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This post is part of a learning series exploring good practice, examples, or new applications of MSD.

Thank you to Julian Hamilton-Peach for this contribution.

Sometimes we fall asleep in our projects and neglect to stay alert. We work out what we will do, plan it and switch off. This blog is about staying connected to the people, forces and interests of a market system and using all of that to achieve an end. Working out ‘the way that you do it’ requires re-creation and change. We will not succeed if we stick loyally to the content of our intervention guides. We will not succeed if we spend our days glued to a computer screen. I have been inspired by British Army doctrine, which I have adapted to apply to our work of getting markets to work for everyone. Programmes succeed when they get to speed quickly and manoeuvre at speed, but always guided by a clear end goal.

Problems lead to solutions (if you want to fix them)

If you are reading this blog, then you are already washed in the deep waters of M4P and the freshly scented vapours of MSD. You most surely have long conversations with colleagues around a whiteboard. You are someone that ‘gets it’ and probably look curiously at those that don’t. But, let’s face it, there are several problems in the way that we do our work. The source of most of these problems is in our minds: we think we understand a root cause and have correctly identified the way to intervene; we even map it all out in an intervention guide. But I have found that our first actions frequently reveal that we are wrong. At this point, we can choose to persevere or to change. I find that too many programmes just persevere. This means extending the period of a pilot, increasing the number of partners in a pilot, subsidising partners more in order to get the change we want and expect, reducing our ambitions for an intervention so that what is achieved is now acceptable (i.e., lowering the bar).

What we should do is be more willing to recognise our mistakes and change how we are intervening; to manoeuvre across the market system in new ways, inspired by what we have discovered while patrolling in that system talking and listening to poor people, businesses, traders, researchers, journalists, civil servants and politicians (which means getting out of your office). The sad reality is that most programmes do not reward an intervention manager for saying ‘our analysis is partly wrong’ or ‘the way we are intervening needs to change’. We arrange ourselves in fixed ways: structures, staffing plans, locations, budgets allocated by output or intervention, annual plans describing what is in our mind and predicting the results of our work. Our partnerships become defined as formal obligations rather than as one of many possible means to an end. Team leaders reward safe, reliable delivery of results. They spend far too much of their week on admin or sucking up to donors and contractors; and far too little time at the front line of influencing systems, with the most important people in the programme – intervention managers.

Cfare te bej? (Albanian for ‘what to do?’ – a frequent exclamation of resignation after discovering one more of life’s intractable problems.)

Change. Do something different. Manoeuvre!

Here is an introduction to the manoeuvrist approach to market systems development, unashamedly adapted from British Army doctrine, from which I borrowed this diagram.

Fundamentals of the manoeuvrist approach

Market systems development is often a direct challenge to those that benefit from the way markets currently work and has a clear intent to disrupt things. The manoeuvrist approach requires a certain attitude of mind, practical knowledge and a philosophy of command that promotes initiative. It continues by seizing the initiative, influencing perceptions of how markets work and can change, and applying strength against weakness and vulnerability, while protecting those that are helping markets to reform.

Do you really think that existing powerful interests in market systems are going to change without some pressure being applied? If they are sticking together to maintain the status quo, then that will need to be broken. If pioneers of change are weak in will or feel vulnerable, then they need protection. The manoeuvrist approach involves applying pressure or protection in different forms: finance and information to influence, innovation to shock or encourage, alliance-building to alter power relations.

Application of the manoeuvrist approach

The application of the manoeuvrist approach requires five skills, supported by a series of enhancements.

