Beyond feasibility: the road less travelled / by Nick Ierodiaconou

In a recent article in the Guardian entitled 'Why pretend we know everything? It's time to embrace uncertainty' Suzanne Moore hit the nail on the head with a truth that few of us are willing to publicly acknowledge: that our professional lives are as much concerned with navigating ambiguity as with flexing the muscles of our specialist expertise.

Moore identified an unwavering belief in certainty as a highly valuable attribute, and conversely, uncertainty as the realm of the weak, poor, or faithless. Who really knows, she writes, whether Cameron's refusal to sign the EU treaty is a good thing or not – yet experts are lining up to tell us it's the best or worst thing ever to have happened.

This cultural attitude favouring certainty as an indicator of professional competence and expertise makes itself felt well beyond political and economic spheres. It shapes the tone and context in which professionals operate – in particular, the nature of relationships, including productive dialogue, they are able to engage in with clients.

I recently acted as consultant to a third sector organisation in East London seeking to re-fashion its purpose and identity in line with the changing culture and demographics of the area it has served since the Victorian era. Like most charities, it was operating in an environment of limited financial resources, and faced with impending funding cuts from public sector streams, was experiencing a genuine need to re-examine its offer and operations. They commissioned a team from 00:/ to research and write a feasibility study focusing particularly on ways in which the organisation could become more financially sustainable in the future.

We went about seeking to pair their vision statement with tangible objectives, working with the board of Trustees to map out the priorities and aspirations of the organization. It became clear early on, however, that in their minds, this was a task best left to others. In short, we were being asked to conduct a feasibility study without the organization itself being able to define the ‘what’ of the feasibility in question – the tangible features of its vision, and operation that were to motor this financial recovery and beyond.

This can’t be an isolated case. One year ago, employment within the voluntary sector had fallen 9% from 2011 levels and by one estimate, cuts passed on by councils saw organisations lose up to 43.4% of their income. This year, employment figures are up - albeit on a part-time basis: more people working in temporary or insecure employment. In increasingly lean times – where both finance and time-resource are felt more accutely, the capacity of organisations, particularly those in governing positions, to navigate an emerging field of creative resourcing, procuring, commissioning and collaboration, is being tested. Ironically, it is precisely in such a climate that experimental approaches are needed, yet the same one in which (understandably) self-preservation, and related risk aversion, runs high.

Unfortunately, in some cases (and not necessarily through any fault of their own) the cultures of many organisations have matured within the confines of inherited bureaucratic procedures. Shaped by the demands of statutory funding applications, health and safety, risk, and outcomes assessments, they have developed an over-reliance on tried and trusted formats, and on certainty as a fundamental organising principle. But in times of uncertainty, this has bred a kind of organisational paralysis. In this case, we were grappling with a paradox: an unwillingness – or indeed inability – on the part of our clients to venture beyond the 'feasibility study formula’ – a process emphasising the research, analysis and regurgitation of previously known (and often needs-based) statistics pertaining to demographics, employment and economic exclusion statistics coupled with the expectation of a magical resolution at the end. Framing expectations and outcomes within this format, such ‘evidence’ represents trustworthiness and legitimacy for the client, but lacks the dynamism and courage necessary to implementing step-change.

This is not a blame game: the problem is as much perpetuated by a hesitance on the part of ‘experts’ to step outside what is expected of them, as it is by Trustees who stubbornly adhere to the safe boundaries of what they already know.

We’re faced with the necessity of approaching projects more openly and honestly – by accepting that, de-facto, projects often unfold in a process of open-ended experimentation. Several projects are already illustrating how embracing this open-ended process might be beneficial: Willesden Green’s Library Lab in Brent, London; the Super Hero Supply Store in Brooklyn New York; the open call of officials in Deventer, Netherlands, to local residents for ideas, occupation and alternative uses in an industrial harbour all demonstrate how cross-sectoral working and experimentation is evolving and providing fertile ground for growing new social networks and resources around visionary ideas.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that comfort with uncertainty should be in-built into projects from the outset, even celebrated. Instead of looking to feasibility studies as a tried and tested template for defining future pathways, we need to be open to testing, experimentation and action-led feasibility with local residents as legitimate and effective means of achieving outcomes that better resonate with local contexts.