Submit To Not Knowing The Right Way All The Time

when the time comes
we will pull off these masks
we will remember it wasn’t meant to be like this
it really wasn’t isn’t and will not be
the money is an idea – we are, this is, the value
so meditate, pray, submit to not knowing
the right way all the time
weep, scream. bury. blame. surrender.
choose a future for all of us
crack your knuckles, prepare for battle
howl at the waning moon until it waxes, and then?
from the depths of our grief
we’ll become green again”

– adrienne maree brown (


Picture by Finan Akbar on Unsplash @finan

We faced a relatively brief period of “Peak Uncertainty” in navigating the first months of COVID-19 but now find ourselves in an extended period of being in the middle of a pandemic. By now, those NGOs that were not immediately affected by a devastating loss of funding, shall have developed an emergency-response based on the assumption that physical distancing (and some variety of lockdown) will continue for at least the next six months.

Based on the belief that we successfully flattened the “curve” (despite information that seems to indicate the opposite), certain restrictions are being lifted in South Africa, probably somewhat prematurely. There is no guarantee that we will progress in a linear fashion from level 5 lockdown restrictions to level 1. Many unknowns remain.

Development problems are by nature complex and COVID-19 is adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty. This is an opportunity for organisations to become more adaptive. Adaptive approaches to development and social change recognize and respond to complexity and to the fact that we don’t know all the answers. It is a more responsive way of working. How we can strategize and plan for the longer haul will be addressed in one of my future blogs. In this blog I will focus on what development and social justice organisations can focus on in this “in between space” that we find ourselves in.

What do we focus on now?

1. Show why your work continues to matter – Many NGOs will have had to cancel, postpone and adapt activities and/or change what kind of activities they ae able to carry out under physical distancing restrictions. Dave Algoso advises organisations to re-articulate their mission for this moment and show stakeholders, donors and partners why and how their work matters now.

2. Plan for flexibility – In conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, when it may be unclear how results will be achieved, it’s best to work with intuitively developed plans with broad outcomes (principles and frameworks) rather than recipe-like approaches, says Doug Reeler. Adaptive programming means that activities and outputs will change over the life of the programme. In times like these, the quality of learning and progress towards high-level results rather than pre-defined implementation plans and milestones become the hallmarks of accountability (together with financial probity). Parallel, safe to fail experiments with small budgets can lay the groundwork for longer term approaches. The Oxfam publication “Managing to Adapt” discusses two case studies of these kinds of evolutionary approaches.

3. Use Evaluative Thinking To Navigate The Crisis With Purpose – When faced with an acute crisis situation, we have to react quickly, there is no time or sufficient information available that allow us to respond. However, as the situation calms down, we need to take a step back to reflect on our decisions and see where they can be refined. To support decision making under pressure, ARTD Consultants developed the 3R Framework (React, Reflect, Refine). The framework can be used at management level but also at programme level, in teams or at the level of an entire organisations. The framework is not linear, but ideally supports those who use it to walk through it in a cyclical pattern between ongoing reflection and refinement. However, at any time, organisations might find themselves back at phase 1, reacting to a relatively chaotic context. The point is to move through the phases as purposely as possible, so that our in-the-moment reactions are evaluated frequently and can be refined into more thoughtful longer-term responses over time. Here is a downloadable graphic of the 3R Framework, including questions for each phase.

4. Speed is important – As Ian David Moss points out: “Just four months ago, no one had heard of COVID-19; in that time, it has killed more than 100,000 people, destroyed trillions of dollars in economic value, and reshaped the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Four months is how long some grant-makers take to get a check out the door”. To respond effectively to COVID-19 and future crises we need new ways of working that eliminate the bottlenecks that slow us down – at donor level, but also within our own organisations and at the level of our interactions with target groups, stakeholders and partners.

5. But slowing down too – Slowing down feels counter-intuitive when the world seems to be imploding. It does not mean inaction, it simply means, as Jennifer Lentfer points out, avoiding operating at a fervour pace, trying desperately to control something that is out of our control. She says: “Slowing down is often a first, necessary step to transformation”. Deepa Iyer, Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project remarks that, in order to survive and thrive, organisations and movements need to incorporate practices and time that enable staff and volunteers to rest, to dream and to envision for the future (more on this here). Jennifer Lentfer, commenting on the first weeks of lockdown in the US: “I saw many organizations rush to keep going with their work, but it’s not going to be possible in the same way anymore. Integrating this understanding into our bodies and minds and souls is now our work.”

6. Decentralize decision-making – Adaptive approaches require empowered teams close to the action (even if this ‘closeness’ is virtual), that can sense what is going on and respond appropriately. Dave Snowden goes as far as saying that “you can’t have hierarchy in a crisis”. Snowden: “in a crisis, the centre coordinates but decision making is distributed. The role of the centre is to observe, coordinate  and prompt, but not to make decisions. Necessary ingredients for team empowerment, as identified by IDEO Creative Difference are: (1) process clarity (Does the organization communicate methodologies, processes, and decision-making frameworks), (2) fairness (Do people understand the factors that influence the way decisions are made and feel there is enough transparency), (3) opposability (Can people in the organization raise difficult questions or challenge the status quo), (4) autonomy (Are teams given meaningful objectives and supported to drive key decisions related to their objectives), and (5) risk tolerance (Do teams or individuals feel like they will be penalized if their projects are not successful).

Working more adaptively (and making decentralized decisions) can be experienced as intimidating by staff members at first. Therefore, OXFAM suggests organisations invest in coaching and mentoring, and encourage learning and reflection at all levels (more on this here). Eventually, decentralised decision making  increases confidence as well and makes organisations a more exciting place to work for.

A Decision Journal is a helpful tool to improve staff’s ability to make decisions. It can help staff collect accurate and honest feedback on what they are thinking at the time they make a consequential decision. The idea is to write down what was decided, why this decision was made, what staff expects to happen, and optionally, how staff felt when they made the decision. Practically, using the journal is straightforward, but implementing and maintaining it as a practice will require some discipline and humility. A Decision Journal template can be found here.

7. Shorten the cycles of planning, monitoring, evaluation & learning – During and after the COVID-19 lockdown, organisations will require shorter cycles of planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning. In conditions of predictability, when there is agreement on what the problem is and a level of certainty as to how it can be addressed, we are used to spending considerable time carefully designing our interventions and planning our strategies and approaches, projects and activities. Under these circumstances, planning, monitoring and evaluation are often considered as distinct functions, separated from each other in time and space. However, under conditions of uncertainty, the time spent on planning is dramatically reduced, and we have to “feel” and “sense” our way forward – based on incomplete data and information. Ongoing and systematic monitoring and evaluative thinking takes place to make sure we are responding to the emerging situation as best as we can. The monitoring and evaluation functions will partially merge, as we will not only be tracking whether we are doing what we said we would do, but also asking evaluative questions and interrogating whether the things we are doing are in fact the things we should be doing.

What’s next?

I hope the suggestions above are helpful to organisations transitioning from a crisis response into a focus on the longer term. In my next blog I will address how organisations can continue to collect data even under lockdown and/or physical distancing restrictions. The blog after that will address how organisations can build sensemaking and reflective practices into their processes in order to better adapt and learn from their crisis response. Finally, the last blog post in this series will focus on how organisations can start planning their longer-term approach for post-COVID times.

1 thought on “Submit To Not Knowing The Right Way All The Time

  1. Pingback: How Do We Learn During COVID-19? | Marianne Brittijn

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