02 – A Principled Approach

The IDEMS Principle
The IDEMS Principle
02 – A Principled Approach


Santiago and David discuss David’s first experience of the principled approach and why he believes it is a useful tool.

[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS. Hi, David.

[00:00:15] David: Hi, Santiago. What are we discussing today?

[00:00:19] Santiago: Today, I would like to rather than discuss, question you, probe you a bit on IDEMS’s principled approach.

[00:00:27] David: Oh, yes. Yeah, this is central. This isn’t just something which is going to be this podcast.

[00:00:32] Santiago: No. Likelihood is we’re gonna have to do a podcast about each one of our principles.

[00:00:37] David: There’s 20 of them.

[00:00:38] Santiago: A whole series of podcasts then.

[00:00:40] David: Yeah

[00:00:40] Santiago: But what is really important to me is understanding why we have a principled approach to our work. What does it mean to have a set of principles that guide us? And really what makes us different to other companies that suggest that they are principled.

[00:01:03] David: I don’t know whether other companies would choose that term and the point is that the principled approach is actually very explicit. It doesn’t really come from us, we need to give credit where it’s due.

I was very fortunate to be with the McKnight Foundation at an event where they had Michael Quinn Patton, who is the person behind a book, Principles-Focused Evaluation, where they went through and they took a programme that they had– it was a Collaborative Crops Research Program — and they decided to go through the principles approach for that programme. This is a foundation and they wanted to be more conscious about what they were doing and being able to explicitly make sure that everyone was aligned.

[00:01:51] Santiago: What they were doing or why were they doing it?

[00:01:55] David: Both. I mean, the whole point was that it’s messy. I love working with this group, but it’s messy because there’s lots of different experts, world experts, with different perspectives, different things. This formed me immensely.

[00:02:09] Santiago: Let’s take a moment to find out a bit more about that specific meeting.

[00:02:14] David: Absolutely.

[00:02:14] Santiago: So, what is McKnight Foundation?

[00:02:17] David: The McKnight Foundation comes from Minnesota and the 3M Corporation. People know it because of Post-Its.

But at the heart of that company is a family, the McKnight family, who have a foundation, and that foundation does a lot of really powerful work. And I was privileged to be part of their international programme, and within their international programme at the time– this is almost 10 years ago now– they had the Collaborative Crops Research Program, which had been running for quite a while. And it had this leadership team. It was one of my very first opportunities to be part of such an interesting team, world experts. And it was messy. Everybody brought in different perspectives…and approaches

[00:02:59] Santiago: World experts on what? Sorry.

[00:03:01] David: All sorts of different things. I mean, we came in, our angle was data. We came in as research methods specialists, helping them to do better research.

But it’s a crops research programme. But it’s collaborative, it’s very farmer focused. They’ve just adopted agroecology, which is also principles. So agroecology has agroecological principles behind it. And so Michael Quinn Patton is the author of this principle- focused evaluation book, and really the person behind this approach.

And actually, I think in the book, this case might actually be there as one of the case studies he takes people through. And what was so powerful to be in the room with him was it was like magic. We had almost a whole week of just discussions where things just went everywhere, and it was exciting to be part of that.

But there was no coherence that I could find in it. And he was part of this, and he was part of the different discussions, but not really that engaged. That wasn’t his role. The experts in their own fields were discussing what was happening on the ground, the international perspective and so on.

And at the end of the week, he’s a great showman, at the end of the week, he unveiled, in an incredible way, it was poetry, it was art, in the way he unveiled it. And he unveiled what, he had observed and how he was proposing this becomes the principles of the Collaborative Crops Research Program.

And it was like magic that we had basically eight principles which grouped into four where the acronym happened to spell out CCRP, you know, in a different way.

[00:04:40] Santiago: CCRP was the name of…

[00:04:42] David: Was the name of the programme. And it just captured everybody’s voice, everybody felt heard. The details, detailed aspects of the composition had been elevated up into the principles and you could see how all the complications that we’d been through, nobody’s voice had been left out.

