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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
Yesterday 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. Continue reading →
Since 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!
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.
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.
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 →