By Susanne Salz
In a world that can be characterised as brittle, anxious, nonlinear and incomprehensible (BANI for short), it is becoming increasingly more important to cooperate effectively with diverse stakeholders to reach shared goals and create the future we want.
You may have heard of the concept VUCA, stating that the world we live in is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Recently, I read an article which states that the “concept of VUCA is clear, evocative, and increasingly obsolete.” The author, Jamais Cascio, puts forward a new framework with an intentional parallel to VUCA: BANI. He convincingly argues that the system and situations we are now facing can be characterised as brittle, anxious (or anxiety-creating), nonlinear, and incomprehensible.
I won’t repeat what he wrote and would rather recommend you read his article. Yet for those impatient to read on, here is a quick summary. Brittle systems seem stable right up until the point where they completely fracture. One obvious example is global supply chains, which were hit by the covid pandemic, leading to sudden delays and shortages hardly anyone expected. The quick pace of change and threats humanity is facing are anxiety-creating for many of us. Successive events unfolding these days often do so in a way that is difficult to predict or even fully understand, because the link from cause to effect is hard to discern clearly, quickly and in detail. This is evident for example in international financial systems, pandemic infection rates or with regards to the global climate crises. If we were to map many modern processes on a graph, they would be non-linear. These facts combined with the complexity of modern systems render large parts of our reality incomprehensible to us.
Why am I writing about this? Partly because I believe we may continue to talk about BANI for years to come. Maybe I can help spread the word about an idea well worth considering. Mostly, I am writing this text because I see links to the work I’ve been doing on partnerships and more specifically on multi-stakeholder-partnerships (MSPs). The project I lead, which supports and advises partnerships, defines MSPs as a type of cooperation with stakeholders from at least three different sectors (such as state, business and civil society), working together on equal footing through an organised and long-term engagement in order to contribute to the common good. MSPs are a form of structured cooperation, yet other forms of cooperation such as networks, public-private partnerships and consultations all share some fundamental characteristics including a need for good communication, trust and common goals.
Another commonality is that such different types of partnerships are increasingly relevant and needed in a BANI framework. Systems that are brittle, anxious (or anxiety-creating), nonlinear, and incomprehensible require cooperation to cope better. That is why the BANI framework underlines the increasing need for MSPs and other types of partnerships.
In his article Jamais Cascio suggests possible reactions to each of the four elements: “brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.” I would add that these reactions are also guiding stars for partnerships. Let’s take it in turn to take a closer look at the four elements and reactions.
In facing a brittle system resilience and slack can be helpful in order to better resist or absorb unexpected shocks. When cooperating, different partners take on different roles, which inherently creates some resilience and slack, since if one partner drops out for any reason or is unable to fulfill their role at any given moment, then it is more likely that another party from the partnership can step in to fill the void with less disruption than would occur without a partnership in place. We have recently seen severe disruptions to value chains. If they were value networks there would be less reliance on a single point in the system and thus more slack and resilience. Value networks with multiple stakeholders require strong cooperation or even a formalised partnership. Lastly, having worked with many partnerships each containing diverse stakeholders, I would argue that this diversity enables creativity, which in turn helps to build resilience by enabling the creation of innovative solutions to arising challenges. These solutions may not have been found without previous cooperation mechanisms in place and again they serve to increase resilience.
When we’re anxious it can help to act with empathy and mindfulness. In MSPs, individuals get to know other individuals and thereby other organisations and their logic. Usually, such interactions lead to significantly higher understanding of each other. Years ago in Kenya I learned the term Ubuntu, which can be translated as “I am because you are”. Ubuntu increases by working in partnership with different individuals and organisations, and cooperating with diverse stakeholders also tends to increase our empathy and ideally our mindfulness. In partnership, good communication skills are essential for the partnership to succeed, both in expressing oneself well as well as in listening well to others. Listening is clearly related to empathy and mindfulness, so building and using these skills in MSPs will be an important way for us to deal with the anxiety-creating world we live in.
To deal with non-linearity considering the context and allowing for flexibility can be helpful. Context and flexibility are built into the DNA of MSPs due to the very nature of such partnerships. Because the issues MSPs work on are complex and partners are diverse, the context always matters a great deal. Over the past years, I have seen that partnerships can succeed if the partners manage to react flexibly to changing circumstances, even if that is no small feat when many large organisations are involved in formal governance processes to take joint decisions. Such partnerships settings help organisations, individuals and systems to get better at designing processes and structures which take the context into consideration, and which allow for flexibility. These skills are essential for partnerships and helpful also for individuals and organisations themselves. In partnerships, we learn and practice that considering the context and building flexible systems are necessary, and we should enable such features by design.
When a situation appears incomprehensible, transparency and intuition can help. In partnerships, transparency is a key ingredient to build trust, which in turn is a key success factor for cooperation. The habit of allowing for maximum possible transparency is trained in partnerships and helps in accordance with the BANI framework.
Finally, I will hazard a bold hypothesis: in effective partnerships with high levels of trust and transparency, over time individuals will increasingly intuit which ideas and proposals will and will not work. Partnerships help us train our intuition, which is helpful both for effective work in partnerships and beyond it.
If adopted and integrated into our systems, I believe that the BANI framework will strengthen our ability to successfully deal with arising challenges. Effective partnerships fit well to the BANI framework. Taken together, the framework and the cooperative approach may go a long way in helping us to create the future we want.
About the author:
Susanne Salz is a project coordinator with vast expertise in the areas of sustainable development and global governance and working on the creation of multi-stakeholder-partnerships to implement the 2030 Agenda.
Published on March 2, 2023.
Image Credit: Nastya Dulhiier