Complexity & deciding how to decide: how can we better prepare for a world of “one-offs”?

UNDP Strategic Innovation
10 min readJul 5, 2022

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By Millie Begovic, UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit

Credit: Arizona State Synthesis Center’s Sensible Heatscapes simulation

In the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking to people from around the world who, through working with food, tackle the complex social dynamics of day-to-day life (a blog on this coming soon from my colleagues!). What used to be an industry that prioritized reliability & consistency, cuisine turned into a practice where challenging status quo is existential competitive necessity for much of the sector. This gave rise to the new generation of chefs as ‘the avatars of the counterculture’ who expand frontiers of food by discovering new cooking processes & methods and tackle a range of social issues- from building menus to ‘calm tempers’ in communities to tackling trust & spotlighting centuries’ old indigenous knowledge of growing food in lockstep with the nature. They invite & indeed embody the ‘uncertainty mindset’ in a way they choreograph how different menus & combination of ingredients recast the meaning of value & spotlight inequalities, discrimination & power dynamics in societies.

Contrast that to the world of development & policy making (one might say though with much higher stakes) — where the allure of control, short termism & predictability baked in our governance systems often leads us to reduce uncertainty to an excel spreadsheet or a linear logframe. How then do we pivot toward more humble recognition of uncertainty, to navigate & make decisions in the fast-changing development context and the world of one-offs? We’ve been unpacking this question in several ways.

  • Learning on the job: through the Deep Demonstrations we invest in building capabilities to look beyond single point solutions to explore opportunities for transformative change based on the recognition of the complexity of issues such as the future of work or border communities. The DDs are a vehicle where we are testing together with our partners how a dynamic portfolio management and continuous sensemaking can supply a constant pipeline of new possibilities — implicitly building an adaptation muscle. The intention is to test out a different & continuous mechanism that dynamically feeds decision making in lockstep with the changes both inside and outside the organization.
  • Experiential learning through simulations & performance: With the Arizona State University’s Synthesis Center, we designed speculative yet probable worlds as sandboxes for leaders to navigate fast changing situations. Our hunch is that alternate reality simulations provide a safe space for rapidly (de)constructing shared mental models to make sense of fast changing situations and collaboratively navigate one-off events with partners. On the other hand, our collaboration with the Imperial College’s Center for Performance Studies, explored what we can learn from different disciplines about performing at the edge of one’s competence (or when facing the unknown). Are there rules of thumb we can pick up from magicians or surgeons, chefs, or combat pilots on deciding how to decide when facing one off events?

This blog will focus on emerging learnings from the latter, specifically unpacking a few facets of effective performance through multi-disciplinarity and simulation as to practice our muscle in facing one-off events and tackling complex problems.

Here’s 4 things that emerged from our learning journey so far

  1. The behavioral challenge — how do we make it easier to say, “I don’t know”?
  2. How do we build capabilities to improvise?
  3. What is specific about decision making in a world of one-offs?
  4. Can multidisciplinary frames surface the non-obvious?

The behavioral challenge — making it easier to say “I don’t know”

With the Synthesis Center, we’ve tested alternate reality simulations as vehicles for a different type of decision making in high uncertainty environments. In the COVID context, the simulation took shape of an online board game where partners played themselves (eg. deputy head of the emergency management department played herself) and engaged in managing a city facing a series of one-off events.

Credit: UNDP & Synthesis Center’s alternate simulation on urban transformation

The key constituents in the city (media, citizens, private sector, city) navigated a series of ‘what if’ scenarios that were introduced over time, building a shared set of frames about unexpected challenges facing their cities, jointly exploring effective ways to balance long term resilience with short term damage control. What we find is that building spaces under the guise of a simulation, or a game tends to create a safe (or safer) space for managers to say ‘I don’t know what’s going on here.’

