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Are we becoming captives to tools while missing out on the purpose they’re created and used for?
In my experience, tools are useful for project design, implementation and monitoring. For example, using different tools for data collection and analysis increases the richness and reliability of information.
What I learnt through time, however, is that we invest a lot in tools and we expect the tools to solve problems. Before we select and use a tool, we need to understand what we seek to achieve and why. As much as I learnt a lot using different tools, I’ve stopped thinking of tools as a solution to innovation. Some tools can be useless, if not counterproductive.
Colleague A: “So, you apply systemic approach in your project?”
Colleague B: “Yes, we use the doughnut for mapping different systems and identifying actors.”
This conversation between two colleagues was a real one. They were referring to the doughnut, one of the tools widely used in systemic approach. It’s the doughnut, unfortunately and mistakenly, that people remember to describe the approach.
The point isn’t about the strengthens and weaknesses or usefulness of tools, but whether the tools are replacing our creativity and space for critical thinking and hence innovating. You may think that this's a no-brainer. You’ll be surprised to know many cases where development practitioners spend too much time in developing and using tools.
Development initiatives aren’t short of a box of tools. The tools4dev website, for example, provides a list of tools for development practitioners. Easy-to-use, relevant and practical tools are beneficial in “reducing stress, saving time and improving the quality of results”.
Yet, the risk is that tools are increasingly becoming an end in themselves, blocking critical thinking and taking the attention away from our ideas.
Now let’s get more specific by taking few, random examples.
The problem tree analysis tool is useful to understand, in a structured way, the cause and effect around an issue. Its contribution lies in breaking down a problem into manageable and definable chunks, along with its causes and effects. In addition, it contributes to establishing if more information is required.
As the name suggests, it doesn’t offer us solutions to a problem, and rather it can hamper objective and open-minded analysis. It may also be difficult to understand all effects and causes of a problem right from the beginning.
Another widely used tool is value chain analysis. It helps identify relevant and promising sectors for specific target groups. It visually illustrates the interaction among key players in the core market of a sector. Beyond identifying sectors and actors, value chain analysis tool oversimplifies complex systems. It fails to capture what happens around a sector.
Often, the doughnut is used to compensate the weakness of value chain analysis by showing support functions and rules and regulations around a sector. Again, this doesn’t mean anything unless we make sense of a graphic illustration of a market system. In other words, we should ask ourselves “what then?”
Lastly, results chains. They’re visual tools for monitoring and evaluation and showing what a project is doing and why. They’re helpful in guiding projects in steps along a causal chain of changes that projects expect. Meaning, the tool supports project staff to determine if what they’re doing is working and if so why. The tool can also support decisions in either putting on hold, modifying or cancelling an intervention.
Results chains, however, cannot represent reality in a linear way. The effort to depict complexity in box-filling exercises, as I saw in some cases, leads to complicated arrows and boxes that’re time-consuming and most likely not to be used for decision making.
Three years ago, my colleague Matthias Herr and I wrote an article on what systemic approach is and what it isn’t. We argued the approach is more substantial than simple tools and methods. Our focus was on principles and frameworks that guide development projects in their design, implementation and results measurement.
By principles, I’m talking about the following most relevant points. Irrespective of what tools we use, these’re examples of essential principles that we need to have to succeed in our work.
Having better understating of a system such as education, agriculture, tourism, governance, health, etc. For this, conducting proper analysis is critical before moving into actions. Why do we do this? It’s to understand why systems underperform or fail and not about using which tools. In short, it’s to see what’s below the surface. Tools like problem tree analysis, focused interaction with relevant informant and appreciative inquiry analysis play a role in facilitating ideas but they aren’t necessarily at the heart of our inquiry.
Case: In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Information and Technology (IT) sector is one of the most promising sectors to create attractive job opportunities for youth, but the sector isn't performing as well as it should. Before we use any tools to analyze, we should ask “why” this has been the case… We then choose and utilize appropriate tools to the context. Our inquiry and analysis – not the tools – will enable us to understand causes such as companies are unable to access qualified professionals they needed due to outdated, incomplete and too academic formal educational system.
Taking a facilitative role and not doing things by development projects: meaning, avoiding replacing systems actors through directly providing training or financing activities. We ask: what could be done to improve a system’s (e.g. education, health) performance so that it offers better opportunities (income, employment)? We seek to understand – not just use the tools – the incentives and capacities of the main actors’ in a system (e.g. universities, municipalities). Here again comes the role of tools like political economy and power analysis and drivers of change.
Case: Young people in Albania, despite their education and skills, struggle to find jobs. The problem is what they’ve studied – law, economics etc. – which aren’t demanded in the labor market. The role of the media is often ignored or used to deliver predefined information. The RisiAlbania project worked to stimulate the launch and growth of profitable employment-oriented radio and TV programs, print media supplements and online websites. They used different facilitation techniques with the clear objective of not to use mass media as a short-term tool to disseminate information, but rather to change the way that media reports on employment in a sustainable way.
Knowing what works and what doesn’t and why through having a right-sized and functional monitoring system. This helps in facilitating the learning of development projects about the extent to which “how changes/results happen”. This isn’t about reducing our success factors or failures to the measures that we know how to measure. It isn't about results chains and the detailed boxes and arrows; they mean nothing if we don't understand why we're using them and for what purpose. We shouldn’t condense complex reality into boxes. We need to keep an eye on how our role is contributing to broader change for generating evidence and translating it into a coherent story, not on the type of tools we use. Once we’re clear with our objective and ideas, we can, for example, use different tools and techniques like results chains and outcome harvesting.
To conclude, great ideas come to us in all shapes and sizes and complexity. Some ideas take us to different direction, including dead-ends. Sometimes we don’t even need tools; our ears and eyes plus our brains are the best tools.
In all the above examples, it’s possible to say that the power of tools lies in facilitating idea generation and offering guides to translate ideas into actions. They aren’t and cannot be inherent prescriptions to innovative solutions by replacing our critical thinking of a complex reality.
Put differently, there’s no single tool that can replace our curiosity of asking the “what”, the “why” and the “how” questions. Let’s critically think about our work by asking these questions before venturing into any tool development or selection…
Cover picture: @Burst