Posts Tagged ‘iteration’

Adaptive Management in Developing Countries

David Week suggested KISI is essentially about Adaptive Management. To which I would agree; Adaptive Management is a rather more grown-up term, and doesn’t necessarily exclude simple solutions, but then again I think neither should KISI, so long as you start with simple ones and evolve from there.

David also wanted to know what I thought about Adaptive Management in the conservation / ecosystem management sphere where it originated. I cannot pretend I have come across any practical examples of it out where I work, but then I’m not much into protected area management, and it may be that it is being used there. One important difference: although the unknowns are comparable – how will the community react v. how will the ecosystem react – Adaptive Management tends to be viewed as a technical, managerial system, whilst anything that impacts people necessarily becomes political. Would-be technocrats may lament such interference, but development inevitably takes place in a more contested space than Adaptive Management theorises.

Adaptive Management clearly requires strong management skills, analytical thinking, a capacity for self-criticism, and the imagination to conceive new solutions. Unfortunately these are some of the skills in which I see the greatest shortages here. People who have them are unlikely to be in mid-level management with a government institution: businesses and NGOs will always attract the best people. This does not bode particularly well for a KISI approach in development, but donors can at least set a good example; adaptive management is about a whole lot more than just tweaking the terms and conditions on your next grant.



KISI is a variation on Keep It Simple, Stupid, but the I doesn’t stand for idiot (or even intelligent people, although we’ll need some of them too). It was coined in a recent chat I had with consultants who wanted my advice / trenchant opinion on the institutional arrangements for a big new carbon-related initiative to be managed by the government here. I think it is also relevant to the cook-stoves problem I discussed in my previous post.

In developing countries major new government agencies are often launched through one or more big development grants. Basically there is a big push at the start, and then things tail off quite rapidly, though the more committed donors will continue to provide some kind of capacity-building support for a while. The trouble is that this sucks as a method of systems development.

My favourite example of this kind of approach failing spectacularly is the disastrous launch of the then new London Ambulance Service Computer Aided Dispatch system in 1992 that keeled over on day one. These days IT developers are much more keen to get their new wares out to be trialled by users as soon as possible – witness all those beta apps in Google Labs. At the far end of the scale Extreme Programmers aim to produce a new version of their software every two weeks!

The key to this approach is to start off with something simple that solves just part of the problem, field test it, and then iterate based upon the test results. As you go along you can add further features based on user feedback. The system evolves as much as it is designed.

The trouble is the development sector hardly ever iterates, or at least not within the same project. So much time, money and effort is invested in the first version (often with a ridiculous number of regional consultative meetings with people who have no real idea what is being talked about) that there is no stomach either in government or donors to review and revise. Dogmatic officials will insist that this is now the policy / procedure, and hell shall freeze over before it changes (or words to that effect).

One of our achievements of which I am proudest is a method for involving fully local communities in a tricky technical assessment. I am less proud to admit that it took us three or four attempts to get it right, but very proud that we were not satisfied until we’d got a method that really worked, and which local communities could understand and participate fully in its implementation. Too many other development or conservation organisations / projects would be happy to tick the box ‘Method Developed’ at the first time of asking; the promised output was delivered, so no-one should have any complaints … except for awkward people who seem more concerned about the flaws in the final product than the effort that went into producing it.

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, KISI stands for Keep It Simple & Iterate. KISI might also help solve the cook-stoves problem; they’ve probably iterated two or three times already, now, perhaps, we just need to iterate over a few more cycles to get something that really works.

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