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‘Make it Happen’ in Development: Sensemaking and Portfolios of Options in the Governance Space. In conversation with Emilia Lischke


The design and implementation of development initiatives in support of policy and governance reforms often contends with systems of interlinked problems and non-linear and unpredictable change processes (Harry Jones 2011). During the last decade or so, there has been recognition that the development sector needs to move away from linear results-based logic and adopt more politically aware, experimental and adaptive approaches to address complex governance challenges. 

But what does it mean in practice?

Duncan Green has written that most of the contributions around adaptive programming come from ‘academics and think tankers’. They often offer useful principles but do not always suggest concrete steps to the people who design and implement programmes and projects. 

In January 2020, I participated in a portfolio sensemaking workshop organised in Helsinki by the Finnish Innovation Agency (SITRA)Gina Belle from the Chôra Foundation was one of the presenters. She introduced the foundation’s work on designing portfolios of strategic options and portfolio sensemaking

To me, that presentation opened the door to a method and process that, on the one hand spoke the language of systems and complexity of development issues, and on the other provided a concrete method to focus, learn, reflect and inform strategic decisions and adaptation of a programme or project. 

So, I started to read more about it and also got in touch with Chôra to learn more about their work. Today I am speaking with Emilia Lischke who is a director at the Chôra Foundation to hear from her about the origin of the method and also her experiences introducing it to the United Nations Development Programme in Malawi.

Exploring social systems transformation, Emilia Lischke
Exploring social systems transformation, Emilia Lischke

Emilia, when did you come across portfolios and sensemaking and why did you find these concepts and ideas interesting?

I came across Chôra’s Portfolio Approach in 2015 at an Australian bank and insurance company called Suncorp. I was on a year-long Fintech fellowship at that time, exploring how customer-focused disruptions in financial services create new opportunity spaces to rethink the relationship between financial services and corporate responsibility. For three months at Suncorp, I joined the Risk and Innovation Division, led by Kirsten Dunlop. This is when I first met Gina Belle and Luca Gatti and became acquainted with their deep understanding and practice of designing and managing Strategic Portfolios. Since then, we have spread the idea and application of a strategic portfolio approach to the the non-profit & development space co-designing and managing a variety of Portfolios around cities, trust, governance & tourism just to mention a few.  

How do you define a portfolio? What is sensemaking? And what happens when we bring them together?

Portfolios remind us that there is no single magic bullet to solving problems, but that it’s the combination of trying out many things and approaches in a way that enables learning from experience and adapting. No one knows what can and what will ultimately catch a system’s attention or shift people’s thinking and behaviour. Portfolios give us a range of experiences and literally options to choose from when deciding on the next step.  What makes Chôra’s approach to portfolios unique is that we link the value of portfolios to the strategic decision making, adaptation and commitment to action. Here sensemaking plays a key role – that’s the process by which we make sense from the experience of evolving portfolios and build them up as genuine solution discovery systems.

You are testing the method with the UNDP country office in Malawi. Tell me more about this? 

We have been working with the UNDP country office of Malawi since 2019. We have started with Sensemaking to help them strategically reposition their governance portfolio. In the course of that we designed new interventions that are being implemented with the government of the country and we are continuing with Sensemaking as a method to dynamically manage their Portfolio. What we have been observing over time, having just recently completed our third sensemaking experience, is how learning and meaning are huge catalysers in human systems. Sensemaking unsettles some of our most hard-wired limitations on agency, hierarchy, and voice in the corporate and organisational world. It unlocks potential in teams and individuals and creates new impetus for collaboration, change, for bold thoughtfulness, and exploratory endeavours even in the least likely places, and I think it is exactly these least likely places that need it the most. 

A key concept underpinning the Chôra Foundation’s Portfolio Sensemaking method is that when we address complex social and policy challenges, we have to have freedom to experiment, and within it, fail. That seems a difficult thing to do or suggest to development organisations aligned with results-based logic.

Under controlled lab environments I can see how this notion of failure and experimentation can lead to incremental problem solving and eventually great discovery. The scientist designs, then performs an experiment and measures its effects. If unsatisfied, she can always stop, return to the starting point, and start again with the intent to make a deliberate small adjustment in her setup. But the more interesting question is whether that notion of experimentation and failure is useful for those who are doing the hard job of addressing complex & evolving social and policy challenges in the world out there. They cannot go back in time and repeat the same intervention, nor can they control the environment to single out the thing that worked or did not. I think such is the nature of policy and social challenges. They need an operating model that entertains principles of adaptation, dynamic exploration and constant reframing. There is no end point and therefore no failing or winning. Every action will have some sort of effect, positive and negative, intended, and unintended. It is not the effects per se, but how we build on them and what we make of them that will make a difference. This is where experimentation is coming short of the messy and interesting complexity of time and changing of contexts.   

I was recently in a conversation with Nora Bateson. She made a point that made me think quite a bit. Problems do not appear out of thin air. They are the result of the behaviour of a system. Thus, I think that in order to address a problem, one has to find a way to influence and change the way the systems behave. How do you support development initiatives to shift the focus from trying to address problems head-on to influencing how systems behave? 

Imagine a darts game where a problem and the solution are clearly defined. The player has several shots, and the result is objectively observable, measurable, and reliable – here success and failure are clearly defined. If you see the challenges and interventions in the development world in this way, I see how one can entertain the idea of experimentation and failure. However, others would argue that society and life are complex adaptive systems. Constantly changing, they do not follow a predetermined principle of points increasing towards the centre of a board. On the contrary, their centre shifts and jumps and areas and boundaries move, fade and reappear somewhere else. And if you start to look at it this way, then you start to realise that no matter how many arrows you have, that they won’t help you to discover where that fleeting central point went and where it might appear next. You literally need to play the game differently, in a way that you don’t shoot at it but you become part of it, you play and dance with it, you immerse yourself into it and learn to sense your way into its behaviour, its needs and possibilities, and derive from there a deeply informed sense of action and resolution.

Emilia Lischke, thank you very much.

Originally posted on Systems Change Finland blog

Photo credit: Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

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