The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Being SMART isn’t always clever

SMART objectives came out of the business sector in the early 1980s and soon got taken up by organisations working in the community development and social service sectors.  SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) objectives maybe useful in the business sector, but are not always applicable in community development.

Sometimes they are useful, but lets not pretend that SMART objectives and their close cousin KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are the holy grail of project or programme planning.  Lets not get trapped into thinking that if we determine SMART objectives and then work at implementing them that we are going to succeed.  Why not?  Because sometimes things do not happen in a straight forward logical sequence.  Sometimes development happens haphazardly and in order to succeed we must embrace some failure.

Lets admit, too, that community development and social services are not part of the business sector.  Unfortunately, too often, government departments and agencies make us think that we should be.  Working with people is inherently full of processes and outcomes that challenge business ways of doing things.  People act, individually and collectively, in ways that are not always logical or ordered.

The difficulty is that our classical understanding of the way the world works is based on the Newtonian model.  If we notice an effect then usually we know what caused it.  What’s more, the cause happens before the effect.  It’s easy enough to find simple examples of this in our social world.  I see someone laughing (effect) and know that it is because someone else told them a joke (cause) a minute beforehand.

Increasingly however, we are finding that the Newtonian model of reality is becoming less and less accurate.  This inaccuracy means that we are less able to predict outcomes.  If we can’t predict outcomes then SMART objectives just may not be quite as useful.

What’s going on?  Chaos and Complexity – that’s what.  Chaos Theory (propounded by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, in the 1960s) tells us that a minute change in the initial circumstances of a system could produce a massive difference in the outcome.  It also tells us that predicting that difference will not be possible.  It’s not total disorder though.  It becomes a little like predicting the outcome of the roll of a die.  Although we can’t be certain about which number will come up, we do know that it will fit within the bounds of the numbers 1 to 6.  Chaos Theory calls this a Lorenz Attractor.

Complexity Theory soon followed.  It’s not too far removed from Chaos Theory – perhaps the term “complexity” has more scientific PR going for it than does the term “chaos”.

Most of us will have heard of the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – that’s complexity.  Again, not necessarily predictable.  If all you had was the parts (and no previous knowledge) predicting what the whole looked like would not be very likely.  Complexity calls this emergence.  The phenomenon that something entirely new emerges out of the coming together of the various parts.

Those then are reasons that SMART objectives are not always the clever thing to do.  Societies, communities and neighbourhoods are highly complex today.  Picture a young person growing up a Century ago.  They would have been shaped by their family, a few neighbours, some friends, their religious heritage and their school.  It may have been possible to fairly accurately predict their future.
Today though, add in a plethora of other inputs; Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, mobility, television (free and pay), iPhones, (yes, even Smart phones), laptops, global fashions in clothing, dance, music and attitudes, easy access to liquor and drugs, rapid exchange of information and news and we have a highly complex society.  Even if we could control just one of those inputs we are unlikely to be able to control, or even influence, all of them.

Lets leave SMART objectives to the business sector then.  Community development is not a business, community development is not here to achieve a bottom-line.  Community development is here to solve some very intractable and difficult problems.  Community development seeks social justice and a world without poverty, without violence.  It seeks a world of greater empowerment, greater opportunity. 

To solve these problems requires something more than being SMART.  We need to be more clever than that and that means working collaboratively, with dialogue and in a trusting, caring environment.  More and more it seems that we need to work on our relationships and our collective consciousness.  Community development workers could be the catalysts that the world needs if we are to embrace chaos and thrive in a complex environment.

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