And yet, actually, When we looked at those principles, we saw how it brought coherence. Coherence was one of the Cs. It brought coherence to what we were saying and how we were saying it. And we then used those principles for years. We still use them, even though the name of the programme’s changed. We haven’t yet changed the principles because they were so powerful, so well done, as a way to capture the essence of that complexity and guidance.

[00:05:25] Santiago: And it’s not the fact that they spell out CCRP.

[00:05:28] David: No.

[00:05:28] Santiago: It’s depth within them.

[00:05:29] David: Absolutely, it’s the depth within them and it’s the way that they resonated with that community and they brought that community together to have coherence in their understanding of what they were doing, to guide decision making, not to enforce it.

And this is what the people talk about, is guiding principles. It can be used for evaluation as well, but it’s really powerful as guidance.

[00:05:53] Santiago: Okay, so McKnight Foundation got together a group of experts in different fields.

[00:05:59] David: Well, no, not quite that group of experts existed. This was their leadership team, so they didn’t bring them together for this. They were ongoing part of the work, and this was just one of the steps in their journey.

[00:06:10] Santiago: But it was purposefully to come up with an… framework.

[00:06:16] David: Well, to be able to communicate to others and to themselves, what is it that we believe? What makes us us? What defines us? And that’s what the guiding principles do.

And so when we set up IDEMS, before we actually existed, myself and my co founder went through– not the same process, but we went through a similar process where we developed our own principles and then at our first full team meeting, just a few years ago now one of the first things we did is we went through our principles and…. I have so much admiration for Chiara, who’s one of our members of staff, who is very softly spoken, but who just said, I like this but, there’s something missing, which I feel is there.

And this is why we now have 20, and before we had 16. They’ve evolved. Principles evolve, they’re a living document. And her insight to be able to push us in that way and recognise that there was a whole big part of what made us us which wasn’t being captured by our principles. And it expanded out into the informed decision making principles where we’re evidence based, there’s another principle and so on.

So we had all our, a new set of principles evolved out of this, and we lost a principle in that meeting and we gained another and so on. So there was sort of a whole process of evolution of those principles but the principles have stood the test of time and they’ve had depth. The people, as they’ve interacted with them, they found there’s more and more depth to them.

This is why, as you say, it could be a whole series. Each one is going to warrant its own podcast to go into the depth for each individual one of our principles.

[00:07:57] Santiago: And just to clarify, you thought of these principles even before registering IDEMS as a company?

[00:08:05] David: A subset of them, yes. And we had 16 principles. And this was before we even decided on the legal structures, we had principles. We wanted principles to be central from day one.

[00:08:16] Santiago: And that was motivated from that McKnight meeting.

[00:08:20] David: And I should be clear that I had another McKnight meeting where we went for a principles approach for something else and it didn’t work.

So that’s a whole another discussion. And we won’t go into that right now. So it’s not that going through this approach definitely works. And in the McKnight case, this was very much a collaborative effort. Whereas the principles that we’ve got as an organization are much more, myself and my co founder are the ones who understand them and thought deeply about them.

And so it’s not as collaborative. They play a different role.

[00:08:48] Santiago: But why did you give such importance to a sort of well defined set of principles or statements or guidance statements.

[00:08:58] David: Well, because a good principle is one which actually says something. It’s one where the opposite of that principle is also sensible. And you’re not saying that this principle that you’ve chosen is better than the other one.

You’re just saying that where there’s a choice between these two, we’re going to be guided to choose the one. And we could go into some of the explicit examples, and my favourite of this is sort of…

[00:09:25] Santiago: So it’s not necessarily distinguishing between ethical and unethical?

[00:09:28] David: No, In my mind, that wouldn’t be a very good principle in general because then people just say okay, yes, I’m good, let me put myself in the back.

No, that’s not a useful principle, it doesn’t guide me, because my experience is, when people are making decisions, they’re not thinking about everything. Guidance helps them to make specific decisions on how to do so.

And so one of our principles is open by default. When most people first see that, they just see open. And they say, okay, so you’re a part of the open movement and whatever. But no, the key part of that is actually the by default. And it’s this fact that actually this is not having a negative judgment on things which are not open. There’s good reason why some things shouldn’t be open, but the default stance, which you don’t need to justify, is open.

