Participatory or paternalistic? pt 1

June 29, 2015

Tender Gesture My first full day in New Zealand involved some interesting meetings and a presentation to the Hugo Group in the early evening. These small sessions with senior executives are always enjoyable as you get into strategic dialogue quickly and the need for explanation of context is less that with a broader audience. A few questions got me into some of the issues around what has become known as Nudge theory. For once Wikipedia is good on this so to quote:

Nudge theory is a concept in behavioural science economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.

The idea has also been criticised, for example by Dr Tammy Boyce from The King’s Fund:

“We need to move away from short-term, politically motivated initiatives such as the ‘nudging people’ idea, which are not based on any good evidence and don’t help people make long-term behaviour changes”

Now you can see the attraction of this approach to politicians but I have a few problems with it. For a start I’m not wild about anything which smacks of behaviourism which always seems to lead to the wrong sort of manipulation. A top down, paternalistic determination of what people should do. It also seems to assume that you start with where you want people to come and drag them there, albeit in small stages. The key to my criticism here is the desire to achieve a specific behaviour rather than a general direction. So I am not interested in stopping people smoking per se, but I am interested in shifting things in a healthy direction and if people can take small actions to reduce smoking that will achieve that result. But if in giving up smoking they eat to much, become obese and irritable, get Diabetes etc then, while I may have achieved my immediate nudge objective my overall direction of change may be negative.

Ideally we should move from paternalistic attempts to determine what people should do, to participatory approaches which allow people autonomy over individual actions, but which also allow a co-evolutionary relationship between those individual actions and a general idea of moral purpose for a wider society which is the legitimate concern of government.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 19.22.57.pngSo lets look at this from a complexity perspective. What we are trying to do is to change a fitness landscape, to move from one state to another or at least in a general direction. We want to do that while remaining open to serendipitous discovery that could not have been anticipated up front. We also want to move at a sustainable pace if at all possible.

Now this has been a large part of our work over the years and one of the main focus points for SenseMaker® in the Development sector but organisational change. I’m starting to realise that we are in practice creating a radical new theory of change and I have some work to do (thankfully with help) to define that in the context of other compatible and incompatible theories.

So to start on this (and I will write more tomorrow in an organisational context) lets look at the narrative landscape to the right. The process of its creation is distributed ethnography, people gathering and self-interpreting micro-narratives and observations on a day to day basis in communities. The dimensions are boolean combinations of that self-interpretation (in effect the triad labels which are high abstraction, ideally metaphorical). Our desired state is the top right, the contour maps show the various current states.

So if the bottom left is not desired then the blue arrow represents an urgent shift from one cluster pattern to an adjacent one. A shorter change is less energy that a massive change and in an urgent case its better to do. We now engage the community itself in saying What can you do to create more stories like these, fewer like those. That means the community is working out for itself where to nudge. The red arrow is a bigger shift but less urgent, the green a medium one. The key point here is not one change programme but three programmes each of which has multiple locally determined sub-programmes.

I’ll pick this up again tomorrow in more detail ….

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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Participatory or paternalistic? p2

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