Daily Nudges: Using Community Feedback for Problem Solving

01/2019 | Isabella Jean

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This reflection about daily nudges in adaptive humanitarian programs was first presented at the ALNAP London Workshop “Making humanitarian response more flexible: Exploring new models and approaches” in September 2018. Read background paper for this event here.

A few years ago, I observed a humanitarian program manager using daily nudges with his team.  He gathered his frontline staff at the end of each day for a 10-15 minute huddle. This was a standing meeting with no laptops or phones allowed, and staff standing in a circle.  The manager always started the meeting with the same question: “What did you hear today that concerned you or surprised you?”

As issues were brought up, team members were asked to immediately sort them into categories: a) “we can address this on our team”; b) “we need to communicate this to senior management for a decision”; c) “we need to refer this outside our organization.” The program manager took notes and assigned responsibilities. He asked for status reports on previous issues.  The team also reviewed feedback data related to their program that arrived through a toll-free hotline. The meeting ended with “What are you proud of today?”

I spoke to his staff about this practice. Some of them spent most of their day conducting implementation and monitoring visits to remote flood-affected areas. They enthusiastically described a sense of empowerment and confidence, especially from categorizing issues into “we can resolve this right here” category. The staff saw these meetings as a daily practice of problem-solving which made incoming complaints and issues less daunting.  Staff began to listen for and bring in more examples of how program aspects could be tweaked or changed significantly to resolve recurring issues. They made several modifications to the ongoing shelter program based on community and partner feedback. Specifically, the amount of the first cash payment was increased to allow for construction to proceed faster. Modifications were also made to cash transfer procedures to increase efficiency and avoid bottlenecks at local banks.

The manager had no specific tool for adaptive management. He didn’t require his staff to file long and dense reports. Instead, he put in place a daily expectation of engaging in inquiry-based and collaborative problem-solving, one that celebrated accomplishments and built pride. He didn’t remember being asked about such skills during the job interview. But he felt that his job was to demonstrate how to use the daily stream of information to improve the services his program was providing. He also felt that this responsibility should be shared by others on the team.

Adaptive management hinges on decision-making processes that effectively engage key stakeholders in reviewing relevant data, deliberating on options and practicing joint problem solving.  The table below compares two decision-making styles. In one of them, senior decision-makers play the role of “advocates” who present information selectively, buttressing their arguments while withholding relevant but contradictory or potentially conflicting data.  The goal of this decision-making style is to make a compelling case, not to convey an even handed or balanced view.  Conversely, inquiry-focused decision-makers carefully consider a variety of options and work jointly with others to discover the best solution. Their goal is not to persuade the group to adopt a given point of view, but to come to an agreement on the best course of action (Garvin & Roberto, 2001). The humanitarian team I accompanied during their shelter reconstruction response successfully applied the latter approach without any specific guidance for doing so.

Comparing Two Approaches to Decision Making (Garvin & Roberto, 2001, Harvard Business School)[1]

Advocacy Approach Inquiry Approach
Concept of decision making a contest collaborative problem solving
Purpose of discussion persuasion and lobbying testing and evaluation
Participants’ role spokespeople critical thinkers
Patterns of behaviour strive to persuade others
defend your position
downplay weakness
present balanced arguments
remain open to alternatives
accept constructive criticism
Minority views discouraged or dismissed cultivated and valued
Outcome winners and losers collective ownership

[1] David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto, What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review, 2001.

At CDA, after years of applying the Do No Harm (DNH) framework with staff on the frontlines of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts, we also know that adaptive management requires a certain degree of confidence. We know that taking DNH seriously requires us to re-consider and, possibly, challenge or change the program elements that we or others, including our superiors, do not wish to give up.

Confidence doesn’t simply arise from the latest guidance document or a management tool handed to staff. But it can be encouraged and modelled through a routine process with tangible results. We have seen across many accompaniment visits and case studies that frontline staff rise to the expectations set for them by their managers and peers. This is especially true when these expectations reflect broader organisational values. I don’t mean the values that appear as words on posters or the ones repeated in periodic staff meetings.  I mean the values that are observed daily in interactions between staff, managers, partners, and community members. In this case, the manager set a clear expectation that his team will solicit and use community feedback to the best of their ability. The feeling of confidence that was supported on that team ultimately contributed to increased competence to manage their program adaptively.

CDA’s case studies document modifications made to humanitarian, development and peacebuilding programs in Cox’s Bazar, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Ukraine, South Sudan, among other contexts. Please consult these relevant resources for more examples, lessons and guidance points:

Isabella Jean is Director at CDA with oversight over collaborative learning processes and aid effectiveness practice area. Her learning and advisory work focuses on conflict-sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, design, monitoring and evaluation and accountability to communities and feedback loops. Isabella has led collaborative learning efforts and field research in Africa, Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. In 2012, she co-authored CDA’s book, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of Aid.

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