Any time when you don’t use something which is open, that’s absolutely fine, as long as you justify why it’s better, why it’s added value.

[00:10:25] Santiago: And that’s also why it’s guiding principle.

[00:10:27] David: Exactly.

[00:10:28] Santiago: It’s not binding principle.

[00:10:30] David: Exactly, this is really important. And so, that’s one which I feel is easy to examine. I look forward to actually digging into that one much more because it’s a really powerful principle, which is very subtle. But the key point is this aspect that the opposite is actually not silly either. Most people would have closed by default. Why? Because you want to protect your intellectual property. So by default, you protect your intellectual property and if there’s a good reason to make it open, then that’s also sensible.

So that’s a sensible business approach. Being closed by default is actually the natural business approach. And so I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying, we are making a conscious choice to try and be open by default.

[00:11:14] Santiago: And if we have good reasons not to, for example, the environment…

[00:11:17] David: Well, no, no, no, be very careful. If we have good reasons not to be open, not open by default.

This is why language is so important on this..

[00:11:25] Santiago: If we have particular reasons for a specific project to be published with closed licenses,

[00:11:31] David: For example, absolutely sensible. As long as the open alternatives have been considered first, and as long as that’s been considered and you’ve got a good reason why you’re choosing not to go that way, that’s absolutely aligned with our principle.

[00:11:46] Santiago: And the principles apply to… we try to apply them to every important decision that is made.

[00:11:55] David: We’ve had very interesting discussions in the past, where there’s been elements of our work or something we’ve discussed we wanted to do, and you’ve said, wait, how does this relate to one of our principles?

And you’ve been able to pick out some principles and say, I don’t see how that aligns. And those have led to useful discussions, which have helped. And on all of the occasions where that’s happened so far, actually, once we’ve talked it through, it’s then been understood why the decision making we were thinking of was aligned with our principles.

But there will be times where our decision making may change.

[00:12:27] Santiago: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say. The approach in which I was going to tackle that specific project changed because of that discussion.

[00:12:36] David: Absolutely.

[00:12:37] Santiago: So it’s not that the project itself changed.

[00:12:40] David: Yes.

[00:12:41] Santiago: But the approach in which I would implement that project.

[00:12:44] David: And your understanding of what I was interested in and why I was interested in that project changed because you were forced to confront the principles and because you confronted me with the principles. And so that led to a better, deeper understanding between us about that project. And that’s where the principles are these amazing tools, which enable others to…

[00:13:07] Santiago: challenge.

[00:13:08] David: Challenge, dig in, engage in the decision making process so that we can make our decision making process more transparent.

[00:13:16] Santiago: You know, we are transparent.

[00:13:18] David: We try to be transparent. It’s one of our staffing model principles, I believe, and this is actually really important.

[00:13:25] Santiago: But… so these principles, in the same way that we engage in discussion about specific principles for a project that I was about to start implementing, you would welcome all your staff to do that, with their day-to-day work.

[00:13:42] David: More than that we want to encourage an approach, and this is our, there’s this discussion around this inverted discipline and this inverted triangle pyramid, the inverted pyramid of how we actually manage, how staff manage themselves.

And the idea is, to enable good decision making to happen at all levels, there needs to be some guidance on how decisions should be made. And that’s what the principles provide. They provide that guidance. But in some sense, I would argue that there’s good evidence in implementations of the inverted pyramid in businesses that it doesn’t work well when you pass responsibility for decision making to people who don’t have the guidance frameworks to make good decisions.

Whereas the principles, hopefully, if people are able to really grasp those, they are intended to enable people to make good decisions, and to be able to then be supported in doing that by having their thinking challenged against the principles, and so on. So it provides a framework to enable those discussions to happen, to enable that thinking to become visible, to be conscious about what we’re doing, rather than just intuitive.

And I’m not saying intuition’s bad. I’m saying intuition is good, but it’s great when it’s backed up with conscious thinking slow, thinking fast. This is sort of good intuition backed up with good conscious understanding of why really adds value.

[00:15:08] Santiago: It’s nice and good to have a set of principles, they’re published on the website. How do you know your staff actually take them into consideration?

