Accordions of Change and the Paradox of Pragmatism

I love pragmatism. As do I any self-fulfilling prophecy garnished it’s own self-congratulation. I especially like how it is lauded over naive idealism and overly theoretical concepts. Definitely time to get Kantian and mention the classically bastardised (by myself) “practice without theory is blind…theory without practice is impotent”. Perhaps I love pragmatism’s baseness because I am often told I think too much. Which is always an interesting point to make. What do people who make that comment think they are being perceived as? Well, perhaps they don’t. Right, back to it.

Pragmatism is making immediate decisions given short-term, accessible parameters. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value to it. But by nature, it is short-sighted. Purposefully. Which means it often works, in the parameters within which it has been considered. Short-term and known parameters. But a collection of pragmatic decisions does not a summer of strong decisions make, necessarily. I bring this up because a large number of people I know seem to greet this short-termism with glee over the perception of control and efficacy it gives them. Make a quick decision on limited information and judge it by its own self-defined parameters. Move on. Don’t think too much about it. It’s simple. It’s comforting.

So how to make this abstract waffle more concrete? I guess that my belated point is around maintaining a balance. Perhaps more an equilibrium. And that’s hard. But I think if I had any practical advice to give, it’s that broader, theoretical, strategic consideration need not be devoid of attachment to more immediate concerns. As the initial post says, I have told people that my job is to make the complex simple, but that’s trying to do so without removing the complexity. I know, incomprehensible. What I’m trying to say is that the simple is often informed by the complex and designed to, ideally, be flexible within changing contexts – often the level of complexity we’re comfortable to talk about. Holding both at the same time is aspirational.

In the most practical senses, I’ll give you an example. Theories of Change. At their best they are collaboratively considered doses of perspective that dare to dream that our hastily botched or beautifully considered plans may not go as they were…planned. They actively try to figure out why things may not go well as much as why they might. They establish what we don’t know. And that’s powerful. In principle it’s accepting the influence of various factors. In practice, it means we’re less likely to get blindsided by something we could have kept an eye on. Most of all, for me, it encourages us to take a broader perspective. But in their full complexity they struggle with resonance. In their simplicity, they struggle to create value other than making people feel comfortable they understand them. And then don’t value them.

So make multiple versions. Make it an accordion. In certain situations, stretch out the full complexity, in design, with others who will engage with it, or even just to know that you’ve thought it through yourself. But make a really simple, compressed version that is compatible with the former. And make it visibly clear how it connects to each other (in case you ever show the same person both). At their best, theories of change are the opening framework from which various outputs can be plucked. Yes, logframes, yes, learning/research agendas, even communication strategies. 

What are we really about, what are we trying to achieve. How are we trying to do that. Make that complex then clear. Then contextualise. Simple…no? No.

Accordions of Change and the Paradox of Pragmatism

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