This post is part of a learning series exploring good practice, examples, or new applications of MSD.
In June’s excellent ‘M’issive in this series (‘M is for… Manoeuvrist Approach’ by Julian Hamilton-Peach), the author notes that “if you are reading this blog, then you are already washed in the deep waters of M4P and the freshly scented vapour of MSD”. He’s right of course, but it got me thinking… have we become too comfortable preaching to the converted? Are we languishing in a developmental echo chamber? Does it matter if we are?
In some circles, systems thinking and language has become increasingly common parlance over the years (which brings with it many of its own challenges, but that’s another blog entirely!). Wherever you turn you see it referenced in blogs, papers, tenders and CVs. And this is the point: it’s become reassuringly familiar in those circles in which ‘we’ tend to operate.
Is it time for a reality check? I’ve recently had the opportunity to work outside my comfort zone, including with a multinational, a well-known INGO, and a couple of European bi-lateral agencies. Each offers their own unique challenges when it comes to adopting and applying a market systems approach to their programming, but all have one thing in common – they don’t know what they don’t know about MSD. Looking back, I probably spent as much time unpacking misconceptions as I did building capacities to operationalise MSD. Twenty-plus years into the MSD ‘journey’, if this doesn’t concern us, then it should, because the onus is as much upon ourselves (the so-called MSD fraternity) to do better at communicating about good development practice as it is incumbent on the serious, albeit uninitiated, development fraternity to listen and respond.
As uncomfortable as it may be, we cannot ignore the reality. MSD remains a fragile innovation, familiar to the few but not the many (I’d argue the majority of development agencies and professionals). Like any other innovation, we should expect MSD to be subject to a lengthy and lumpy process of diffusion across the development sector. Yet, as so often in our day jobs of MSD programmes, we too readily harbour heroic expectations about how quickly innovation spreads and behaviour changes will take hold. In terms of the innovation that is MSD, where do we really think we are on that journey of adoption and application within the sector?
Those familiar with Rogers’ (no relation!) Diffusion of Innovation Theory will recognise the five stages of adoption – Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards – illustrated below:
So what? What, in practice, can a handful of MSD converts do to leverage the approach into the mainstream? Not just in name, mind you, but into rigorous application and operational capacity? Well, at the very least, we need to be true to our own convictions that, as a codification of hard-won experience about what constitutes good development practice (see ‘J is for…Just Good Practice’ by Jim Tomecko), the MSD approach is effective. But conviction alone isn’t enough. We need to stick to our guns, maintain the rigour that is a hallmark of the approach, and advocate continuously. We need to be standard bearers.
Stay rigorous. The popularity of MSD – albeit in niche spaces – remains a double-edged sword. It is easy and compelling language to use (who can be against ‘inclusion’, ‘systems’, ‘sustainability’?), but far from easy to apply in practice – as many of the blogs in this series will attest. Building the appetite and capacity for rigorous application is crucial if we are to expect the approach to last the distance and to have any hope of reaching the Early let alone the Late Majority. There’s a lot of excellent MSD work out there, but there’s equal amounts of ‘smoke ‘n’ mirrors’ BS in the name of MSD. Diluting the rigour of the approach to make it more appealing to the uninitiated, the hesitant and the resistant does nobody any favours. It might encourage more uptake initially, but it will undermine the approach in application. Let’s not propagate poor application in pursuit of popularity, but rather aspire to raise standards, learn lessons, and build the evidence base we all seek.
Advocate smartly. But hard evidence is only part of the equation. What often as not wins the day is the conviction and communication skills of those making the case to colleagues and peers. The rationale behind MSD remains a strong one – and one which I believe warrants putting one’s reputation on the line. We development types are, by nature, a nice bunch and tend to shy away from confrontation but if we really want those die-hard agencies and recalcitrant practitioners to change their ways, then we’ve got to be prepared to take them on whenever the opportunity arises and argue the case for MSD. Which brings me back to Rogers. We’ve learned through application of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory in MSD programmes that you often need to use different messages, techniques and channels to encourage uptake by the Early or Late Majority than the ones that you used to encourage adoption in the Innovators. We don’t just need evidence, we need to get creative. As the late, great Desmond Tutu wisely counselled, “don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.
 E.M. Rogers, 1962