Category Archives: development and complexity

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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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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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

A Whole New World: funding in complexity

wholenewworld.pngYesterday I was at the launch of a fascinating report on how to better fund organisations that aim to achieve change in complex systems. Though the report draws mainly on public sector commissioners and charitable funders in the social sector in the UK, it is relevant far beyond that. We can take many if not most of the principles the report found and with some tweaking apply them in funding for international development.

The aim of the report is to attempt to answer the question “How should organisations which have a desire to help improve people’s lives, and resources to allocate to achieve this goal, manage the distribution of those resources most effectively?” This question is certainly also relevant for international development, as its goal equally is to improve people’s lives – even though many organisations and initiatives have much narrower aims – which is a problem in itself, but that’s for another post.
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Systemic Insight – a new offer for programmes and organisations facing complex challenges

Systemic InsightSince I have become an associate with Mesopartner in 2012, I have engaged in intense discussions with the partners around how to translate insights from complexity sciences and other quite diverse fields of research such as cognitive sciences, behavioural economics or new institutional economy into better ways in which we can support our clients who face complex challenges. The results of these discussions is Systemic Insight, a platform, approach and product focusing on supporting economic development programmes.

Recently, we added a page with concrete service offerings for programmes and development organisations to Systemic Insight. They include capacity building on making better decisions under conditions of uncertainty, translating results of analysis into action when facing complex challenges, supporting programmes that are stuck, and building up monitoring and learning frameworks for adaptive programme management. This also includes the use of SenseMaker®, a an approach for doing narrative research combined with a piece of software that we have started using more and more frequently.

Shawn, my main co-conspirator around Systemic Insight, and I also wrote an article that was recently published in the IDS Bulletin. You can find a brief description of the content, the abstract, and a link to the article page on the Systemic Insight Blog. The title of the article is Explore, Scale Up, Move Out: Three Phases to Managing Change under Conditions of Uncertainty and the main message is that economic development is about introducing options into local economies, not bringing solutions from the outside.

In the near future, I will focus my (re-invigorated) blogging activity on Systemic Insight. I have done some really interesting work recently and I am keen of sharing some ideas and insights with our readers. Shawn and I also want to share some of the principles and heuristics that guide our work. So please head over to Systemic Insight and subscribe to the blog! I am looking forward to your comments!

Doing Development Differently #DDD

I have been loosely following the Doing Development Differently movement. I also signed up to the DDD manifesto. I think it is a great initiative and I would encourage you to follow it and sign their manifesto if you agree. It is very much in line with applying complexity thinking to development and getting out of the rigid project/logframe frameworks.

Here are a couple of snippets by people that participated in a recent event at Harvard University.

I like Duncan Green’s statement that we just have to learn to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. There just isn’t something like clear cut results that can without doubt be attributed to a project that engaged in a complex situation. In the end, it’s not about us, it’s about the positive change we can contribute to.

Why are Goodhart, Dukenfield and Campbell important for development?

Charles Goodhart, William Claude Dukenfield and Donald Thomas Campbell are three quite different people. Goodhart, born in 1963, is an economist professor emeritus at the London School of Economics. Dukenfield, 1880-1949, better known as W.C. Fields, was an American comedian, actor, juggler and writer. Campbell, 1916-1996, was an American social scientist. What do they have in common? And why do I think that they have some special relevance for development and particularly for what is called ‘managing for results’? It all comes down to the three ‘laws’ named after the three gentlemen.

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Of Complexity and Chaos

Cynefin framework

The Cynefin Framework with the newly renamed ‘Obvious’ domain (formerly ‘Simple’). Source: Cognitive Edge

In the Cynefin framework, complex and chaotic are two separate domains. Complexity is defined as the domain where agents and constraints co-evolve, chaos as where there are no constraints. Both are part of the unordered side of Cynefin, i.e. where events are unpredictable and expert knowledge and analysis are not leading to better decisions. Chaos is seen as a domain where you don’t really want to be, so all you have to do there is go act quickly and decisively to get out. To use Dave Snowden’s words: “Chaos is a transitionary domain.  (…)  If you collapse into it without [intention] then the strategy is to move out in a controlled way; you will move out as constraints happen naturally. Entered deliberately it can create the conditions for radical innovation, used as contained chaos it allows for distributed cognition or Wisdom of Crowds. Nothing resides in Chaos for any period without sustained effort.” Continue reading

Systemic Insight and complexity: looking forward

This post was first posted on Mesopartner’s Systemic Insight page. 

This week, the five partners of Mesopartner and Marcus are meeting in South Africa for the annual partner meeting. The meeting is an important event for Mesopartner where knowledge and learning is exchanged, new ideas and theories are shared, the Summer Academy is planned, and many other strategic issues are discussed. Continue reading

New Mesopartner working paper on complexity theory and development

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 12.20.50For the last years I have had the privilege to take part of and contribute to Mesopartner’s journey into the field of complexity. We started to dismantle and question almost every aspect of our instruments, tools and theories. This journey has been very much in line with my own work, pondering how complexity theory can contribute to making economic development more effective and sustainable.

One of the results of this process is the Systemic Insight website, where we want to share our thoughts and invite our followers to contribute to the discussions we have (and where some of my blog posts are also cross-posted).

A new Mesopartner Working Paper now provides a theoretical grounding for the work we have done and will continue to do. Together with my co-author and friend Dr. Shawn Cunningham (who’s blog I highly recommend), we consider some definitions, ponder the implications and try to formulate some responses to some of the key challenges that systems and complexity theories confront us with in our field of bottom up economic development.

We see this paper as an input into a broader discussion with our close collaborators, our close clients, and the broader network that we form part of. I would like to ask you to send us your thoughts and add your comments to this and future posts.