Implicitly designing the unexpected and unforeseen into the program seems to have had a liberating effect on colleagues and partners, taking off the shackles of pressure to ‘be right’ all the time and opened the space to explore and consider options that otherwise might have been deemed sensitive, risky, or outright difficult to conjure. It gave them an opportunity to reimagine their role & functions and created the space where alternate perspectives and positions become less something to defend against but more a source of potential alternatives and solutions. This experience left us thinking about how to shift the position on ‘not knowing’ in daily work as something that opens exploration and invites new perspectives while at the same time balancing the public scrutiny and political realities of policy work.

Ability to improvise

Improvisation here doesn’t imply a need to come up with something seemingly out of thin air due to a lack of planning or forethought. As Roger Kneebone explains in his book Expert, improvising in this sense refers to being able to respond to the unexpected, a situation in which one needs to bring together all of the knowledge and experience that one has gained in order to produce a sensible response to an unpredicted situation. What emerges from Dr Kneebone’s analysis is that expertise is less of a singular focus on a technocratic, niche expertise in a vertical area and more of a craft to adapt & renew mental models that drive decisions. While he finds that technical expertise is necessary, it isn’t sufficient in navigating uncertainty & more fundamentally it often imposes blinders that discount less obvious and emergent properties of the issue that don’t fall neatly in a pre-defined taxonomy.

This is especially relevant when facing ‘wicked’ contexts where there are no clear-cut solutions (think food security, international trade, and climate change), where patterns are more difficult to detect (think discrimination and micro aggression impacts on health), feedback is delayed or inaccurate and the intervention often triggers an unforeseen reaction (think covid related shutdowns and violence against women & children). Improvisation in this sense implies avoiding a slippage into cognitive entrenchment, or a belief that what has gotten us here will help us get there especially when it comes to reliance on one’s own domain as a source of solutions to complex and unpredictable challenges. Sascha Haselmayer makes a similar point about public procurement officers who, facing low resources, high pressure & public scrutiny resort to doing things as they’ve always been done (biasing against incumbents & existing solutions), compliance & delivery as opposed to wielding public procurement to crowd in new thinking & approaches and deliver better public value.

As Dr Kneebone points out ‘expertise isn’t just about knowing stuff and being able to do stuff, but about having the judgment to apply that knowledge in the right way: to improvise, to bring accumulated experience to bear on a new situation where there may be no clear answers, but we need to make decisions anyway.’

When comparing notes with practitioners from other fields — like surgeons & magicians- UNDP management quickly picked up several patterns around performance & improvisation. The quality of results is rarely predetermined & hinges on judgment, ability to adapt & continually update one’s mental models about what & how things are changing (combat pilot: when something goes wrong, sit on your hands & count to ten). There is always more that is hidden vs. obvious in ‘reading’ the emerging problem (from the forensic anthropologist: always bring & toggle between multiple frames to the job). There is often a ‘visceral aversion to uncertainty & failure’ that is not just emotionally difficult for the fear of not doing well but also prevents team members from taking on new roles & scoping out new ways of working together (from the culinary practice: build in ‘desperation by design’ by continually engaging in efforts just beyond the team’s current capabilities to intentionally build comfort with uncertainty).

What is specific about decision making in a world of one-offs

The simulation work with the Synthesis Center provided a safe space for our partners to stress test institutional and societal ability to withstand unforeseen events and emergencies in cities. From developing plausible scenarios (it is a year 2022, emergence of new COVID strains outpaces the effectiveness of the vaccines and in city X, with life almost entirely shifting online- and overnight, all communication networks are knocked offline) to responding to wild card events (eg. comms infrastructure going offline, disabling any form of remote work, health or education) and negotiating decisions that deal with & trigger unpredictable reactions — the simulations provided tangible means of collectively living through different futures and navigating implications for society’s wellbeing and resilience of socio- economic systems. Government partners across a few cities noted that having presidential candidates take part in simulations might be a more valuable test of their ability to handle the unknown than the presidential debates do.

