#38: Principles don't travel either

Granularity, abstraction and making change.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Hello, dear reader,

“Principles travel, practices adapt” is one of those fun new tropes that is increasingly being thrown around in the world of systems practice. Here’s how the argument goes: if the world is complex there is no “best practice” response to a given problem. Instead, we should adapt each response to fit the particular context, informed by a set of principles that someone has generated to guide how adaptation should occur. This is the argument that underpins the agile principles and most other principles (incl. frameworks) in design thinking or systems practice.

This week’s hot take: principles don’t travel either. Sure, they might travel further than more clearly defined tools or practices, but my experience is that parroting “principles travel, practices adapt” leads us to consistently overclaim the applicability of principle sets and other sense-making frameworks. It’s unreasonable to assume that principles developed to help us effectively design social services, for example, could also be used to design a regulatory system. Policy design principles likely ought to be different to those used in service delivery. The agile manifesto isn’t always a perfect fit in non-technology environments. The list goes on.

I’ve always seen part of my role as helping those around me push their concepts to the edge of their applicability so that the claims they make about them are both rigorous and respectable. I see this kind of critique as a form of kindness, both to those that have to use a set of principles in the world and those that are on the receiving end of them. We do damage when we rush to abstraction.

My view is that in most cases when developing or sharing a principle set it is better to start with context-specific claims and then attempt to abstract them, rather than to start with sweeping generalisations that then have to be scoped down in practice. I suspect this is something that was beaten into me as an academic: first make context-specific claims that are supported by evidence, then talk about the limits of those claims, then talk about where they might be generalised or have wider applicability (make sure you stack this section with caveats…!) and then talk about where more work is required.

tl;dr: No, you haven’t developed a set of principles that can be applied to everything. There is no single framework to understand all frameworks. Start small. Work provisionally. Be modest about the claims you make. Call out those who rush to overgeneralise. Read more Paul Cillers.

Making a move…!

As some may have already heard, last Friday was my final day with the Australian Taxation Office. Boy, what a journey it has been! As I said at the very outset of this newsletter, taking the role at the ATO was in many ways a big experiment in how far I could push the use of systems approaches in government.

Before joining the ATO I had become increasingly frustrated in the work I was doing as an academic supporting public sector organisations to take systems thinking seriously. I used to say there was a “glass ceiling” in government for systems approaches. You could easily get one leader excited and on board, but it was often difficult for them to convince their boss of the rationale for change. Attempts at change were often driven from the outside by consultants (like me, at the time) and struggled to move beyond shallow or superficial change.

Now, I’m too modest to claim that the ATO has smashed through that glass ceiling, but I think it’s fair to say that we’ve elevated it quite a bit. To push the metaphor to the edge of its applicability, perhaps we’ve had the ceiling reglazed as an Overton window so that one day it will be unthinkable not to use systems approaches in the design and administration of the tax and superannuation system. Either way, I’m super proud of what we have achieved and the small part I’ve had to play in making it possible.

So, what’s next: Next week I join the amazing people at Collaboration for Impact as the Practice Lead for the Stronger Places, Stronger People initiative. I’m very excited to be joining the initiative at a pivotal time in its development and to be able to experiment with what systems change can and should mean in this particular context.

I’m also looking forward to the prospect of a four-day workweek and the other things it will create space for, including:

📚 More writing. In theory, this means I’ll have more time to focus on this newsletter and to think about how, potentially, I turn it into a book!

👨‍💼 Consulting and advisory work. I’m keen to start offering myself up more in consultancy and advisory roles, which has already begun with the awesome folks at the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.

💼 Stretching my governance muscle. A goal for the next year is to build some experience/exposure to non-for-profit governance, as a board member or observer.

🗣️ Teaching and talking. More events! Whether it’s guest lectures, public talks or getting back in the classroom, I love opportunities where I get to share what I’ve learnt and what I’m currently puzzling through.

If any of these pique your interest or might be of interest to people you know, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m always up for a chat.

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.