Of bean counters and loose cannons….

I was reading this morning about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, and especially some of the comments contributed to Nick Kristof’s blog by readers. It was a wide-ranging assortment of views, some critical, some supportive.

It made me think about a question that I suspect we don’t deal with often enough in international development circles – the balance between innovative and adaptive approaches to the work. This distinction comes from the work of Michael Kirton, a British social scientist, who created the KAI Inventory.

The distinction is between those whose normal thinking style is ‘outside the box’ (innovative) or ‘improving the box’ (adaptive). In our world, we need both kinds of thinking. But each style tends to aggravate those who think differently. So adaptive thinkers tend to see innovators as “loose cannons” who are as likely to shoot a cannon through the bottom of the boat as anywhere else, while innovators tend to see adaptive thinkers as ‘bean counters’ with limited vision.

When I first heard about Kirton’s work, at an international conference of facilitators, we were asked to self-select into groups of adaptors and innovators – and we initially found ourselves describing the other style in this kind of negative way, even though we were all facilitators. What we came to realize, of course, is that we need both. Facilitators needed innovative thinking to create exciting workshop content, and adaptive thinking to ensure the room was booked and ready and everyone knew the address and the time of the session.

Both styles needed

It has always puzzled me that these two thinking styles irritate each other so much, as it is crystal clear to me that in international development, we need both.

No adaptive thinker, for example, would have been likely to promise people in a remote village in the mountains of Afghanistan that he would come back and build a school so the children did not have to sit on the ground outdoors to do their studies. Or live in a car so all his salary could go towards achieving that goal. Or buy a truckload of supplies and drive them up a perilous mountain road.  Or encourage school children to see that their pennies could add up to a way to help people somewhere else.

I remember reading that Greg Mortenson’s wife commented that her husband was not good at many aspects of normal life like keeping time.  I think, myself, that it is significant that he chose to work as an emergency medical technician when he wasn’t climbing mountains – EMT’s, by definition, never know what kind of emergency they are going to confront. While I don’t know him personally, it has always seemed to me he is an innovative thinker, well outside the box in which most of us think.

What he needed, it sounds like, is an adaptive thinker who could appreciate his style while exercising the strengths of the adaptive approach. He needed, in other words, a ‘bean counter’ who wasn’t completely irritated by a ‘loose cannon’.

Having worked on an international development project that required us to spend a lot of money, while achieving strong locally-driven results, I fully appreciate the value of a finance officer who can understand what is involved in field work (and a manager who appreciates what is involved in the finance officer’s work).

Appreciating each other’s strengths

It seems to me that we don’t, often enough, think about this cross-strengthening of capacities. We don’t think about taking finance officers to the field so they see what operations people do, and vice versa. Often times, especially under pressure to spend money, capacity building is focused on the field side and not on the finance and administrative side.

I had the great privilege of working with a finance officer who did understand that we were engaged in work that needed both our skills. She was my translator of the organization’s many financial rules and edicts so I could understand how to work with them. I tried to ensure that she knew what we were doing in the field so that she could see how we were spending the money.

We worked closely and well for several years. There was only one time when our communication fell apart. That was when we were getting close to the fiscal year end, awaiting the decision of the head of the project on a variety of community proposals (all piled up in his office, ranged around the walls, waiting for him to decide).

The previous year, I had lost some money from my part of the budget because I hadn’t been able to spend it all before the year end (we started our work 2.5 months into the project, for a variety of reasons that aren’t pertinent here). So I was determined that this was not going to happen again. I also was determined that the spending had to be constructive and aligned with our work.

Our logistics officer had been encouraging me to think about buying computers for the 60 or so community committees created under our project (this was also part of the original project proposal that had been approved). I had been holding off, as we had been focused first on working with the communities to build their skills to manage all the small projects that were being created under this program. But as we got close to the year end, and suspecting that the project head was going to decide to turn down at least one of our projects, mostly to show me who was the boss, I realized that the computers could be the solution to the challenge.

So we arranged with a local computer store to purchase computers for all the community committees, with a special proviso that we would be dividing the order into two – one part to be dated the day before the year end and the other the first day of the new fiscal year. But we wouldn’t know how the order would be divided until we knew whether the project head had approved all those projects lined up around the walls of his office.

Down to the wire

It all came down to decision day – the last day before the fiscal year end. I was in the field, and our logistics officer called me from the project head’s office, throughout the day, as projects were signed off. And as I had suspected, one was turned down, leaving us with money left in the budget that wouldn’t then be spent in that fiscal year.

Back in the office that evening, I called our finance officer (she worked hours that were as crazy as ours). I needed to know the exact figure to specify for the computer company. She couldn’t give me that figure in real time.  I was so stressed, and so frustrated, that I actually hung up the phone rudely (I apologized later, of course). As it turned out, she was as distressed as I was – she knew that if I said I needed this, I did, but she just couldn’t give me that figure that quickly.

The story had a happy ending, of course, in that it turned out the project’s overall financial officer had changed the fiscal year end date, at the donor’s urging. Instead of mid-July, it had been changed to the end of September. (That financial officer, need it be said, did not have the same grasp of field realities as did the finance officer who worked in our organization!) He just hadn’t told us about it. And some months later, after visiting the field and hearing from people directly, the project head grasped the value of the project he had turned down, and subsequently approved it.