There are no root causes in complexity

I have never been very comfortable with the concept of root causes. I do see the need to go below the surface and not just look at the ‘symptoms’. Yet, it seems to me that the concept of root causes – one problem causing one or a number of symptoms – is at odds with the idea of complex systems, where patterns emerge as a result of a number of different interconnected and interdependent elements and structures.

The idea or root causes is linked to a linear cause-effect kind of thinking. This often plays out as follows: development agents going into a country, observing an undesirable pattern or symptom, doing some analysis to find a root cause, fixing it, and assuming the symptom will disappear – a linear causal chain is assumed from the root cause to the symptom. This is also the reason why many projects use results chains – chains of boxes and arrows indicating steps in a causal chain from the root cause to the symptom.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it does not reflect how the world really works. Still, this is how development generally approaches complex problems. Complexity thinking offers a different way of thinking about intractable or ‘messy’ issues such as getting stronger and more inclusive economies. One concept in particular seems helpful to replace the linear causal logic from root causes to symptoms: the concept of modulators. Continue reading

Systemic change typology – some doubts

In my last post I shared my thinking around a possible typology of systemic change that could help us come to grips with the different concepts and ideas that are connected to systemic change. I have received some feedback on the post and I have done some more thinking that I would like to share in this follow up post.

Concretely, I want to share my thoughts about the usefulness of systemic change as a concept on a more fundamental level, based on the obvious fact that systems change anyway, also without purposeful interventions.

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Attempt at a typology of systemic change

Systemic change has been a frequent topic on this blog – as it is in my work. After running after the perfect conceptualisation of systemic change for many years, this post is inspired by my realisation that there may be different ways to look at systemic change – all correct in their own right. I have discussed systemic change with many colleagues and friends and I have always tried to reconcile different views on the concept, only now realising that they might not be reconcilable. So here an attempt of a typology of systemic change (initially differentiating two types) – nothing final, just trying to put my thinking down in writing.

A warning in advance. This article is rather conceptual and I’m introducing some models that might be new to my readers (but then again, I have done that before). I’m trying to sort through recent reading in my mind to better understand the types of systemic change. This should not stop you from reading it of course! I would be happy to discuss this with anybody!

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Systemic change and system’s health – thinking out loud

As external development agents, we cannot create impacts with all the qualities we want them to have: sustainable, inclusive, gender-equal, etc. We can only work with and through the system, so these qualities become an inherent part of how the system does things. Let’s say we call a system ‘healthy’ when it is creating these qualities we would like to see (although I’m not sure ‘healthy’ is the best term, it sounds a bit judgemental, but it has been used by others before). The question is how does a healthy system look like that is more likely to deliver impacts with the desired qualities? And how can we improve the health of a system?

There are various bodies of knowledge, all rooted in systems and complexity thinking, that give us some ideas to help answer this question. They all answer them from a different perspective and some are clearly limited in scope while others claim universality. I want to introduce three sets of principles or maybe sets of favourable behaviours here. Continue reading

Harnessing the power of complexity in development

This post first appeared on the BEAM Exchange blog.

Market systems are complex adaptive systems and market systems development is a complex task.

This abstract statement reflects the reality market systems practitioners encounter every day: market systems are dynamic with rich interactions between a large number of diverse actors. Changes in these systems are difficult to predict and development interventions often, if not always, lead to unintended consequences. Continue reading

Want to learn about complexity? Join me for a unique expedition through complexity in development

I’m really excited to announce a new training course that I have put together with Tony Quinlan from Narrate, which will be starting in September. As readers of my blog know, I have applied concepts and principles of complexity to my work in international development for a long time. In this course, I will share these concepts, principles and experiences I have made and accompany the participants to make sense of their own experiences and create new experiences in applying complexity concepts.

Here the brief blurb for the course:

Harnessing the power of complexity in development – An extended, unique expedition through complexity approaches to enhance agile, adaptive and appropriate work in dynamic and uncertain development contexts.

This course gives you a unique opportunity to gain experience and expertise in complexity, through a guided journey covering the fundamentals of complexity. Projects taken from participants’ real-world situations (not hypothetical case studies) will be used to apply these principles, teams being mentored all the while by two expert practitioners.

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Of markets, dialogue and tough problems

I am aware that I have not been blogging for a while. One of the reasons is I assume well-known to everybody who has attempted to blog regularly: finding topics that seem worthwhile to share with others. Another reason is that I am currently going down quite an exciting rabbit hole on the concept of dialogue, but am not yet really sure about what it means, so it feels a bit early to blog about. I still want to share a bit of my journey here and I am therefore sharing what I’m currently reading that excites me. Continue reading

We seem to understand complexity in life – why can we not in our work?

When watching one of my favourite TV series I was reminded that in life we can recognise and navigate complexity and uncertainty. When we enter into relationships, get married, have kids, we face lots of uncertainties. Is it the right partner for us? How do I want to raise my kids so they can make the most of their lives? These are questions no-one can answer with any amount of certainty – no quantitative objectives or milestones are fixed. Yet, we still manage to make decisions by using a mix of logical argument and a good portion of intuition. In the end, there are no right answers and we will deal with the consequences of our decisions once we can sense them. We continuously work on our relationships to improve them or in the worst case split up. We navigate the uncertainties of raising children and they grow up eventually. While this approach is natural and works well in our lives, we somehow refuse to buy into it for most aspects in our work. There, we try to find certainty, hypothesise linear causal relationships that allow for plans with milestones and outcomes. When applying this thinking to a complex problem like organising a children’s party it sounds ridiculous and we laugh about it. But we still use the same logic when we try to improve the workings of an economy or a market, when trying to change the behaviour of companies and poor people, or even when trying to improve the empowerment of women in business. Nobody laughs there.
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Evaluation and complexity – lessons from 5 large evaluations in the UK

Last week, I spent the day with the Big Lottery Fund and a bunch of evaluators who are running five large evaluations of major BLF programmes. The evaluators come together regularly to exchange and learn from each other’s experiences. This meeting was focusing on the topic of evaluation and complexity. I was asked by BLF to set the scene by talking about what complexity is and why it is relevant for evaluation. Afterwards, I enjoyed listening to the evaluators on how they made sense of complexity and the consequences for their evaluations. Here a summary of my inputs and some insights from the subsequent discussion.
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Is it systemic change or is it not? These two concepts help answer the question.

Quite a few market systems development projects I have come across in my practice have a goal in their logframe to achieve systemic change. In most cases this is spelled out around some or other market function that is supposed to be improved (e.g. improved access of poor farmers to seed). But in some cases, the log frame simply asks for a number of unspecified systemic changes to be achieved. Both cases are interesting in their own right, but particularly in the latter case evaluators need to be able to answer the question “is it systemic change or is it not?”. There has not been a clear way to answer the question.

In this post, I want to introduce two concepts that can be helpful to answer this question. Firstly, the idea of ‘depth of change’ taken from the systems thinking literature, which helps us understand how fundamental a change is with regards to a system’s architecture. Secondly, the idea of resilience and the question if development interventions build the resilience of the market system or economy.  Continue reading