More and more leaders understand that the “organizational culture” of their organization can have a major impact on how people work and collaborate, what they aspire to and achieve, whether they stay or leave and finally, on the bottom line (whether you are in the business of saving newborn lives or producing computers).
Researching public health politics in Africa in the daytime and re-reading Tortilla Flats by Steinbeck at night. And both point from different directions toward my most difficult challenge in trying to understand the world: We are all just half-angels. Most of us want to be good people, or to at least think of ourselves as good people. And we have selfish needs and wants and evil impulses as well. The characters in Tortilla Flats are all charming drinkers who come up with the most twisted arguments for making their selfish behavior sound like they are doing the other person a favor: Everybody knows that money doesn’t make you happy and separates you from your poorer friends, so by not paying rent to their friend Danny they actually save him from this sad and lonely fate…
Now what do these guys have in common with health workers and advocates in Africa? Not much from the first look of it, because the outside observer can easily come to the conclusion that Danny’s friends are the bad people while people who dedicate their lives to health care in Africa must be angels. Steinbeck writes most of his novel from the perspective inside different people’s heads, so you can see how they negotiate their different impulses and how much thought they put into getting what they want AND feeling like good people at the same time. Obviously, it is written in a humorous and exaggerated way. But is it so far from what we all do every day?
When I look back at my first hand experience in and research about health systems in different African countries, I realize that people enter the health professions for a broad mix of reasons, ranging from “saving babies’ lives” to “income”, “power” and “status”. And while most professions carry mixed motivations, in a field like health they are especially obvious, because what you can achieve is so large. Imagine, you can save someone’s live! What a large and gloriously good thing to do. But also: How powerful it makes you, when everyone knows you are the one who can save lives – how tempting to use this power for your own benefit (e.g. by demanding excessive charges or favors). And where there are temptations (call them incentives, if you are an economist), people will give in to them. Not all will give in to the same extent, but very few will completely resist, especially if they know that their behavior will not be sanctioned. At the same time, they will try to keep the self-image of being an ultimately good person. And for many, the result will not be too far from what Danny’s friends do…
But why is this my biggest challenge in understanding the world? Because I love a clear and simple story. I want to be able to have clear feelings and unambiguous answers. My clients like them too, by the way. So I want to be able to say: This system or person is corrupt and not working. And this system or person is not corrupt and working very well. These are the good and these are the bad people, the angels and the devils. But if I delay putting things in boxes labeled “good” and “bad” and instead just allow them to tell me their story and observe what they do, I realize that we are all just half-angels. Yes, I have seen some people with a much larger leaning towards selfless or selfish behavior than others. But another typical character I have met a lot in my research is the powerful person who wears both wings and horns in XXL, the very charismatic, well connected guy (or lady) who achieves far more for “his people” than others in his position would, and, at the same time, lines his pockets with more bribes and favors than anyone else could extract from this position. How am I to think and write about him? What do I recommend? Do we want a smaller person in his position, who achieves less for his people and his own pockets? May we find a full angel, or let’s say a three-quarter one to replace this guy and tilt the scale a bit towards public benefit? Can we change the system, it’s incentives and opportunities in a way that reigns in the selfish behavior better? Or do I just decide, depending on whether I am a cynic or romantic, to close one eye and only see either the wings or the horns and praise or condemn wholeheartedly?
It arrived on my desk yesterday and the paper version is heavy enough that you might use it as a weapon: 1.52 kg (or 657 pages) of looking at Agricultural Innovation Systems from all directions: Examples from the field (from Peru to India), methods for supporting, understanding and researching agricultural innovation from practical and academic perspectives. As the introduction states:
“Although the sourcebook discusses why investments in AIS are becoming more important, it gives its most attention to how specific approaches and practices can foster innovation in a range of contexts. Operationalizing an AIS approach requires a significant effort to collect and synthezise the diverse experiences with AISs.”
“For innovation to occur, interactions among these diverse stakeholders need to be open and to draw upon the most appropriate available knowledge. Aside from a strong capacity in R&D, the ability to innovate is often related to collective action, coordination, the exchange of knowledge among diverse actors, the incentives and resources available to form partnerships and develop businesses, and the conditions that make it possible for farmers or entrepreneurs to use the innovations.”
