Navigating the paradoxes of continuous improvement

profile edward carroll Edward Carroll, Strategy and Change


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Any donor who has supporting institutional capacity development through continuous improvement has realised just how difficult it is to achieve and sustain.  The problem becomes even more challenging when we are working in fragile and conflict-affected environments.  In the face of such difficulties, and in our drive for creating a successful and sustainable change, our intuitive – or knee-jerk – responses to the situation may actually contribute to the overall problem and failure of the programme.

In his book, Joacim Ahlstrom, identifies 5 paradoxes in continuous improvement that can impact institutional capacity development:

Paradox #1: SIMPLICITY.  In the face of a failed improvement effort, avoid the temptation to opt for a more advanced solution.  Complex solutions in complex operating environments tend towards failure at the outcome / impact level.  Instead, explore ways to simplify the solution.  Simple solutions are easy to communicate, easy to understand and have a greater chance of being implemented, sustained and funded.

Paradox #2: FOCUS.  In the face of recurring organisational problems, avoid the temptation keep throwing different technocratic solutions at the problem in the hope that something will stick.  Donors should focus their time, energy and funding to digging deep to understand the local political economy and determining the root causes of a problem, while at the same time trying to avoid negative unintended consequences.

Paradox #3: VISUALISATION.  In the face of stagnant progress or change fatigue, avoid the temptation to just point out problems that need fixing.  Instead create a vision for change by visualising what good results look like. It may take more time at the beginning, but a common vision of a future state is a powerful rallying point.

Paradox #4: OWNERSHIP.  In the face of an organisational crisis, avoid the adoption of a command-and-control approach.  This takes ownership away from the staff and prevents the organisation from reaching its full potential.

Paradox #5: SYSTEM.  In the face of not knowing where to begin, avoid the temptation to run an idea campaign.  Instead, take a systematic approach to continuous improvement that can deliver immediate benefits but also increase the overall capacity of the organisation to improve itself without the need for external interventions.