Putting theories to practice, inspired by the Human Development Report

To learn more about the Field Guide for Human Development mentioned in this blog click here.

By Laurel Patterson and Sophia Robele, SDG Integration

The great thing about a blog series in three parts is that you really need to land the third! As shared in part 1 and part 2, our exploration of awareness-based collective action started during COVID-19. We asked: how can we cultivate the consciousness, shared values and social connections that are the bedrock for systems change.  And more specifically, how might we practically do this in a development institution: focusing on levers for change that lie in the quality of our relationships, attention, and intention?  

Building from our Global Dialogue Series and UN-wide Action Learning Lab, this blog reflects the deeper insights we’ve gained through our first ‘Leaders for 2030’ cohort in transformative leadership held in 2022.  This initiative focused on expanding the cognition, capabilities, and confidence of participants to lead systems transformation.  

Our first cohort included UNDP Resident Representatives from 40 countries around the world.  We curated a learning journey that included practices to hone deep listening, trust-building, and mindfulness – not as mental health exercises, but as capabilities needed for sensing the drivers of systemic issues and fostering the collective will to respond.  

On this journey, and at the mid-point of the 2030 agenda, it is impossible to ignore the disconnect between global aspirations for more just and sustainable societies, and the reality of persistent and worsening development crises.  The 2021/22 Human Development Report (HDR) describes this as a novel uncertainty complex - and while there may be pathways to better navigate these dynamics, there is no policy prescription for uncertainty.   

Connecting the dots between the HDR and systems leadership  

What emerged from the Leaders for 2030 cohort aligned closely with the 2021/22 HDR findings. We decided to join forces to pinpoint where some of the approaches we’d explored in Leaders for 2030 could shed light on the “where do we go from here - and how?" questions of the 2021/22 HDR.  

It was also an opportunity to embrace and advance UNDP’s reimagined approach to knowledge, which recognizes that generating vital evidence for development impact requires attending to the values, culture and shared spaces that enable new coalitions and ideas to flourish. 

We explored challenges and mapped connections back to the themes of the HDR, and considered where generative dialogue methods explored in our leadership curriculum could support the types of interventions needed to be transformative in development policy and programming.  

Themes that surfaced:  

The limitations we faec in our interpersonal relationships and teams are microcosms of society

Several participants reflected on insights and capabilities developed through the leadership certificate, “I didn’t conceive I could listen in so many ways, even with the same people each time.” The process inspired a shift from self-awareness outward, “to test new spaces internally to move the office on purpose, intention and how colleagues interact.” – Sara Ferrer Olivella, Resident Representative, UNDP Colombia 

Another leader spoke to the role of listening as a missing piece in many efforts to address the roots of the seemingly intractable problems playing out before us. “We see increasing polarization, protests, violence and extreme racism in societies, which permeates into social unrest. How do we connect our systems work to the profound listening that is needed in societies?” – Matilde Mordt, Resident Representative, UNDP Ecuador 

Trust and belonging are precursors to lasting systems-level change

Numerous participants spoke to the issue of (re)gaining trust as a pressing issue relevant to all development challenges, and the need to better understand and take seriously the roots of the deep distrust that many citizens feel towards each other and institutions.  

“Because of the complexity and uncertainty, there is a longing for simplicity and belonging, maybe [to give some sense of] order […] to a world that we do not fully grasp. Some aspects around the deeper entry points to belonging would be interesting to pursue, and how trust is built within and across societies – nothing new, but how to put it in today’s prism – and what new leadership actually means.” – Tjark Egenhoff, Resident Representative, UNDP Guinéa-Bissau 

When uncertainty is the prevailing condition, our questions matter as much, if not more, than answers

“In leadership we feel a lot of times that we must have all the answers all the time. The part we can play is to ask the right questions, to explore and analyse. This becomes the baseline for innovation and creativity, to explore alternative pathways for doing things.” – Carol Flore, Resident Representative, UNDP Côte d'Ivoire 

Values and perceptions can’t be an afterthought in development planning

One leader emphasized the usefulness of repeatedly bringing the question of “how to align the brain, heart and hand” into discussions with her team. Eventually, this led to more mindfulness in programming, with colleagues asking themselves more consistently why they were doing what they were doing. In one project supporting victims of mines, it meant pivoting the focus from transfer of material assets and trainings, to more intentionally involving the families to co-create solutions. – Alissar Chaker, Resident Representative, UNDP Cambodia  

The tools of culture and consciousness building: a place to start  

We didn’t arrive at a single answer – and we didn’t expect to. But we saw an important entry point in focusing on the social technology of dialogue, as a critical pathway for effecting change across many of the dimensions raised.  

