Currently there seems to be a lot going on around systems change, particularly driven by a few organisations that have picked up the topic and drive it forward, including large philanthropic funders that so far have mainly focused on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. They seem to have raised that with simply scaling social enterprises or social innovations, systemic change does not happen and that a systemic view on change is needed. So they have started to put together research projects on figuring out what systemic change is. One thing that emerges from these initiatives is hopefully a wider agreement on what is meant by systems change, which all systems change practitioners could profit from. I’m happy to see that the way I have been thinking about systems change seems to be largely aligned with that emerging consensus.
The definition of what systemic change or systems change (I don’t think there is a difference between the two) is converges around changes in structures that shape the current situation. A very simple but useful definition of systems change comes from the Social Innovation Generation (SIG) in Canada: shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place (quoted in Kania, Kramer and Senge 2018. This is in line with what I called transformative change – a transformation of the system’s structure. We do not just have to solve the problem but we want to transform the conditions that are holding the problem in place.
Last week we published the 7th episode of the Systemic Insight podcast (get it from Libsyn or Apple Podcast or you can also find it on Spotify). It features Dr Toby Lowe of Northumbria University and his work on why outcome-based performance management doesn’t work – and what to do instead. In this blog post, I’m sharing some quotes from Toby and some insights I took from the conversation.
The discussion in the podcast touches upon why outcome targets distort rather than enhance performance, why they lead to gaming becoming a rational strategy, and what the alternatives are for people who work in complex contexts. As outcome-based performance management is still the prevalent method to manage the performance in many fields, this discussion is highly relevant and pertinent.
This episode is packed with ideas and quite challenging thoughts! In this blog post I am bringing together a number of quotes from Toby and some comments from my side.
In one of my recent articles I asked the question ‘Should we fix wrong behaviour?’ The article has had great resonance with the community. In particular, it sparked an inspiring exchange among colleagues at ACDI/VOCA, which they shared on their own blog. They gave me permission to repost the article here but given its length I will just link to it – do read it if you have the time. Below, I have drawn out a couple of quotes that I found particularly interesting and insightful and I am also adding some follow up thoughts from my side at the end.
My company is a consulting firm and on my CV I call myself a consultant. Consultants are experts that are hired to bring solutions to a problem or improve the functioning of a mechanism, process or organisation. They are expected to have all the answers and are paid by somebody to give them the right answers to their questions or solutions for their problems.
When I work with organisations and teams on complex challenges, I often do not feel comfortable in this role as a consultant or expert. Too often, I do not know the answers or solutions. Too often, I have felt that moment of panic in the plane on the way to a client that I do not really know what to tell them, that I do not have the answers they are hoping to get from me. As I have said and written before, intervening in complex systems is not about fixing things, like fixing an engine. Complex systems are evolving interconnected systems. Understanding these interconnections and shifting the context is a more appropriate approach to change. This always needs to be based on a deep sense of understanding the local context and continuous mutual learning. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
I want to share some of my Sunday reading and listening with you.
First a blog post by Dave Algoso on his blog “Find What Works”: in the article Kuhn, Chambers and the future of international development he talks about paradigm shifts from science to international development. This is interesting as I myself and many around me are saying that a paradigm shift is needed in international development that appreciates the complexities of the environments we work in. Algoso features two posts by Robert Chambers where he sketches out how such a new paradigm could look like (direct links here and here)
Secondly, a TED talk by Sugata Mitra about the future of schools and learning. His basic thesis: “schools as we know them are obsolete”. One quote that particularly struck me, as the language he uses is very much the one we use when talking about development from a complexity perspective:
… we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.
Complex situations resist our analytical capacities, they are unpredictable. In these situations, we cannot base our decisions on data. Hence, our decisions often based on intuition, gut feeling, and rules of thumb. Through continuous learning, we can train our intuition and become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments. Continue reading →