Category Archives: thoughts

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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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

Thinking out loud: my areas of interest

This post is a bit of an experiment. In it, I want to outline my four main areas of interest which guide my reading, thinking and the work I want to engage in. The aim is twofold. Firstly, I hope that the exercise focuses my thoughts because I need to write the areas down in a coherent way. Secondly, this is intended as a way to reach out to likeminded people who are interested in the same issues, so it contains a call to action, i.e. to contact me. I would be particularly interested if you would like to discuss my ideas presented below, work with me on any of these challenges, or simply tell me that what I am sketching out below is not really as challenging as I think it is and that robust answers/solutions are indeed already available (please do share them with me and excuse me for my ignorance).

My four areas of interest are (1) understanding change in societies from a complex systems perspective and in particular how to promote a more sustainable way of living, (2) developing an integrated approach to performance management, accountability and learning for teams and organisations engaging in complex change, (3) achieving systemic change through economic development initiatives, and (4) engaging more in the area I live in – the North East of England. Some of these areas are more concrete and tangible in terms of potential outputs and activities. I will now describe each of them in turn in more detail. Continue reading

Using principles from evolution in development

Recently, I listened to a presentation by Owen Brader titled “What can development policy learn from evolution“. I want to briefly summarize here my main insights from the presentation and put some thoughts down.

Here some insights from his presentation:

  • Experience tells us that a simplistic approach based on pre-canned policy recommendations that were gained through technical analyses and regressions simply doesn’t work. The reality is much more complex.
  • What is called “almost impossible problems” or “wicked problems”, i.e., problems we face in complex systems, are solved through evolution, not design.
  • For evolution to work, it requires a process of variation and selection.
  • In the development work today there is a lot of proliferation without diversity and certainly not enough selection.
  • Especially missing are feedback loops to establish what works and replicate it while scaling down on things that don’t work.
  • One specially important feedback are the needs, preferences and experiences of the actual beneficiaries. Due to too little efforts spend on rigorous impact evaluation and too much on process and activity evaluations, this feedback loop often doesn’t work. The direct feedback on the citizen themselves should be better taken into account: “People care deeply about whether or not they get the services they should be getting.”
  • The establishment of better and more effective feedback loops as a crucial ingredient to improve program effectiveness: “We have to be better in finding out what is working and what is not working”.
  • In evolutionary words: we should not impose new designs, but rather we should try to make better feedback loops to spur selection and amplification.
  • But as a direct consequence, we also need to acknowledge things that don’t work, i.e., failures, and adopt and adapt what is working. On international policy level, there are no necessary mechanisms to replicate success or kill of the failures.

These insights remind me a lot of a discussion I was involved recently with a group of international development organizations that are working together in a network called the GROOVE. The discussion was about ‘integrating experiential knowledge and staff observations in value chain monitoring and evaluation’. In the discussion that was held during a webinar, two important insights were voiced that correspond with Owen’s points above:

  1. Staff observations can add a lot of value to M&E systems in terms of what works in the field and what doesn’t.
  2. There is a need for a culture of acknowledging and accepting failures in order to focus on successful interventions.

Now, what does this mean if we have – for example – to design a new project? Firstly, I think it is important that the project has an inception period where a diversity of interventions can be tested. But we also need an effective mechanism to assess what impact these interventions have – if any. Now there is the problem of time delays – often, the impact of the interventions are delayed in time and might become apparent too late, i.e., only after the inception period. Especially when we base our M&E on hard impact data, we might not be in a position to say which intervention was successful and which wasn’t. Therefore, we need to rely on staff observation and perceptions of the target beneficiaries. Again, a very good understanding of the system is necessary in order to judge the changes that happen in the system.

As already Eric Beinhocker describes in his book “The Origin of Wealth”, evolution is a very powerful force in complex systems. Beinhocker defines economy as a complex system as he writes: “We may not predict or direct economic evolution but we can design our institutions to be better or worse evolvers”. I think that the same goes for our development systems. We cannot predict or direct evolution in developing countries, but we can support  the poor to become better evolvers. This has also strong implication on our view on sustainability, but I’m already sliding into the topic for another post.