[00:15:18] David: Well, we’re just going into our third full team meeting and actually as it’s happened, every single time we’ve met up as a team, central to that meeting have been the principles.

[00:15:30] Santiago: And when you say team meeting, you mean the only time in the year where the team meets?

[00:15:36] David: And it’s face to face.

[00:15:37] Santiago: Face to face [David speaking too: because we’re a remote team] for an entire week.

[00:15:39] David: Yes, we meet once a year at the moment. We’re still a relatively small team. As we grow, I would expect this to be institutionalized much more. This is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to institutionalize these ideas. I think because we’re quite small still, this is possible to try and do.

And we feel this, I feel this in interactions more and more over the years. I feel people coming back like yourself and others coming back and picking me up on the principles and trying to now sort of say, well, you know, I don’t see how this relates to this principle and we discuss it and that’s holding me to account.

So it’s not just about me holding others to account, it’s others holding me to account and that’s really important. It’s enabling us to be more collaborative because we have this common language to use.

[00:16:26] Santiago: It also encourages or facilitates personal responsibility.

[00:16:30] David: Exactly. Yes, it encourages and enables people to understand why it is, you know, nine times out of ten when someone comes to me with an idea which I do not support, I’m able to point it back to say, think about it with respect to this principle, and I’m careful, and it doesn’t happen that often.

But when it does happen, the principles become really useful for me, making my reasoning visible. So that people don’t then feel that, oh, I’m just not being listened to. They actually have something to go away with, and think, OK, I can see. These are the principles, they’re down there. And if there are things which I ever have to do where I feel something’s wrong and it’s not related to a principle, then that probably means we’ve got our principles wrong. And at the moment it hasn’t happened, our principles have been extremely powerful.

[00:17:19] Santiago: You’re open to change them if needed?

[00:17:21] David: We have, they’ve evolved. It’s not just that I’m open, that’s the nature of good principles is that they evolve. Well, we have one principle on that, which is continually evolving. This is part of our principles is that things evolve, that they change over time.

[00:17:35] Santiago: A new context that we start working under might lead to new or modified principles.

[00:17:41] David: But evolution isn’t necessarily a fast process. I wouldn’t expect a, a total revolution of the principles. An evolution of the principles is what I’d expect. And because we’d lose our culture as an organization. And this is what’s critical. Evolution is good. Revolution can be dangerous. You lose what you had.

[00:18:02] Santiago: And I think that one of the more surprising aspects when I started looking at IDEMS’ principles, or when I first heard about the IDEMS principles and it’s perhaps going back to one of the first few things I said, It’s not the same style of principle that others take in terms of trying to say they’re being ethical, the definition of principle that we’re using, or the concept of principle that we’re using.

[00:18:35] David: But I don’t know many other organisations that try and take a principled approach. They use values. There’s other things and there’s a lot of other approaches. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad approach. Values is a different approach and I understand why big organizations need to have company values.

We don’t have company values at this point in time. Maybe in the future we will. But the principles play a different role, and I think it’s really important not to misuse these different terms in different ways. It’s this attention to detail on language is central because,

[00:19:08] Santiago: As always.

[00:19:09] David: As always. Even within the principles, what we found is that the depth behind a principle is much more than the words on the page. In fact, my long term dream is that every one of these principles could be a PhD study in the making, where people actually investigate. You know, these should not be easy decisions. So, we could go through, we will go through each principle individually and investigate it, and always think about what would the sensible alternative be.

[00:19:42] Santiago: And the wording, we’re not just inclusive, we’re inherently inclusive.

[00:19:46] David: Exactly, and what’s the difference between that? Why is that a choice? What does that mean in terms of our own choice? That, there’s always this way of framing it, which we hope is easy to understand, but hard to get to the depth. There is depth to it. And that depth is really important. This comes back to the very first podcast, Thinking Hard. It’s going beyond just a nice catchy phrase. We do want a phrase which is memorable, people can remember, that they can refer to easily. But we want there to be depth. And that depth is important that then over time people associate that phrase with the depth.

And so they’re able to use it for that shared depth and that shared understanding. And this is a very mathematical thing to do, I have to say. Principles for me, they really resonate because maths is all about language. It’s being able to precisely communicate. With good common principles we can precisely communicate what we’re meaning if we have the same understanding of those principles.

