Crickets Going Quiet: Questions of Evolution and Scale

Can new insights from biology help us reimagine what and how organizations scale up?


Doing development differently: an image from the guidelines of UNDP’s new scaling competition.

We recently came across a story that got us thinking about how we at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) do development: Crickets in Hawaii have gone quiet.

It seems that two species of male crickets in Hawaii have evolved an inability to sing so that they can escape killer flies. Chances are these crickets tested out many different ways of escaping the flies (since chirping attracts mates, going silent probably wasn’t their first strategy). Maybe they tried singing during different times of day or from different locations; but in the end, silence (even at the cost of flirting) seems to have worked best. It is now up to the killer flies to figure out a new way of getting their cricket-lunch.

If we took a page out of crickets’ book on, say, tackling corruption in governance, we would assume from the beginning that no matter what initiative idea we start with, the real-world reaction to it would push us to adapt the initiative or come up with something else entirely. So how would we go about designing development projects knowing that our solution is temporary and needs to keep changing over time?

How do we create the space for constant adaptation in bureaucracies that are predicated upon predictability, risk aversion, and stability?

This was one of the major questions that arose during a recent discussion in New York, where we brought together development professionals with ecologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists to try something new (with special thanks to Dave Snowden).

What if we applied natural and biological processes to scaling up (or evolving) development initiatives? Could it help us avoid the trap of equating scaling with bigger, faster, and cheaper projects?

In the spirit of learning by doing, we followed the conversation in New York with a new kind of scaling-up competition for our 25 offices in Europe and Central Asia.

With this challenge, we approached at least two questions in a fundamentally new way:

What do we scale up?

Instead of picking “winning” initiatives from within the organization or focusing on a search for new ideas, we urged teams to look out for cases of positive deviance in their communities—outliers who could make things move in seemingly dead-end places and with existing solutions.

This changes the question, “What do you think a potential solution should be?” becomes “What are you already doing to solve it?”

The idea is to bring in new voices and different ideas from citizens living on the edge of society and to source existing innovative approaches to longstanding social problems. The scientists with whom we worked indicated that marrying local initiatives and know-how with international technical expertise may produce “more evolvable” ideas.

In other words, if we’re properly clued in on starting conditions and local context, we may be in a better position to invest in initiatives that are more likely to grow. As Center for Global Development Director Owen Barder points out, our challenge in development is knowing not only which simple inputs are the most cost-effective, but also how to reach people with those inputs.

How do we scale up?

A start-up is not a smaller version of a bigger company in the same way that a company isn’t a larger version of a start-up. Similarly, assuming that we can standardize a social service developed in one place and apply it somewhere else (which pretty much sums up a prevailing approach to scaling in development) overlooks a series of things, such as adaptation and reinvention, that may make that social service more relevant and fit for a given setting.

So, as Jesper Christiansen from MindLab writes, success for us isn’t just one scaled solution, but multiple prototypes that local teams take forward. By identifying those local teams and empowering them to refine and move forward with their ideas, we’re hoping to create a school of fish not a whale—quick to move, and adaptable to rapidly changing and sometime volatile socio-political circumstances.

Barder remarks that, unlike venture capitalists, scaling up in development is more like building a series of separate businesses from scratch, each in a different market. Much like those crickets in Hawaii, we’re simultaneously testing a number of different ways to solve a problem, continually scanning the horizon to see which aspects of which strategies may work and evolve, or which ones people will take up and which ones they won’t. We are excited to see where it goes.

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  • BY Murat Gürsoy

    ON August 30, 2014 07:14 AM

    As a development practitioner, I fully subscribe to Giulio and Millie who not only challenge the prevailing thinking on scalability of development interventions, but also hint the way out. The fact that an intervention works in a certain setting is an indication, but in no way an assurance that it would work in some other setting or place as well. More than a century ago, A. Marshall asked why firms in the same industry were often geographically near each other (or why they cluster?); and concluded that proximity created something “in the air”: “…if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas.” Marshall was thinking about Victorian manufacturing, but same applies for many development issues and, if I may add, there is always something different in the air. This is, I believe, why the luster of so-called best practices and their humbler sisters (i.e. good practices) has started to fade quickly, with the unsatisfactory outcomes of the efforts towards mimicking them. I think we won’t be surprised (may be a few us would) if the things that look good on Brad and Angelina would not look as good on us! So why should we even assume that a social service developed in one place can be applied in somewhere else without any consideration for the contextual differences and still would look good. I believe that this understanding is becoming more common sense now, later and slower than it should but it is happening. I think our next challenge will be to communicate the differences between “piloting” and “prototyping”, and between “solving” and “addressing” development challenges. Development challenges, like many viruses, mutate and we usually deliver nice presentations on best practices with the un-derserved satisfaction of “solving” a problem and not understanding the nature of the next one or the one in next door.

  • Andrew Frishman's avatar

    BY Andrew Frishman, Big Picture Learning

    ON September 6, 2014 09:38 PM

    I was glad to read this post, and also appreciative of Matt Gürsoy’s comment above. I feel that we need to extend the evolutionary biological metaphors to include the idea of phenotypic plasticity - specifically the ability of an organization [sic] to change its phenotype in response to changes in the environment. This form of bio-mimicry is what we seek to embody at Big Picture Learning ( where rather than having a prescriptive model, we have identified a set of design parameters and then seek to collaborate closely with local communities to co-create novel innovations that are context-specific.

    Carlos Moreno, Charlie Mojkowski, and Dana Luria wrote about this unique approach last year in the Phi Delta Kappan -

  • BY Marlene Greenhalgh

    ON September 19, 2014 06:45 AM

    An arresting analogy, which begs the questions: “Why stop?” and “What happened next as a consequence of the male crickets’ selection of silence over serenading?”

    If the survival of the crickets was predicated on the males’ vocal dexterity and audacity in their search for females, what became of the risk-averse and chirp-free crickets as a species?


    A strategy to avoid detection may result in getting no satisfaction
    For the crickets who abandon their practice in mating attraction
    Sex seeking serenading may entail risks and fears and doubts
    Alerting predators to the crickets’ ways and whereabouts
    But if crickets cease their chirping how can they mount the incline?
    As a species and as a collective their plan can only lead to their decline
    All out – maiden over – stumped – game over and the end of the line

    From: “The Peasant Tree” © 2014 Marlene Claire Greenhalgh

    Leg over cricket not leg before wicket
    That’s the ticket
    Off to picket

  • Marlene, thanks for your response!  You nail the point- what is next!  We dont know and that’s OK but what we do know that there this evolution of a generation of silent crickets is going to have an impact on both the cricket population (whose ultimate goal is survive and procreate) and flies (ditto on the goals)- and the dance between the two continues.  The corollary to development is that:
    - there are existing dynamics in communities/environments where we work at
    - by identifying, understanding and working with them (as opposed to creating something new) we have a chance of getting to more evolvable solutions
    - fully well knowing that a ‘solution’ today may be out of date tomorrow, thus when we design projects, we ought to be mindful of creating a space where this iteration and adaptation can happen

    this is our hunch in any case!
    thanks again

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