Wednesday 19 August 2009

Milestones - or millstones around your neck?

People in development agencies like milestones - not the real life objects, but those imaginary markers which indicate that a project is progressing as planned - or not. Craftspeople, engineers, cooks and other people who work with tangible objects know what milestones they need to pass on the way to the finished product. Sometimes traditional ceremonies accompany the passing of such milestones - for example, in Germany people have a ceremony when they complete the roof structure of a house.

How do you set milestones for non-tangible processes, as we keep encountering them in social development and campaigning? Think of the example of the We Can End all Violence Against Women Campaign: When you try to prompt hundreds, maybe thousands and ultimately millions of people to reflect on their own attitudes and take action to end violence against women (VAW), you are likely to get thousands, ultimately millions of different reactions and response. Human societies are hypercomplex systems; anything that happens triggers a wave of repercussions, only few of which can be reliably predicted. Where are you going to look for your milestones?

The makers of a campaign design it with an implicit or explicit theory in mind as to what immediate reactions the campaign will trigger among its participants and addressees, and what actions may flow from these first reactions. We can represent the expected or hoped-for chain reaction as a a flow chart, as a causal pathway, as a logical framework connecting inputs + outputs + outcomes + impact... but we must remember that these causal connections are only imaginary products of the theory behind the campaign design. A key part of monitoring innovative work is to test the hypotheses or assumptions that underly the project or campaign design. In innovative work, we need to find out what happens to our theories in real life, whether actions and reactions follow our theoretical causal connections or whether they take different paths.

Hence, milestones based on theoretical knowledge and hopes as to what could happen may turn into millstones around our necks, weighing down our thinking and preventing us from capturing the rich information we need to test our assumptions. No milestones in uncharted territory: you better set the milestones on your return, after you have completed your journey, recalling what happened where. And then travel again, to verify whether the same milestones reappear at each journey...

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