As you can see, a lot of agricultural innovation relies on the structure and content of multiplex, complex networks. This is why Net-Map is a natural fit for people who want to understand, monitor and support the development of viable agricultural innovation systems.
Agricultural Innovation Systems, an Investment Sourcebook, Part 1 and Part 2.
In case you are not intending to read it back to back… The use of Net-Map to understand Agricultural Innovation Systems is described on pages 593-597 in Part 2.
Returning from the funeral of a relative I kept thinking about how we deal with the raw and messy experiences live hands us every day, make sense of them and find meaning. How we turn all these sights, interactions, feelings, observations into one coherent story. The death of a loved one is a perfect example for how we do this: While the experience itself is overwhelmingly direct, in most cases we rather quickly turn it into a meaningful story that can be told in a few sentences – whether it is about the lost son who had to find his way home before his father could go, about the man who lived wild and died wild (“He wouldn’t have spent his last years as an invalid” they say), the widow who died on her husband’s birthday or the mother who died in peace after seeing her last child settled in marriage. I am not saying that the bereaved make these stories up, that they are not true. But how do they turn this messy experience into a meaningful story? I am interested in this because it shows how we take complex reality and find those aspects of it that help us make sense. And I do think that we actually “make” sense, it’s not just out there.
This ability that becomes so central in these extreme situations is something that runs in the background all the time, that we use every day, turning our experience into stories. To understand better how that works, let’s look at why two people can go through the same experience and still it means something very different to them? And why are some people so much more inclined to turn their lives into stories, find meaning and lessons in their experience than others?
I think making sense it something that requires two things: Detecting patterns and applying belief systems.
Most of this happens in our unconscious mind so splitting the process up in two distinct clean steps is somewhat artificial. But you will see that it helps us understand better what happens in this grey area between experience and (personal) history.
To turn the thousands of impressions that bombard you in any situation into something that makes sense, you have to reduce the complexity and you do that by picking just a few impressions that fit into a pattern that makes sense to you. You won’t necessarily remember the smell of grandma’s sofa or what the weather was like, but you remember every nice gesture the grumpy old man showed before dying (if that is what your story is going to be about) or every loved one who visited before the old lady passed away. Detecting patterns means you have to find things that are similar to each other and strip away all the details that are different. Some people seem to be hardwired to do this better than others and this influences whether they will see an experience as a singular, detailed messy experience or whether they will reduce it to a story that makes sense and has a certain meaning.
Now, what kind of pattern you look for and how you interpret the patterns you find has a lot to do with your belief systems. Imagine a child dying in an African village. Depending on your belief system you might be looking for patterns in the way your neighbors looked at her to detect evidence of the evil eye. You might look for patterns of sinful behavior of the parents to detect that this death is punishment for the sins of the fathers. You might look for patterns of waterborne diseases or malnutrition to detect a medical reason for the death. Or maybe looking at a larger picture of mortality along tribal, wealth or religious lines will tell you a story about social injustice as a reason for this death.
We make sense and find meaning in our private lives without even being aware of it. But the reason why I write about this here is because I know we (as researchers, program planners and implementers, evaluators etc.) do the same thing in our professional lives as well. And we do it the same way, we use our ability to reduce complex realities into patterns and we do that colored by our belief systems. This process is so intuitive and automatic that we don’t have to be aware of our belief systems and often would even want to believe that what we talk about is “reality” and not some kind of sense that we have created or meaning that we have found. And if someone else finds a different meaning to the same story, we are quick to belief that they didn’t do their homework, made a mistake in their calculation or are trying to manipulate the facts. I think we often get further in understanding what actually happened and also stay more honest, if we admit that all of us seek and interpret patterns based on our own belief systems. And when we disagree about the sense and meaning, it is much more enlightening to look at the underlying belief systems instead of just the resulting story lines.
I am thrilled to add a Portuguese version of the Net-Map manual to this blog. Please read, share and use it! And tell me about your experience.
Many thanks to
for putting so much work in the translation.