Strategic optimism

Development Policy13 Nov 2009Jim Woodhill

Welcome to the first blog in the lead up to our Innovation Dialogue on ‘Being Strategic in the Face of Complexity’. Much interest has been shown and we have expanded capacity to cope with the high number of registrations – now well over 100.

I recently spent a thought-provoking afternoon at ‘Accelerating Sustainable Trade’, a conference organized by the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative. Some 600 people attended, the majority from the business sector. A good number of the larger Dutch corporations were there, pointing out that sustainability is rapidly becoming a core business strategy. In many of the presentations, the message was blunt. The world is heading at high speed towards a brick wall of overusing resources and our very survival depends on turning things around – and quickly. This is business – not environmental NGOs – talking. Alongside this apparent recognition of the risks for humanity of ‘business as usual’, the mood was optimistic – a confidence that strategically directed entrepreneurial spirit has a good chance of making the necessary change possible. There was also a strong message that such change does require new forms of collaboration between business, government and NGOs.

But let’s not take this too easily at face value!

How will such change really happen over the coming decades? The recent financial crisis well illustrates strategic weaknesses in the capacity of the private (or at least the financial) sector to look out for itself and the ordinary person in a complex global economy. Meanwhile, the world’s governments tackle climate change as if they could be successful in putting out a raging fire with a few thimblefulls of water. Tackling sustainability and equity demands purposeful action with much strategic insight and strategic influence. Yet this needs to happen in a world with a totally unprecedented level of interconnectedness – ecologically, economically, socially and politically. Deeper questions of how to be strategic in complex and high risk situations are clearly unavoidable and perhaps even critical to our very survival.

I find that people either love or hate the notion of complexity. ‘Great, this is just what we need to be talking about to make a difference’ or ‘what a lot of abstract and academic blah blah blah, I don’t see the practical use’. Many of you coming to the Innovation Dialogue may well be of the first camp. Hopefully we will also have interested skeptics to add some spice to the dialogue. The task is to sharpen our own understanding about the practical implications of a complexity perspective and to find better ways of communicating its relevance.

Coming back to the Sustainable Trade meeting, speakers frequently talked explicitly about a new paradigm for sustainable business: eco-efficiency; pre-competitive collusion; total cost of ownership; accountability and transparency; triple P governance and so on. The dominant paradigm of our recent centuries has been one of control. A belief that with enough knowledge we can control our destiny. With that comes very hierarchical ideas about how to organize ourselves. Knowledge, control and hierarchy have been at the heart of what it has meant to be strategic. Are there totally different ways to be strategic? Ways better suited to the realities of the highly interconnected world we have created for ourselves? Any paradigm about sustainable business must, it would seem to me, be part of a wider paradigm about being strategic in complex contexts.

There are no guarantees in a complex system, but as I tuck my two young girls in to bed at night I desperately want to be optimistic about their future. And, if I am going to be true to my optimism, I have to try and act purposefully and strategically. But how? What capacities do I need, what capacities does my organization need, and what capacities do those we work with need if collectively we are going to try and tackle change with insights from complexity thinking?

To help tackle these questions on Nov 30 and Dec 1, a diverse and very interesting group of people have signed up, including a significant number of international participants. I’m very much looking forward to the discussions and hope that blog postings over the coming two weeks, along with your responses, will help to catalyze and frame the dialogue.