Guiding principles and values

At this point it should come as no surprise that this Leadership Manual is strongly founded in theories on participatory development, social innovation, and social/collaborative learning. Over the last decades, a lot of approaches, methods and tools have been developed to support such work. What is in common is some basic principles and values that should guide the leadership approach. In this manual we focus on some which will help leaders make their collaboration more effective. Some principles are more theoretical and perhaps harder to apply. For a deeper understanding, there are many other resources available to draw from.

The guiding principles and values to be discussed here is; a) accepting complexity and multiperspectivity, b) systemic thinking and action, c) supporting learning through participation, d) making progress, and e) the need to facilitate and design open processes.

Accepting complexity and multiperspectivity

Natural resource management is about managing complexity. As a leader this complexity becomes challenging because with it comes diverging interests, lack of clarity, and even conflicts. Although one strive for collaboration, joint decision-making and concerted action, this is easier said than done because you have to simultaneously manage:

Keeping this complex – but probably realistic – view on natural resource management in mind, the question arise: Is there a way to approach such complexity? The answer is yes. One way is actually to turn complexity into something positive, that is, use complexity as a way to motivate communication, joint problem solving and innovation.

Related to complexity is multiperspectivity. This refers to that not only each and every stakeholders have different perspectives, but also that each and every human being hold several perspectives within themselves. This concept is central if we are to understand how participatory planning processes develops and how different identities can lead to different actions in one and the same context. People has an inherent ability to move from one perspective to another, and by that learn something new as well as question one’s own limited vision of what is possible. The trick of the trade is to let the multiperspectivity in a group of stakeholders be the building blocks of the richer pictures developed by participants. This enable participants in a group to see new aspects, identify alternative solutions, or find new collaborations.

If you believe and act as reality is not complex and if you do not accept multiperspectivity you will neither be able to work with collaborative and participatory methods.

Systemic thinking and action

A practical definition of systemic thinking is given by Flood (1999). He states that “systemic thinking in practice is nothing more or less than a directed process of critical reflective inquiry into the nature of a situation and the relevance of possible different ways of handling the situation” (p 73). Systemic thinking is dialectic in its very essence. In that sense systemic thinking and action is praxis, e.g., the simultaneous and complementary phases of reflection and practice. 

Systemic thinking and action refers to an approach where you take the socio-ecological system into account, avoid sectorial thinking, where you have a relational focus on how parts interact and how emergent properties can be used as leverage points. This is different from systematic thinking and action which is when our understanding of complexity emerge from our ability to put different subsystems together, like the pieces of a puzzle. Both systemic and systematic approaches are needed to tackle complex problems, but in water driven rural development we must introduce more of a systemic approach.

The importance of systemic thinking is perhaps most obvious when moving between scales (i.e., systems boundaries). Changing scales can be to move between field, farm, local community and landscape levels. It could also be to change the understanding of which stakeholders are to be involved, which time perspective to use (past, present and future) or which aspects to incorporate in the discussions (ecological, social, economic, etc). Applying systemic thinking in relation to the abovementioned dimensions means focusing on dynamic relationships and new emerging properties, additional stakeholder perspectives, as well as continuously identify new potentials for transformative change. 

Support learning through participation

The most important resource in multi-stakeholder processes are of course the stakeholders themselves. One reason is the knowledge and experiences they bring with them, contributing to innovation and adapted management solutions. Another reason is that they bridge between the stakeholder platform and the wider context, spreading the word, implementing new perspectives in society at large. Finally, stakeholders enable us to identify weaknesses in our shared approaches and suggestions. Knowing what really matters for the individuals they represent, if truly participating, they will be able to improve any output from the multi-stakeholder process. 

Participation support stakeholders’ learning by involvement, engagement, a sense of ownership and by using methods that adapt to existing learning styles and preferences. In addition, by applying more participatory tools, stakeholders learn on four different levels simultaneously. They learn about:

  1. The issues at hand, for instance, new technologies, the ecosystem, legal frameworks, etc.
  2. The methods applied, for instance, the importance of participation for implementation.
  3. Each other’s perspective, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of other way of thinking.
  4. Your own perspective, become aware of the assumptions and/or limitations of your own thinking. 

As a leader you need to enable learning on all levels. This is done by implementing a process design and specific tools that enable and support the participants to reflect on these aspects.  

Making progress

In complex multi-stakeholder processes it is about making progress, more than finding a final solution. The dynamic complexity of socio-ecological systems, such as water driven rural development, implies that you as a leader and together with stakeholders will have hard time to define what will be the solution that makes existing challenges disappear. Rather you identify working approaches that makes it possible for the stakeholders to manage the situation. This is why continuously making progress, and letting people know about that this also happen, is so important. From a pedagogical perspective this also means that you design the process so that you improve the preconditions for final success by each measure taken, such as, building trust or relations, gaining more information, creating richer pictures of the situation, etc.

The traditional focus on finding solutions as quickly as possible have often the negative consequence of resulting in sub-optimal solutions, avoiding conflicts which does not disappear, or ending up in expert-driven development. Approaches that we have learned is not sustainable.  

To facilitate and design open processes

“There is nothing as planned as an open process” is a say among process facilitators. What it means is that for people to be open minded, creative and innovative, one has to create optimal preconditions for communication, learning and collaboration. Trusting people’s ability to contribute is a central guiding principle, as well as understanding that this will not happen without support. It is also important to keep “decision power” and “decision space” apart. Although we know who will have the final say in an issue, and we are transparent about that, we can still create a lot of “space” for participant to have a dialogue and to contribute. The trick is to be able to make participant understand the difference: participating and deciding is not the same.

As a leader you have to make issues like decision power, dialogical space and the role of participation clear from the very beginning. By a clear process design and a trustworthy approach to facilitation, stakeholders will trust the leader’s suggested working approach as well as the person as such (leader and/or facilitator). Who should answer the question “why do we work in the way suggested?” other than the pedagogical leader? It is much easier to answer this question if you have a clear idea about the overall process design and the reasons for choices made.

Making people to participate means fulfilling at least three criteria (Senecah, 200x):

1. Voice – the participants have opportunities to express their views

2. Respect – the participants are respected for what they say

3. Influence – the participants can influence the next steps in the process

If people perceive that these criteria are met, they usually define the process as participatory.

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