Rigorous humility: Seeking a healthier relationship with results in 2018

In the social good sector circles I travel in, we are thinkers. We high-mindedly question everything about “what works.” We obsess about gathering data to answer those questions. At what point does this all this thinking insulate us and remove us from the lived realities of people we’re trying to support?

Susan Beresford, former president of the Ford Foundation, once called this “evidence disorder” in philanthropy. And seven years after former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios coined the term “Obsessive Measurement Disorder” in aid, the space for emergent solutions and the need for control or certainty continue to operate in an inverse relationship in our sector.

We have more information at our disposal than at any other time in human history. I’m worried does this mean we have also been decreasing our risk tolerance for “not knowing”?

The trouble with looking at our work in an intervention-based mentality is that the path to a more equitable and just society requires risk – an approach that the aid sector in particular has attempted to ignore through applying technical and managerial approaches. Applying the project tools of our trade to the rarely linear, unpredictable path of social change is often a fool’s errand.

The evidence-push also reinforces a glass ceiling that prevents the participation of those who supposedly matter most in decision-making, exacerbating the inequalities in our partnerships. And at the end of the day, our attempts to strip away emotion don’t actually serve to neutralize our decision-making and make it as objective and reasonable as we believe.

Undoubtedly, soundly-gathered and -interpreted data can provide important new perspectives for us all to consider. So how do we remain unsatisfied with poor results? And still prepare ourselves to embrace the mystery?

An idea I call rigorous humility can help us prevent and mitigate an unhealthy fixation on evidence and measurement. It means being humble about the limitations of what we can and cannot know. It means being rigorous about recognizing and responding to others’ full potential to be capable agents of change, with or without us. It means breaking down the idea of who needs to learn from whom.

Rigorous humility invites us to continually recreate our work as we learn and to expand the notion of accountability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of rigorous humility has its roots in all faith traditions and is also a key part of the scientific process. It is found in the “searching” for answers in which we are continually engaged. In his autobiography, Gandhi explains it this way:

“The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust…Only then, and not until then, will he have a glimpse of the truth.”

The most effective and inspiring community leaders, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, development practitioners, and agents of change I’ve ever worked with embody rigorous humility. They know the limits of their experience and their attitude and actions reflect that they see themselves as only one of many. Rigorous humility involves:

  • Giving up the role of expert;
  • Active engagement in self-reflection; and
  • Taking concrete steps to bring power imbalances into check.
In a “post-colonial” sector, who is actually assuming the most risk? (HINT: Those at the top of the aid food chain avoid risk by transferring it to people closest to the problems.)

You see, there’s often very real fear behind our rational thinking minds – fear of failure, fear of being held accountable, fear of looking stupid. But rigorous humility involves saying “I don’t know” and accepting failure and ambiguity as an expected part of what we do. It means exhibiting a keen awareness of where we are positioned within the information supply chain. It means consciously surrounding ourselves with people who offer differing perspectives.

I’ve worked extensively in building the monitoring and evaluation capacity of grassroots organizations in Africa. What I and many other Smart Risks contributors have found is that abstract metrics or logframes often don’t often help people understand their relationship to improving the well-being of those around them. Rather, local leaders, as members of a community, read real-time trends via observation and even intuition. They seem to know what we have forgotten—that this ephemeral life is governed by a multitude of forces.

Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger in “The Rise of Big Data” in the May/June 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs argue that “There will be a special need to carve out a place for the human: to reserve space for intuition, common sense, and serendipity.”

Embracing uncertainty can allow local solutions to emerge that fall outside strict monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Rigorous humility encourages us to deeply consider what evaluative practices are practical and proportionate given the size and scope of our efforts and resources, as well as building a system for flagging issues early on. Rigorous humility supports grantees to share achievements and challenges in ways that aren’t solely about quantifying success in outsiders’ terms. It means knowing when to stay even though a partner is struggling, and when to leave if the partner is failing.

Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It takes much more skill and courage to identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where change feasibly can occur. Rigorous humility keeps our eyes wide open to uncertainties and perplexities and helps us keep our hearts and minds open to what IS possible.

From where we sit at the end of 2017, there remains quite a lot we cannot know about how social transformation occurs.

A little rigorous humility lets us be okay with that.

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To read more about the qualities of rigorously humble people and organizations, read my chapter, “Rigorous humility: Reconciling the desire for certainty and the space for possibility,” in Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

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