Category Archives: systemic change

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Three Considerations when Measuring “Success” in Development Cooperation: A Conversation with Zenebe Uraguchi

This post was written by Zenebe Uraguchi and originally published on the Helvetas Inclusive Systems Blog. It is reposted here with permission.

Two years ago, Zenebe Uraguchi of Helvetas had a conversation with Rubaiyath Sarwar of Innovision Consulting on how fixation on chasing targets leads programmes in development cooperation to miss out on contributing to long-term and large-scale changes. In March 2019, Zenebe met Marcus Jenal in Moldova. Marcus thinks a lot about how complexity thinking can improve development.

This blog is a summary of their dialogue on three thoughts that development practitioners who apply a systemic approach need to consider when measuring success in terms of contributing to systemic change.

By systemic change, we mean changes in the dynamic structures of a system – rules, norms, customs, habits, relationships, sensemaking mechanisms or more generally: institutions and world views – that shape the behaviours or practices of people – individuals, businesses, public sector agencies, civil society organisations, etc.

ZU: Programmes that apply a systemic approach in development cooperation often struggle to measure the systemic change they effect. A couple of years ago, Michael Kleinman wrote in The Guardian, arguing that, “the obsession with measuring impact is paralysing [development practitioners].” Without being obsessed with measurement, I believe development programmes will require a measurement system that’s right-sized and appropriate in scope and timeframe for effectively measuring impacts.

MJ: For me, the challenge is how to find a broader way of effectively showing successes when attempting to stimulate systemic changes. This means not reducing our success factors to the measures that we know how to measure. We need to keep an eye on how our role is contributing to broader change, for example, by using different methodologies and appreciating the perspectives these provide us with. This’ll, for sure, help in demonstrating how a programme contributed to meaningful change in a system. A programme will need to weave different sources and types of evidence into a coherent story. Of course, we need to also make it clear in the story we tell that there’re other factors that influence the change programmes have contributed to.

ZU: In my recent reflection about the Market Systems Symposium in Cape Town, I emphasised the concern that the evidence on impact of programmes that apply a systemic approach is thin. Among others, one of the key challenges is the tension between short-term and long-term results. Can such a tension be managed or reconciled?

MJ: This tension exists in most programmes that apply a systemic approach. On the one hand, there’s a requirement for showing results within a given time frame (e.g. partners have taken new ways of working and showing successes in terms of investment and job creation). This often requires programmes to use incremental interventions with no transformational effect. On the other hand, programmes will also need to invest in more fundamental, long-term systemic changes (e.g. changes in how different institutions interact, improved participation in labour markets).

The key point here is whenever we design interventions or prepare sector strategies, we need to pay attention to explaining how we expect changes to happen and in what sequence. In other words, we need to explicitly state which changes we expect in the short term, in the medium term and in the long term. By categorising the effects of our interventions in this way, I think it’s possible to come up with different types of indicators appropriate for the different stages. Indeed, in using such ways of measuring changes, programmes should work with donors and their Head Offices to manage expectations and tell the narrative on how they expect changes to happen over time.   

ZU: Many development programmes operate in complex and dynamic contexts. I’m aware that adaptive management can sometimes be viewed as an excuse for “making things up as programmes go along”. Yet, the point I’m trying to make is that the context can shift quickly, and strategies need to be adapted continuously. This means that monitoring and results measurement needs to adapt to such changes. For example, having access to reliable and timely information through an agile monitoring and results measurement system is crucial.

MJ: I agree with your point. Development practitioners are still evaluating programmes that work towards facilitating systemic changes by using methods that aren’t adjusted to the shift to a more systemic way of doing development. The evaluation methods are following a “traditional” model adapted to show direct effects (clear discernible cause-effect links, linear effects, lack of feedback loops). For me, this’s to a certain extent unfair towards programmes that take a systemic approach. So, we need to ask ourselves two questions: “what success means” and “how we measure success accordingly” for programmes that work towards systemic change. Only then it’s reasonably possible to show whether an initiative has been successful or not. An immediate follow-up question then needs to be: how can this be done? There’re good examples of methodologies that’re able to capture systemic effects in the evolution community and to a certain extent also in the social sciences.           

ZU: Systemic approaches aren’t entirely new. The approach puts lessons from decades of development work into a set of principles and frameworks to guide development programmes in their design, implementation and results measurement. If this is the case, then why’re we still struggling to figure out how to effectively measure success (on a system level) in development cooperation? Or is it the case that “development isn’t a science and cannot be measured”?

MJ: As I said above, perhaps it isn’t due to the lack of ability to show these changes but the adoption of the appropriate methods in our field. Oftentimes we start development initiatives with a good intention to change or improve a system. We’re then soon confronted with the question: “how are we going to measure such a change?” As we naturally default to the good practices and standards that are used in our field (or are even forced to use them by our donor), which’re still predominantly based on a linear logic, we’re automatically only measuring the effects that can be captured by such methods: direct effects. This, in turn, again affects the way we design our interventions, or the way we work with partners to stimulate systemic change.

It’s a circular logic, you see: our focus will be on achieving targets defined through measures that we intend to use to measure success with – and if these measures aren’t systemic, our focus will not be on systemic change. This’s what I call “the self-fulfilling prophecy” of measuring changes in development cooperation. Let me provide you an example:

ZU: Great points, Marcus. So, what do we make of our conversation? I see three key messages regarding measurement of success: first, the measures we choose will define or at least influence the way how we work, second, we need to choose the right ways of measuring success that’s in line with the kind of approach we use, and third, the importance of learning from recent experiences of evaluating success in the wider evaluation community.

MJ: That’s a good summary. Let me explain these three takeaways a bit more.  

Advancing my systems change typology: considering scaling out, up and deep

Recently I started a series on the development of a typology of systems change (the two previous articles are here and here). In this post, I want to introduce the concepts of ‘scaling out’, ‘scaling up’ and ‘scaling deep’ developed by scholars of social innovation. I want to link these concepts to my earlier thinking around the systems change typology and update it based on the new insights from this literature. At the end I will also voice a little critique on innovation-focused approaches to systems change.

‘Scaling out’ refers to the most common way of attempting to getting to scale with an innovation: reaching greater numbers by replication and dissemination. ‘Scaling up’ refers to the attempt to change institutions at the level of policy, rules and laws. Finally, ‘scaling deep’ refers to changing relationships, cultural values and beliefs.

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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

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

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

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

The next step in systemic change

Over the course of 2016, Shawn and I worked on a piece of research on systemic change in market systems development, funded by the BEAM Exchange. In this work, we question the utility of the concept of systemic change in market systems development (though this is valid in the wider field of economic development) as it is currently used and suggest a rethink. To do so, we went back to search for a fundamental understanding of economic change. This is what we found.

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