This week I’ve been in New York visiting the United Nations
Development Programme. I was invited by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge to present on behavioural feedback loops. He’s working with UNDP to look at ways of developing a new
approach to aid projects – not so much on what they should be doing, but on the process of developing and choosing successful proposals. A specific focus was on how small pilots can be scaled up (the holy grail for a UNDP project).
Millie and colleagues from UNDP have been prototyping a variety of projects over the last few years and are interested in biomimicry – learning from biology about how it scales up (species, ecosystems etc). Inspired by Darwin’s many-beaked finches, they are setting up a Finch Fund to kick-start innovative biomimicry projects.
Hence our meeting this week. It was a science meets development interdisciplinary session – we presented our various perspectives and then worked towards a set of criteria that could be used to judge proposals. I am particularly interested in how feedback can support behaviour – specifically the timing and specificity of when a cue is presented. We sometimes consider behaviour to be a set of discretely parsed units, whereas it is more like a stream in which we constantly adapt our behaviour to the many cues were experience. This is important for understanding the way in which development projects ‘play out’ on the ground, and why some are successful and others are not. In Snowden’s Cynefin framework this kind of behaviour is highly complex. To help increase the likelihood of success, we can take a lesson from behavioural theory – in particular the kinds of discussions that are currently focusing on dual-process theories of behaviour. In simple situations, our conscious minds (working memory) can process information and make decisions (right side of Cynefin), But in complex situations, we tend to shift to intuitive heuristic responding (left of Cynefin). This will be successful in so far as the heuristics employed are correct for the current context. But when development projects bring new perspectives and values to a community, these assumptions and heuristics can be mismatched.
Cues and feedback can help by either facilitating correct heuristics (triggering the right habits), or in simplifying choices and reducing distraction so that the slower conscious system can find the correct answer. This is where the meeting of Snowden’s Sensemaker methodology and a focus on behavioural feedback can be innovative. Sensemaker provides the understanding of attitudes and values on the ground, and feedback can help individuals navigate complex situations to indentify the correct behaviour. That’s the hope anyway.
As an aside, my trip to New York had three other highllights. Firstly, excellent food – mainly Japanese fusion – including a vast taster menu of sushi, sashimi and more. secondly, a couple of lovely runs along the Hudson river and around Central Park. I recently ran around London whilst on a trip there and it proved to be an excellent way to get around, site see and enjoy the day. Likewise here. Finally, I stayed at the Yotel New York. Which was a great experience. All the essentials sorted. No fluff. In reality this means small cabins to sleep, but also free coffee, muffins and wifi. What more could a traveller want!
A great trip and I look forward to see what the Finch Fund can do!
JP April 25th 2014