Get the Big Picture – Draw a Rich Picture

April 24, 2010 Leave a comment

We all have our favorite facilitation methods. One of mine is without doubt drawing ‘rich pictures’. This is an idea taken from Peter Checkland’s Soft System Methodology. Quite simply the method is for a group of people to draw a picture of a situation they are trying to understand. As the saying goes a picture tells a thousand words.

The method involves a group of up to about 10 people working together to all add their ideas to the picture. It is a fascinating dynamic to watch. At first people are often a little hesitant and shy about their drawing abilities. With just a little guidance and encouragement groups usually get into it quite quickly. Once they do the picture becomes the focus of their discussion. You see people pointing to what others have added and explaining their ideas in relation to others contributions.  This is powerful. Often in group discussions ideas go off in many different directions and the linkages between different ideas and threads of discussion get lost. The rich picturing process enables a level of synthesis and analysis that is otherwise just not possible. And people mostly end up loving it even if they started off a bit  lukewarm to the idea.

A few tips help the process to unfold:

  • Start with adding simple things and gradually build up the complexity of the situation. Geographic or physical boundaries make a good beginning then they different stakeholders and move onto relationships between the different elements.
  • A set of clear focusing questions of what to add can help a lot.
  • Invite people to use symbols, pictures and icons and much as possible to give meaning.
  • To get the process rolling ask everyone to think of what they would like to add then go around the group with everyone adding their idea.
  • Encourage the group to draw / symbolize everything they are discussing
  • Remember it does not need to be neat.  A good rich picture is very messy.

The purpose of a rich picture is to help the group doing it create a shared understanding of a complex situation. A rich picture is not intended as a communication tool – it will really only be meaningful to the group who has done it.  Consequently it is important to draw out the key ideas from the rich picture.  The process is often used at the beginning of a workshop process and follow up methods draw from the rich picture.  To capture the information in the rich picture you can ask the group to write a story about it.  They can put a number on important ideas / issues in the rich picture and explain these in the story.

The process, because it is so interactive and give everyone a chance to say something is also a very good way of getting people warmed up and engaged with each other at the beginning of a workshop.

To create a rich picture you need a large sheet of paper 150cm by 150cm for example.  A recent innovation I cam across was to use cheap bed sheets.  This give lots of space and the rich pictures are more easily preserved.

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Entitlements and Fair Economic Development In India

April 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve just spent a fascinating three days helping to facilitate a workshop on Entitlements and Fair Economic Development in India.  This was a gathering of ICCO (a Dutch Development NGO) and its partner organisations who are working on these topics.  In all 70 people were present.  The purpose of the meeting was to work with the partners to help design the strategic directions for ICCO’s engagement in the region over the coming years.

Bringing these two topics together led to lively and deep discussions about the fundamentals of development.  The entitlements issue in India is around how the rights of people can be met by having entitlements to, for example, land, education, health, income, equality of treatment and opportunity.  In particular the focus is on marginalized and discriminated groups including women, Dalits and tribal group who bare the brunt of poverty and inequity in India.

Market driven approaches to development have been become very popular. The aim is to link poor small-scale producers into new markets and create more vibrant local economies that can also create employment.  As the workshop discussed it is easy for these efforts to become very operational focusing on setting up producer organisations, improving production, organizing finance, engaging with business, doing the marketing and so on.  In all of this it is easy to loose sight of the bigger questions.  Who is engaged and who is really benefiting? How big are the market benefits at the starting end of the value chain? What scale of impact are such initiatives having relative to the scale of poverty, exclusion and inequality.

I took away a clear message from the workshop. That in all the attention for developing market opportunities it is all too easy to loose sight of the deeper issues of fair and sustainable economic development. That it is all too easy for those who are meant to benefit to yet again be bypassed.

A few thoughts on the process of the workshop.  First to support this and a series of other workshops,  ICCO has established a wicki where the reports of all the session were immediately posted along with lots of photographs of the action, sound recordings and film clips. Participants can then go to the site to comment on the proceedings.

We also tried out a new workshop technique to do a collective mapping of all the work different partners are involved in along the value chain.  The diagram shown was drawn on a large sheet and all organisations were asked create cards illustrating where the different element of their work was focused.

The diagram illustrates the importance of thinking about the relationship between people’s overall livelihood situation and what this means for their capacity to engage with market opportunities.

Participants sharing with each other their work and explaining where they are active in the value chain.

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Theory of Change and Complexity

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Two ideas are getting a lot of attention in the develoment sector at the moment.   Theory of Change and Complexity.  What is the link between the two and what does complexity thinking imply for theory of change?

Lets start with theory of change.  The basic idea here is to be  explicit about what interventions or actions will lead to what changes and ultimate impacts.  It involves being as clear as possible about underlying assumptions about how change happens.  In many situations this pathway of change has not been thought through very well and so  planned activities fail to result in the hoped for changes.

Now there are two reasons why our actions may fail.  The first is simply that we got our understanding about cause and effective relationships wrong.  If we had been more analytical and more careful in our planning and if we had had a better understanding of the situation in which we were intervening then we could have avoided this mistake.

The second reason for failure is that we are intervening in complex situations where cause and effect relations are difficult if not impossible to fully understand in advance.  In other words we are dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability.

In working with the idea of theory of change understanding these two different reasons for failure is essential.  This is the crucial link between theory of change and complexity thinking.  Yet much of the discussion about theory of change does not deal very explicitly with the implications of complexity for developing a ‘theory of change’.

Quite often those advocating a theory of change approach set it up as an alternative to the logical framework approach. Yet, they then proceed to argue for mapping out all the cause effect relations creating a logical model for change.  This is in effect little different from the logical framework approach and misses the point about the uncertainty of complex situations.

If theory of change approaches are really going to make a difference they must look at the deeper implications of complexity thinking for designing interventions in unpredictable contexts.  This leads very quickly into completely different mindsets about planning, strategy, monitoring, learning and accountability.

The key challenge is sort out the difference between failure because of sloppy ‘up-front’ thinking about cause and effect and failure because situations are complex and unpredictable.  To do this in our training and planning work we have found Dave Cynefin framework Framework on complexity very helpful.  Linking this thinking with the methodology in the Aspen Institute guide to Theory of Change makes a powerful combination.

Some useful links:

Links on Theories of Change

Dave Snowden’s Blog and resources on complexity (Cognitive Edge)

An article of mine on complexity and institutional change in the Broker

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