While there are many important dialogic interventions applied in the context of UNDP-supported governance, transitional justice, peacebuilding, food systems and SDG localization efforts, we recognized a gap in the ways we hold space for dialogue when formulating policy decisions in the face of uncertainty, or when trying to make sense of systems and the solutions that yield deep change.  

This culminated in a co-designed HDR Dialogue Field Guide, intended to bridge some of the most important tools from the Leadership for Systems Transformation certificate, with the discursive spaces and policy processes where new modes of leadership and governance might ensure.  

The Field Guide is intended to enable modes of thinking and action conducive to realizing more transformational outcomes in the face of policy uncertainties - articulated by the HDR 2021/22.  

This was not dialogue for dialogues’ sake, but rather, designing dialogue to helps instill conditions we know are critical for navigating uncertainty – from being responsive to the power dynamics in any room, to embracing many ways of thinking, and rewarding listening and reflection as much as talking.  

While this might not be rocket science, as our failure to do this in many cases attests, we can benefit from having more intentionality and structure in dialogues, with common language to articulate why it’s worth investing the time in the first place.  

Some elements we highlight in the guide include:  

  • Creating the baseline conditions for a group to connect, so that they feel safe to think outside the box, challenge each other in generative ways, or express what needs to be said.   

  • Examining power at all stages of the dialogue: Looking beyond who is included, to what they are being included into – from the rules of engagement, to the ways that different modes of communication and beliefs about the world are invited into a dialogue space.   

  • Expanding our understanding of what constitutes a system and drives risks: Harnessing diverse perspectives is not just about listening to more people or collecting more data, but also expanding the ways we listen, the relationships we establish, and our openness to being changed in the process.  

  • Making space for ideas to settle and transform, such as by bookending cycles of action and discourse with moments of stillness, reflection or art, to ensure that learning has a chance to crystallize into creativity and innovation.  

The HDR Field Guide aims to help leaders navigate each of these design elements within an HDR-inspired dialogue process. It’s only one piece of a puzzle; we hope that more than the tools themselves, the guide serves as inspiration for leaders to (re)orient more of their intention and attention to the tool of generative dialogue as a key building block for navigating uncertainty and transforming systems.   

We plan to build from this initial iteration and treat the guide as an evolving resource that reflects the practice and experience in different contexts. This will be advanced through channels for learning and connection with others working to strengthen the links between the shared values we hold, and the protocols we design to shape collective thinking, culture and innovation for development progress.   

We’re already benefiting from the learning and leadership of the UNDP Colombia team, in their work advancing generative dialogue in La Guajira, one aspect of which is articulated in a recent blog

To start, visit SparkBlue here to share any feedback, experiences or learning that surfaces as you engage with the field guide or related stakeholder engagement approaches. In addition, this becomes a guidebook for UNDP’s knowledge networks and our new cadre of dedicated Community Managers. 

Soon to come – a dedicated space as part of the forthcoming UNDP Human Development Community, managed by the Human Development Report Office, where we’ll host peer-exchange and practice opportunities to further inspire and accompany your efforts.   

Access the full Field Guide for HDR 2021/22 Dialogues here.  

Thank you to Otto Scharmer, Antoinette Klatzky, Kelvy Bird, Pedro Conceição, Heriberto Tapia, Tasneem Mirza, Sara Ferrer Olivella, Matilde Mordt, Tjark Egenhoff, Carol Flore, Alissar Chaker, David Bearfield, Iina Parma, Paul Anderton and all Resident Representatives from the 2022 cohort of UNDP’s Leadership for Systems Transformation Certificate for their collaboration and support.