Wikistrat for international development

A beautiful nugget aligned with the “find what works” ethos came across Thomas Barnett’s blog* earlier this week. Read the full post here. He describes a start-up consulting company which is devising a new approach to strategic planning. It’s a collaborative wiki-based approach (hence the name — Wikistrat), with a further twist: a distinction between vertical and horizontal effects to prompt the planners into fully exploring potential scenarios.

The vertical/horizontal distinction deserves further elaboration. Think of vertical effects as happening in very short succession, while horizontal effects ripple out from them over time. Barnett’s classic example, given his focus on security issues, is 9/11. The WTC attack had quick vertical effects on the US economy, security policies, and military activities, and each of those vertical effects had horizontal effects reaching out from them. For example, the US government response to the anthrax scare in a “post-9/11 world” was to threaten to break patent laws unless German drug manufacturer Bayer increased production of Cipro; this shifted the terms of the debate on the production of generic HIV antiretrovirals and other drugs for developing countries. This was a horizontal effect that would have been hard to predict from the original vertical effects. Another example Barnett uses: the US toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime (vertical) resulted in the increasing influence of neighboring Shia Iran (horizontal).

In international development, as in most fields, failure to consider horizontal effects detracts from effective strategy. A good example is a social service program run by an NGO or central government that crowds out local government, lowering its capacity in the long-run. Similarly, health programs that target specific diseases may undermine health systems that could address multiple problems, as Bill Gates has recently figured out. (NB: “Vertical” and “horizontal” have different connotations on health issues.)

This description makes “horizontal effects” sound like “unintended consequences.” They’re similar, but I think there’s a practical difference for strategists. That difference lies in how you go about considering the effects. Vertical effects (or intended consequences) are easy for strategists to consider, as they follow a relatively straightforward causal chain. If we then try to predict the unintended consequences, we must engage in a creative, exploratory process that is susceptible to biases. Re-framing the search in terms of horizontal effects, however, gives strategists an causal framework for rigorously analyzing the effects. Using this distinction encourages strategists to think laterally, moving perpendicular from the expected effects to investigate what they mean in other arenas.

This is important because causality does not move linearly. It spreads out in ripples. Our brains are not well-suited for managing such complexity, and most strategic situations have too much ambiguity for a computer to handle. So the vertical/horizontal distinction gives us a grid for the world: we lay some effects along one axis, and then do separate investigations for the further effects on the other axis.

Wikistrat is attempting to operationalize this analytical framework. The knowledge and skills necessary to explore the effects are spread across disciplines throughout an organization. Attempts to bring interdisciplincary teams together can be effective, but are susceptible to inefficiencies. We also know that contextual knowledge is vitally important in development. A platform like Wikistrat may enable strategic planners to bring all this knowledge together in an effective way. If it does that, we may see much more effective interventions and better strategy coordination in the future.

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* I recently resubscribed to the blog, having unsubscribed a few months back when I couldn’t handle the overwhelming content flow (links to and commentary on 8-10 articles a day). Barnett was the author of The Pentagon’s New Map (2004) and several other books that have been influential in foreign policy and military strategy circles — but oddly seem to get little play in the aid world. He also made a compelling and hilarious TED talk a few years back. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I’m impressed by his ability to move across disciplines (economics, politics, military strategy, diplomacy, technology, etc.) and present a coherent worldview of it all.