Author Archives: Marcus

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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

Systemic change? Be entrepreneurial!

I was catching up with some reading over Christmas and read an interesting article on systems change in the RSA Journal [1]. In the article’s lead, the author states that “To tackle the challenges faced by our public services, we need to learn to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.” I found this thought quite intriguing and not only true for tackling challenges of public services, but also challenges in development. Continue reading

Webinar recording: SenseMaker and social change

Last week, I participated at a Cognitive Edge webinar and presented together with Tony Quinlan on our experiences on using SenseMaker® in social change work.

You can access the recording of the webinar and download my slides.

I hope you are enjoying the festive season (if applicable) and wish you all a great start into the new year! Thanks a lot for your continuous support by reading and sharing my blog and re-tweeting it into your networks!

Building a knowledge repository on economic change – systemic insight

I spent the last week with my business partner Shawn Cunningham in South Africa to discuss our continuous research work on systemic change, market development and innovation promotion. It was a week packed with a lot of thinking, discussion and occasional flicking through some of our favourite textbooks. Not much we enjoy more!
Continue reading

Want to measure systemic change? Here’s a refined complexity sensitive framework.

Systemic change has become a catch phrase in recent years, not only in the field of Market Systems Development. I have blogged about it before (for example here and here). The question I want to address in this post is how we can conceptualise systemic change as a first step in developing ‘Theories of Systemic Change’ and evaluating systemic change initiatives. And all of this in the face of complexity and unpredictability of how complex systems change. Continue reading

Five reasons why using narrative is important for understanding social change

In this post I want to share the five reason I have found so far why using narrative is central to understanding and engaging in social change. In an earlier article, I described different types of narrative and different types of working with stories.

Narratives are central in how we humans organise our society. Gossiping about others allows us to exchange reliable information about who can be trusted, who’s behaviour is acceptable and who is behaving in a ‘bad’ way. Talking about metaphors, legends and myths gives us a common framework of meaning. Weaving life-lessons into stories that get repeated again and again helps us to learn how to behave and become accepted members of a society.

The intention of this post is for me to bring some weeks of reading on narrative together, it is not yet the final word. What’s in here will no doubt further develop and I would appreciate your comments and thoughts – and links to further sources.

So, after this disclaimer, here the five reasons I have come up with. Continue reading

Pilots almost always work – “from-pilot-to-scale” does not

The reason that pilots almost always work is the so-called Hawthorn Effect. According to Wikipedia, “The Hawthorne effect (also referred to as the observer effect) is a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.” This is one of the reasons why I think that projects that are predominantly operating in a “from-pilot-to-scale” logic struggle to achieve that scale. Another reason why I am concerned with the prevalence of this logic in many projects is that they introduce often externally conceived solutions for what they analysed as ‘root causes’ into a system. Even if the solution scales, the social and institutional structure and dynamics of the system will most certainly not have changed, making the system not more but potentially less resilient. This is not what I would call systemic change. Continue reading

Working with narrative – potential start of a series

I have blogged about using narrative to measure changes in attitudes or to build up human sensor networks. These blogs have generated a lot of traffic. The use of narrative for better understanding social systems and social change is still a big interest of mine. This is why I have been digging a bit to better understand why narrative research is so powerful to understand change in complex systems such as communities.

Continue reading