Embracing Uncertainty: The Potential for 'Mindful' Development
There is a growing awareness that many aspects of economic and social development are complex, unpredictable, and ultimately uncontrollable. Governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies have realized the need for a change in emphasis; a paradigm shift is taking place away from predominantly linear and reductionist models of change to approaches that signal a recognition of the indeterminate, dynamic and interconnected nature of social behavior.
Over the last few years many international NGOs have been adopting a more adaptive approach to project management often with reference to USAID’s ‘Collaborating, Learning and Adapting’ (CLA) framework and model. In the case of Catholic Relief Services this work builds on earlier and not unrelated capacity strengthening interventions – still ongoing – in which projects are encouraged to embed ‘evaluative thinking’ (ET) (Buckley et al., 2015) into their modus operandi.
Ellen Langer, in her excellent book The Power of Mindful Learning (Langer, 1997) introduces the notion of ‘mindfulness’. This concept, underpinned by many years of research, can be understood as being alert to novelty – intentionally “seeking surprise” (Guijt, 2008) – introducing in a helpful manner a sense of uncertainty to our thinking and thereby establishing a space for ‘psychologically safe’ learning (Edmondson, 2008) and an openness to multiple perspectives. This seems to me very applicable to the various strands of CLA and ET work in which I’ve been recently engaged; Langer’s arguments for mindful learning seem as applicable to international development as they are to her own sector of research interest, education. To coin the language of Lederach (2007), Langer seems to “demystify” the notion of mindfulness whilst at the same time offering us the chance to “remystify” the practice of development work that seeks to change behavior and support shifts in social norms. This is both essential and overdue for development interventions occurring in complex settings.
A mindful approach to development would seek to encourage greater awareness in the present of how different people on the receiving end of aid adapt (or not) their behavior in response to project interventions; in short, a willingness to go beyond our initial assumptions through a mindful acceptance that data bring not certainty but ambiguity. According to Langer, “in a mindful state, we implicitly recognize that no one perspective optimally explains a situation…we do not seek to select the one response that corresponds to the situation, but we recognize that there is more than one perspective on the information given and we choose from among these.” (op. cit..: 108). Mindful development encourages a learning climate in which uncertainty is embraced and stakeholders intentionally surface and value novelty, difference, context, and perspective to generate nuanced understandings of the outcome of project interventions. Uncertainty is the starting point for addressing complex challenges and a willingness to “spend more time not knowing” (Margaret Wheatley, quoted in Kania and Kramer, 2013) before deciding on course corrections if needed. As Kania and Kramer (ibid.: 7) remark, “Collective impact success favors those who embrace the uncertainty of the journey, even as they remain clear-eyed about their destination.”
Buckley, J., Archibald, T., Hargraves, M. and W.M. Trochim. (2015). ‘Defining and Teaching Evaluative Thinking: Insights from Research on Critical Thinking’. American Journal of Evaluation, pp. 1-14.
Edmondson, A. (2014). Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8
Guijt, I. (2008). Seeking Surprise: Rethinking Monitoring for Collective Learning in Rural Resource Management. Published PhD thesis, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Kania, J. and M. Kramer. (2013) ‘Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity’. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Stanford University, CA.
Langer, Ellen J. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA.
Lederach, J.P., Neufeldt, R. and H. Culbertson. (2007). Reflective Peacebuilding. A Planning, Monitoring and Learning Toolkit. Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN, and Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, MD.