very different fields of expertise. I think many of the most promising ideas in development, or perhaps best ideas in general, emerge at the intersection of existing disciplines since these areas of thinking have been less explored.
This requires a special type of facilitation to be able to make people feel comfortable to exchange with each other and to smooth over misunderstandings and draw out the common threads.
Rather than toolkits, maybe it is developing courses of ‘how to fail gracefully (and try again)’ for development institutions (and funders) that we need! Anytime you try to do something great with your life, there are always going to be others trying to bring you down.
Maybe you’ve got a shot at celebrity, and your name is finally starting to get out there, but the bad reviews are pouring in, and the critics are shouting at you. Or maybe your situation is a little more common—maybe you are just dealing with some internet trolls on your favorite message board. Hater quotes can remind you that you’re not alone, and that everybody in the world has to deal with haters.
When you read these quotes, you will realize that you too can achieve your dreams, and the fact that you have haters may very well mean that you are actually on your way to success. Now that you’ve read these quotes about haters, you should feel better prepared to deal with the haters in your life. Most scale-up exercises take successful pilots and just try and replicate them (one of the UNDP organizers, Millie Begovic, memorably likened it to trying to turn a particularly cute baby into a really enormous baby, rather than an adult).
From being a bit of a development know-all, I became a know-nothing, resentfully observing an incomprehensible exchange of references, books, jargon and gossip (oh, Bob’s at Yale now, is he?).


Need to resist both temptations, and try and sift through the murk for the occasional nugget. The alternative, which I tend to prefer, is to enter enemy territory, briefly immerse yourself in ambiguity, uncertainty, alien vocabulary and ‘OMG I know nothing’ vertigo, then grab whatever is useful, and retreat back behind the development stockade to recover.
Some other, deeper ideas may have been lurking in the fog of jargon that could make it even more interesting.
Reminiscent of the evolutionary culture wars between intelligent design and random mutation + natural selection!
If we want this approach to be adopted, we will have to set out guidelines for how it works, what questions to ask, what to avoid etc.
This personal reflection is not intended as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies. I think that is a real danger because we can, I call them the silos, if everyone works in their silo, rather than learning from one another, so I work across disciplines and always have.
It was a conversation on scaling up with Millie (one of the organizers) that led to my recent post on the link between spreading good ideas and scaling up. A challenge you identify in this post is how to make it easier for people to communicate across disciplines when each has their own language (jargon) and culture, and their won sense of exclusivity and clubbyness. Feeling vulnerable and frustrated may be an important part of the discussion since you need to go out of your comfort zone to create something new but this needs to be channelled into something productive so the group can work together effectively. I wonder if investing more in learning how to do this might bring more benefit than taking any specific new or old approach to development.
In an ever complex world, multidisciplinary views and understanding are necessary requirements for finding comprehensive and inclusive solutions to big problems. I am afraid we will continue to miss the big picture unless we actively act to bridge the gaps between bodies of knowledge that are so determinant to advance the solutions to develoment issues and so interdependant to achieve comprehensive results. No matter how many quotes and song lyrics you post, or however much you write your heart out, sometimes words can’t describe how you feel. There comes a point when you have to realize that you’ll never be good enough for some people. This goes out to all of the people who have been broken, but have been strong enough to let go. We all get lost once in a while, sometimes by choice, sometimes due to forces beyond our control. The Finch Fund is looking for a better way, and thinks complexity and systems thinking could be the answer, so it decided to try a bit of ‘interdisciplinarity’. I would say the ability to empathise is probably more essential than being top of the field. They revolve around how to identify systems that are particularly propitious for rapid evolutionary change.
I don’t want to get rid of the disciplines entirely, but it is then that people learn how to work together and that the, we have very bad incentives. But everyone gets tired of waiting, assuming, hearing promises, saying sorry, and all the hurting. For the people who have hurt so badly that they felt that they could never love again, but kept their head up. You get all lined up just the way you like it, and then something beyond your control comes along and bumps you off center.


It’s those moments where you get high off just breathing in so deep, you feel your lungs getting cold. I spent the day with a handpicked group of psychologists, ecologists, philosophers and economists all working on complex adaptive systems.
In general these have a steep gradient of difference between different parts of the system, a high level of ‘microdiversity’, and feedback systems with costs that fall as a change goes to scale. If you publish outside your discipline, frequently inside your discipline, that’s not counted for tenure. Besides, the reality of the world we live in can not just be represented in fine formulaic language.
For the people who that learn from their mistakes and never stop moving forward, even when they take two steps back.
Sometimes, we see the way out but wander further and deeper despite ourselves; the fear, the anger or the sadness preventing us returning.
Wishing on all the stars in the sky for the answers to your questions, for something to believe in…someone to hold. Some of this lot failed pretty heavily (maybe they were exacting revenge for being bullied at school) – if you ever see me give a furtive little smile of self satisfaction when someone says they can’t follow what I’m saying, please give me a slap.
But isn’t that contradictory, if a central point about complex systems is that they defy blueprints and best practice?
For the people that wish loneliness wasn’t a part of them, but put up with it anyhow.
You grow up, make friends, lose friends, go to college, lose track of people, meet new ones, and sometimes you ask yourself why.
Having absolutely no control over yourself, being caught up in a place you wish you were miles away from. For the people that are okay with taking up all of the room in the bed, even if it sometimes feels a little empty.
But all I can tell you is the every single experience you go through like this has changed you in some way. Being stuck somewhere between the past and the future, nowhere near where you should be-in the present. For the people who periodically miss the past, but are so much more excited for the future.
For the people that have so much tied to their past relationship, but break those chains to start fresh. For the people that pick up the phone and are tempted to call, but keep their dignity intact instead. For the people that still believe in love even after all of the hurt their heart has endured. For all the people that gave up not because they were weak, but because most times, it’s better just to let go.



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