Time and again, absent data and previous experience with the events they were dealt with in the simulation, we heard ‘players’ from different cities say ‘Wait, what is going on here?’ As John Kay points out, while it sounds banal, this question indicates the departure from ‘best practices’ and ‘lessons learned’ and creates the space for exploration and learning about what may be the best way forward.

Prof. Kay argues the more we step into the world of radical uncertainty the more important the abductive thinking is (implicit in ‘what’s going on here’ question) as it seeks to provide the best available explanation of a unique event. And as abductive thinking rests on rules of thumb and heuristics, a few are emerging for us that guide decision making in the world of one-offs: from placing a premium on exploring interactions & understanding system dynamics (to ‘see’ the structural elements of the system vs. merely its symptoms) and building superior adaptation capabilities & portfolios (to resist the allure of predictability of outcomes & single point solutions) to recognizing that baking in a long-term horizon in development exposes the limits of structures & conditions (how we fund & manage development work & teams) that have evolved around linear projects as a unit of action.

Can multidisciplinary frames surface the non-obvious?

Our work with the CPS was driven by this question and a hunch that different disciplines might provide the means for our colleagues to explore familiar challenges from unfamiliar perspectives revealing how one’s perception of one’s own field can influence beliefs around the strategies they employ in solving problems. The CPS seeks to understand how skilled performers meet the distinctive challenges of their work, often under intense stress and public scrutiny across a wide range of domains such as the arts, medicine, engineering, natural sciences, and business. This clash of disciplines is meant to reveal new perspectives and opportunities for non-obvious ways of tackling complex issues.

When a magician watches kids do repetitive movements to increase a range of motion in their hands, he doesn’t see physical therapy but an opportunity to leverage magic for a more engaging and sustained way of building capabilities. When a lace-maker observes an operating theater, she doesn’t see veins and muscles, but color and texture handled under pressure and care to produce something durable. So our collaboration with CPS took shape through their ‘Performers-in-Residence’ program where experts from domains including music, medicine, magic, puppetry, combat aviation, lacemaking, chemistry, medical artistry, and high-end culinary work with business and policy leaders, lawyers and doctors to transfer performance craft across disciplines.

The point of connecting UNDP leadership with the Performers-in-Residence is not simply to teach others to perform magic tricks and puppetry, or even to hear about what it’s like to sit in the cockpit of a fighter jet (as interesting as those all may be in and of themselves!). Instead, the program is meant to help colleagues extract patterns and ways of ‘seeing’ old problems through new lenses, opening more possibilities for solving them, and dealing with things at the edge of what they may be familiar with. There are commonalities in dealing with high paced pressure, stakes, and scrutiny when responding to an earthquake or a conflict situation or in carrying out an air-to-air combat mission. Conducting a forensic investigation of a crime scene and understanding how to shift investment flows toward renewable energy sources both require unpacking mysteries of human behavior.

The ‘uncertainty mindset’

Ultimately, our emerging learnings point to a somewhat opaque notion of needing to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. In practice though, we’re baking in some of this learning into collaboration with governments & partners — from cities in Armenia & North Macedonia who are recasting their (often static) development plans as dynamic planning of relationships & resources to Malawi’s planning commission & Botswana’s Ministry of Local Government investing in capabilities not to predict but rather ‘see’ and hold multiple perspectives (even those that institutional biases may prevent them from seeing) to reveal more (rather than less) entry points to tackle complex challenges. We’re on a learning curve and would love to connect if you’re looking at some of the same questions.

Notes of thanks…

To Dr Xin Wei Sha of the Synthesis Center at the Arizona State University and Vangelis Lympouridis of University of South California with teams from 7 UNDP offices and their partners (Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Armenia, Sudan, Lebanon, Mexico & Thailand).

And to Dr Rodger Kneebone and Terry Clark of the Center for Performance Studies. The ‘Navigating Uncertainty’ leadership program with the Center for Performance Studies was a collaboration with the Talent Development Unit within UNDP (Iina Parma & Paul Anderton)

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