It enables us to communicate more effectively.

[00:20:51] Santiago: Again, re-emphasizing the fact that they’re guides, they’re not rules.

[00:20:56] David: Absolutely, that’s central. And maybe just an important part of that is the fact that I don’t think there’s any decision I’ve ever made where I’ve gone through as a checklist and looked at all the principles. But there’s almost no decision where if somebody were to come to that decision and say, how does this relate to this principle?

I’d be able to answer. You know, I don’t think there’s any where that consideration hasn’t entered my mind, but in most cases it’s subconscious, not a conscious effort.

[00:21:27] Santiago: But that’s because you came up with them, it took you a while.

[00:21:33] David: …they’re the product of many years of experience.

And you’re right, for other people, they may need to do this more consciously. But that’s the key, it’s about building those common instincts, those common understandings.

[00:21:45] Santiago: And we will get wrong.

[00:21:47] David: Absolutely.

[00:21:48] Santiago: We will get it wrong.

[00:21:49] David: What do you mean, we’ll get it wrong? I mean, this is really important. We will make decisions which are not aligned with our principles, certainly. We will have principles which over time we’ll decide, actually, this was the wrong choice we made. And actually, this was the wrong principle to have. I believe that would probably be the case as well.

We might find, and this is where having a PhD study looking at these, we might find that actually by taking one approach over another, we’re being less effective than if we’d made a different choice. And so this isn’t about getting it right. So it’s not really about getting it wrong either.

[00:22:25] Santiago: It’s language.

[00:22:26] David: It’s about language, yeah.

[00:22:29] Santiago: So, yeah, getting it wrong is not quite the right phrase.

[00:22:32] David: Life is imperfect, life is complex. What these help is coherence, and communication. Not one of my strong points, I must admit.

[00:22:41] Santiago: There is one third aspect where it helps.

[00:22:44] David: Okay.

[00:22:44] Santiago: And I think that you’ll get into a lot more detail with Lucie one of our other colleagues on this, but it also helps in evaluation.

[00:22:52] David: Absolutely. And this is where, as we want to sort of point out, these have come from evaluation. These have come from the Principle Focused Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton and this is an approach to monitoring and evaluation which has, I think, some very powerful advantages.

This is where, when I discuss there being this opportunity for each of our principles to be the study of a PhD, this is because actually what these give us is, it’s not necessarily short term evaluation, but these are really big decision factors which can be studied in depth and we can try and see what’s the implication of some of these decision points on what we’re doing.

[00:23:37] Santiago: But each one as a PhD, they’re too interconnected for that.

[00:23:42] David: No, I don’t think so. I think they are totally interconnected with one another, but the whole point of a PhD in general, in business science or social impact would be to narrow down and try to isolate something.

And so they’d be ideal for that. They’d be ideal for somebody to try and narrow down their terms of study. And I think what’s important is the fact that they’re interconnected. In isolation, some of them may not be that effective. So you’re right, there may be some further studies that then go beyond looking at them in isolation and start looking at them together.

We’ve grouped them into five sets of four. And actually looking at them in those sets of four is also rather interesting. And I think that’s how we’ll probably present them as well. It’s an easy way to actually understand that interconnectedness.

They’re interconnected beyond and outside those as well. They’re totally interconnected in different ways. That’s the nature of how we work. But they do all have substance individually., Every one can and should stand in its own right. And that’s important. I feel we’re getting to the stage where I wanna dig into one of these. So maybe this is the end of this podcast and we’re gonna follow up with a series of podcasts where we go into each one individually.

[00:24:58] Santiago: Not maybe; certainly.

[00:24:59] David: We will. Yes. Maybe I want to finish by saying that our institutional principles are not the only principles we have. We also have principles in other areas of our work, we have our principles for our staffing model, we have other principles in what we do. So principles as an approach is something which is very powerful in many different contexts, and I hope after we’ve gone through the IDEMS principles as an approach, we may be able to discuss with others about how this approach serves other purposes as well, to build coherence.

[00:25:37] Santiago: Sounds good.

[00:25:38] David: Thank you.