  • Understand the situation. The practical application of the manoeuvrist approach first requires an understanding of the market system, which consists of using information, intelligence and intuition; understanding people and culture and understanding effects and outcomes. Understanding is the accurate interpretation of a particular situation, and the likely reaction of individuals or groups to it, which is required to provide the context for effective decision making. Social and cultural perspectives have an impact on understanding, because different societies view the same issues differently. Understanding of the system requires two consistent levels. First, an understanding of the nature of the broad market system dysfunction in general and the character of the specific functional underperformance in particular. Second, it requires an understanding of the current situation, including the people, businesses and government agencies involved in the system, as well as the features of the geographical economy wherein the market is placed. The understanding of individual team members needs to be combined to produce collective understanding, for example in the programme main office or across a dispersed group of intervention managers, or with allies, in order to become operationally meaningful. This requires the ability to communicate understanding in order to reduce its potential subjectivity. So, talk up and clearly; and encourage by listening.
  • Seize the initiative. The initiative is the ability to dictate the course of events; the opportunity or power to think or act before ‘adversaries’ do to gain an advantage. To seize and hold the initiative, a manager needs to be right, first; making assessments, anticipating correctly and then selecting, communicating and acting on the right choices, all more effectively than their adversary. It is the ‘supreme weapon’ of MSD and lies at the heart of the manoeuvrist approach, because without the initiative, operations cannot succeed. It is impossible to win, or even to avoid failure, without the capacity to dictate the course of events, certainly if an adversary holds that power instead. This is why we plan, and think through our future actions, connected to a strategy. This is why energy, movement and momentum are so key. This is why we must not sit back and wait for the results to fall out of the end of the chain. If your hands are tied with bureaucracy and rules, your actions are restricted by a long inception period or you are kept waiting for permissions, you will only seize… disappointment.
  • Influence perceptions. Influence is an outcome – a result of activity – rather than an activity in itself. It is achieved when perceptions and behaviour are changed through the use of power; directly or indirectly. Achieving influence is not just about messaging and media, but about how deeds and words are interpreted and understood by audiences, through varying lenses of culture and history. Securing influence is a sophisticated art. Programme staff should avoid becoming preoccupied only by developmental results – for example, the number of jobs created during a pilot – although these results are often essential conditions for success. Influence is often treated as an enabler: this is a mistake. Influence is a contest, in which narratives compete to be heard and to shape perceptions. The achievement of influence needs to be central to all programme activities and it should be planned and orchestrated as such.
  • Break cohesion and will. Market systems are not naturally beneficial to all. A cartel works very well for some and is not seen as dysfunctional by those who benefit. When we seek to ‘develop’ a market system it means that we intend for it to change, and that we play a role in its changing. There will be pain and resistance in that change. Our aim is to make it easier for poor people to prosper from the market system and that usually means that rich people have to adjust. Not many people like change and rich people have no need to change or accept changes around them. So, our role is not usually passive, peaceful or benign; our role involves force. What? Yes. For example, money in the form of grants or investments is a type of force; so is speaking up and out about the opportunity or need for change; so is convening and persuading policymakers to change policy to make markets fairer and more inclusive; so is getting inside the head of a leading businessperson so that they change their business strategy.
  • Protect cohesion and will. The manoeuvrist approach requires us to protect our own will and cohesion and those that will gain from change. This is best done by ensuring that fighting power is designed to protect as well as to attack. This means to support and nurture the willing partner and help them to succeed and feel good about it; to promote their image with important audiences. We need to ensure that those that are changing – either in the partner organisation or in that part of the poor population they deal with (e.g., buyers or sellers) are calm and committed and remain on course for change, not re-thinking their reasons for changing. Protecting the cohesion and will of those in favour of change uses four functions: shape, secure, hold, and develop.
    • Shape: Imagine the potter’s hands on the lump of clay, be intuitive, quick, leverage the power of those on the side of change, use all your fingers – even your toes, if need be.
    • Secure: Nurture the roots of change to grow in the improving soil; do not sit back and chill; think of R in the AAER matrix; prevent fightback from vested interests.
    • Hold: Help pioneers (change agents) to continue to achieve; have partnership durations that show you are faithful beyond initial success; be there in person for those taking risks.
    • Develop: In intervention areas that are succeeding, mobilise and monitor long-term investment and adaptation (the second A of AAER); you want the change to be owned.

Finally, the manoeuvrist approach is enhanced by simplicity, flexibility, tempo, momentum and simultaneity. But you already know this and do it; don’t you?

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