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Capacity building, gyms and ‘just doing it’

‘Capacity building’ is an ugly phrase that’s become unavoidable. It’s built into public programmes, regional development and regeneration, as well as business support.  It seems simple. But isn’t. And my prejudice – partly based on experience – is that many capacity building funds waste much of their money.

So what is it? The basic idea is that people and organisations need new skills to do new things. These can be called capacities, abilities, capabilities or know-how. The language doesn’t much matter. What matters is that many desirable things wished for by many societies depend on there being many more people with the ability to work well at particular tasks, whether those tasks are ones like taking part in a democracy, growing a firm or NGO, or achieving public policy results. Having ambitions without some way of building capacity makes it much less likely you’ll succeed.

The many programmes that include the phrase ‘capacity building’ reflect the correct insight that these skills don’t emerge automatically or very fast. It’s not enough to have clever or well-motivated people, though it helps. It’s certainly not enough to employ people with lots of qualifications – having letters after your name can be a lot less useful than real life experience.  Instead these programmes to build capacity recognise that putting in place democratic constitutions doesn’t automatically make a society democratic, or that putting in place market laws doesn’t automatically make a dynamic economy. Instead these things have to be learned, and that takes time. Some of the skills need to be learned by individuals; and some of them need to be learned by groups, or organisations, so that they become adept at working together.

Muscle memory

So what’s the problem? The tricky word is ‘building’. This implies that capacities are like walls or buildings that can be built, brick by brick.  But capacities can’t be built in a linear way – delivered to passive recipients. Like so much learning they are better thought of as being like muscles, that are built up through exercise, repetition and coaching. You can learn some things through the classic tools of the lesson, the book, the article, the textbook or the YouTube video, and these are unavoidable if you want to learn how to write laws, or how to develop a business model. But pretty soon that knowledge needs to be applied if it’s to be remembered.‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand' is a cliché, but no less true for that.

The majority of things supported by capacity building are best learned by doing, not just through formal pedagogy, and they often stick if they’re learned with others, when formal training is combined with coaching, and peer support as new knowledge is put into practice. That’s how you become good at running a political party, an NGO or a medium sized firm. It’s also how you become a really good swimmer or weight-lifter.

This is the approach we take at Nesta – combining training and coaching with ongoing engagement and support as new skills are put into effect; supporting cohorts of learners; or working with joint teams that learn from each other as they act. It’s all backed up with lots of written material that codifies the methods for things like running a prize, using data or scaling an innovation. But these are foundations for learning that has to be practical and applied.

None of this is rocket science and there’s a very well-established literature on it. It includes the idea that true competence comes from practice and getting beyond the constraint of mental representations. Through doing something repeatedly you transcend the things you have been taught, and great artistry or sporting prowess becomes part of your being, a bodily skill embedded in your bones. 

You do still need concepts and theory as well as craft skill, particularly for non-obvious skills. There’s a nice example in one recent book about driving a motorbike (a classic example of a skill best learned through doing). If you see your shadow in front of you, that initially feels calming. But you can learn, thanks to theory, that this may be a moment of great danger because a pedestrian or oncoming car probably can’t see you because they have the sun in their eyes. Learning to play a musical instrument too is a mix of embedding capacity within you, so that you can play without thinking, and having the theoretical knowledge to understand why some patterns or chord progressions are likely to make sense.

Embedding capacity building

Generally we learn things best when we need to learn them and if the learning can be integrated into everyday life. So if you feel a compelling need to cut costs in your organisation, find new product lines, or win votes you’ll be much more receptive to new knowledge about how to do these things, than if you just have a general desire to grow your capacity. It follows that the more capacity building can be embedded in, or linked to, how you deal with pressing challenges, the more likely it is to succeed. And the more skills can become integrated into who we are, rather than just learned at a cerebral level, the more likely they are to be used well.                                     

Yet most capacity building funds go to support fairly passive training courses. These are necessary as part of a programme, but shouldn’t ever be too high a proportion. Too much capacity building is delivered by colleges and educational institutions that default to their standard model – delivering courses.  MBAs and MPAs exemplify the same problem: squeezing the practical learning needed to run a business or a public agency into the formats of the college and university, mainly because that’s a convenient default rather than because of any evidence that they work.

A better model is the way sports are taught. No-one learns to excel at a sport by doing a one-off lesson, or a course that only involves watching others do the sport. Instead you learn through constant repetition and practice, and continuous input, often in small doses, helped by data and feedback that tells you if you really are as good as you think you are. All of this is harder to organise I admit. But it’s a lot more likely to get you where you want to be.

In a second blog I’ll look at the organisational dimension of capacity building – how does a team or organisation become much more effective, learning new skills but also unlocking latent talent and knowledge it already has?


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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