Orderly office, complex reality

Development Policy02 Dec 2008The Broker

‘We flew in a twin propeller plane over vertiginous snowy mountain ranges and landed in a fertile valley … The airstrip, laid down by the Russians when they were here, is made of corrugated metal … The whole plane vibrates to a stop’, writes Chris Mowles, consultant and researcher, in his weblog about visiting a local NGO in Afghanistan. He and his colleagues at the Complexity and Management Centre (University of Hertfordshire Business School, UK) are critical of today’s management styles in large international NGOs (INGOs).

Among their criticisms of the INGOs’ relationships with local partners, something Mowles also discusses with his bearded host in the remote village of Faizabad, are ‘the ridiculous nature’ of some targets that INGOs set and the time frames for those targets that are clearly designed in an orderly Western office. With their recent article, Mowles, Ralph Stacey and Douglas Griffin have added to a small but growing body of literature critical of INGOs (also see The Broker 7, 9 and 10 for articles on complexity and institutions, and this issue for systems theory).

The authors state that, ‘although … international development has become more highly professionalized and more complex to the extent that the larger INGOs now employ thousands of staff in tens of countries, ways of thinking and acting have not kept pace with this complexification’. Instead, INGO managers have – largely uncritically – adopted management methods from the private sector. Consequently, they understand their role to be: envisioning an idealized and ambitious future (‘an end to hunger’) ? translating this into rational and linear planning techniques ? ensuring staff performs according to targets ? extending this approach to local partner organizations (who in the process ‘are encouraged to become more like the organizations which fund them’). Thus poverty will be made history. It sounds like a caricature, but this, in broad strokes, is the attitude and approach that the authors claim to encounter in their consultancy work.

Mowles, Stacey and Griffin have a different view of effective management. They do not support the notion that societies are bounded systems that can be redesigned if only we perk up our problem-solving and performance-improving capacities. While this belief – or theory – underpins current management styles, the realities that need managing – poverty and conflict – can hardly be more different. Complex webs of interdependency, characterized by unstable relationships of power, bind people together. The Pashtun villager and the financial controller in the Irish ministry; the tanned water engineer and the blue-eyed youth worker. No one is in total control. ‘Our knowledge of the game we are playing is imperfect, and we only realize this as we play the game and reflect on the consequences of having played it’. The authors paraphrase a sobering conclusion of the sociologist Norbert Elias: ‘most significant change is unplanned and unforeseen’.

How can managers, then, benefit from complexity thinking? Most of all, by learning a new way of looking at things, which starts with humility about the actual role of INGOs in development. ‘Instead of predicating our intentions on the idealized transformation of others, we could pay attention to the daily, difficult and messy experience of working with others to achieve things together, and the opportunities for changing ourselves that these present’. Reflection, reflection, reflection should become part of each and every step of the process. That way, INGOs will get a real eye for the turbulent and unpredictable local context in which their partners work. And managers may learn to reward their staff for their ability to improvise rather than for simply meeting pre-set targets.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Mowles, C. Stacey, R. and Griffin, D. (2008) What contribution can insights from the complexity sciences make to the theory and practice of development management? Journal of International Development 20(6): 804-820.