First commit: 2023-07-30

Last updated: 2023-07-30

Linked Notes

Notes on Stewardship

Stewardship is an idea I first came across in Dan Hills “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses” and later “Legible Practices”. It describes a management approach for new projects, especially in the context of innovation work:

Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally.

If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you’re a natural steward.1

Stewardship means working toward a fixed goal (a northstar, a vision) but being flexible in the actual plan of reaching it. And while it may sound similar to agile management it differs in that the decision of employing agile in itself is already part of the plan.

I later adopted a somewhat unwieldy German translation for the term: “Kompromissmanagement” (compromise management). The idea being that in innovation work you not only have to be willing to compromise on parts of the project but also being able to shape those compromises in your favor.

All in all the notion of Stewardship recognizes the need not only for creativity but also diplomacy, especially when working in a complex environment.

Solving vs. Satisficing

There‘s also another implicit recognition hidden in this idea: you may not be able to completely solve a given problem. First defined by Herbert Simon in his studies of organizational decision making, satisficing describes an approach that aims at developing an intervention that‘s “good enough”, not perfect.2

Simply recognizing the need for this approach may in itself be a step towards avoiding solutionists pitfalls.

I found the term myself while researching innovation in the contexts of infrastructure (both technical and social). Infrastructure change is by definition a wicked problem because of the complex systems that itself rely on the stability of often invisible structures, maintenance and work. Though not every problem can be defined as a pure “wicked problems”, they‘re often more wicked then tame, more brownfield than greenfield.

Thus there‘s the need to adapt a form of stewardship to successfully work in these environments:

The role of the infrastructure planner and designer has shifted from prescribing a professional solution to a given situation, a high modernist framing of the professional’s role, to being the expert facilitator of the emergence of a design that satisfices enough stakeholders, and the legacy systems and natural infrastructure components, to be both stable and viable. […] Thus, rather than simply designing a solution to a given problem, the engineer will often find herself needing to satisfice both on problem definition and design solution.3

  1. Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook, Marco Steinberg (2013). ‘Legible Practices’. Helsinki Design Lab. 

  2. Herbert Simon (1957). ‘Models of Man: Social and Rational‘. 

  3. Mikhail Chester, Braden Allenby (2019). ‘Infrastructure as a wicked complex process’. Elementa, Vol. 7, No. 1, 21