In today’s complex world strategy needs to be built around questions, not plans. Plans are fine when you already have all the answers and it’s just a matter of organizing resources to execute. But we do not have answers for many of the complex questions we face in aid and philanthropy. Closing feedback loops means accepting we do not have all the answers. And to do that, we need new approaches.
Social Labs emphasize teams over plans, experimentation over predetermination, and transforming systems over addressing symptoms. A Social Lab is not a just a tool, a program, or a model; it’s a strategic philosophy for change. As I explore in other posts on my own website, the approach demands a commitment to three core practices: we must “put our skin in the game,” we must embrace co-creation over consultation, and, most importantly, we must accept that no individual has all the answers. A Social Lab has closed feedback loops baked into its DNA.
However, you don’t have to convene a full fledged Lab to apply its lessons to your work. Working in a “Lab-like” way is, above all, a practice and a commitment to adapting based on feedback from multiple sources in the system you’re trying to change. Below are three lessons from Social Labs practice that you can apply right away that can help you close your loops:
1. Reflect multiple perspectives in key decisions:
We often trick ourselves into thinking we have objective views on the problems we care about and how to solve them. Even hard data can result in alternative interpretations: what might seem obvious to others can sometimes be lost on us. Bringing in voices we are used to excluding – not just diversity of gender, ethnicity, or discipline, but also of dissenting world views – can help us frame the problems we are trying to solve in more relevant and effective ways.
Bringing more diverse voices into your decision-making processes doesn’t have to be hard. You can convene meetings in new and unusual locations. For example, if you’re working on maternal health, consider asking for space in a clinic rather than always staying in the boardroom. You can reflect on and address any “unspoken rules” your organization’s culture might have that prevent people from pursuing tough conversations. Or simply brainstorm people to invite whom you would normally not include, with a particular focus on those who you think might obstruct progress. Ask yourself, “would it really be that bad for them to be included?”
2. Use argument and conflict to harvest wisdom:
We tend to avoid conflict for fear that it will derail progress. But, as early American Civil Rights leader Frederick Douglass put it, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” More often than not, conflict is the product of people being committed to opposing but equally truthful perspectives. Work through the discomfort and make time for deep understanding of those perspectives.
To do that, you can probe for conflict on touchy subjects. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s better than ignoring the argument. You can create safe spaces, possibly separate from the rest of the group, for tough conversations to take place. And most importantly, facilitate, don’t just follow an agenda. Learn how, if you can’t, or hire someone who can. Facilitation is often reduced to session management, but it can be so much more than that. A skilled facilitator is able to sense unspoken tension and create a space to work through it.
3. Avoid “lock in” by building funding around a challenge and a team, not a plan:
The most common reason we fail to close feedback loops is that we set up organizational and funding structures that resist adaptation. Even if we learn that we got it wrong from the start, we can’t act on that learning. This kind of “lock-in” can be avoided by building your funding sources not around a rigid plan, but rather around a team that is committed to tackling a challenge and a process for them to work through it. These days, more funders are willing to invest in people and processes rather than guaranteed outputs, though these remain few and far between in the aid sphere.
Even so, you can, for a start, diversify your funding to avoid being beholden to one donor. Having multiple sources gives you more leverage to negotiate a pivot in strategy. Also, provide funders not with a rigid plan, but rather a process and a set of illustrative scenarios that indicate how your initiative might evolve. Most funders are as frustrated with “business as usual” as anyone else, and seek only to minimize their risk. You can help allay their concerns by providing scenarios about your initiative’s future without committing to a specific course of action. This allows you to hit the “sweet spot” between making your intentions clear and being able to change based on learning. Finally, build trust with your funders by emphasizing the experience, commitment, and creativity of the people involved. Funders are more used to hearing about plans than about teams, but they still base trust on people more than anything. Despite how it might feel at times, they are still human beings!
A real-life example that is putting these suggestions into practice is the Gigatonne Lab, about which you can learn more here.
Michael is a facilitator, strategist, and coach specializing in addressing systemic challenges. He is the Founder of Evolve on Purpose, which helps people and organizations who are committed to tackling tough, complex social problems find the “rungs on the ladder” towards a solution. He has spent the past 10 years experimenting with different strategies for effectively responding to the many “wicked problems” we face today in development, environmental protection, and social change. Michael works closely with Zaid Hassan, a global thought leader on complexity and change and author of The Social Labs Revolution.