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Be the Toolkit: Discussing complex systems with Oxfam’s next generation of leaders

May 31, 2013
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Over the next few months, I’ll be getting stuck into a big Oxfam project on how we understand and work on issues of power and change. As befits its

yeah, right

yeah, right

focus on ‘how change happens’, this is already evolving in unexpected directions, such as a stress on how we support Oxfamistas to work in ‘complex systems’ (aka the real world). Last week we had 30 of our brightest sparks in a room for a half day on this – here are some of the points that came up.

First up, a great way to get people thinking about complex systems and the contrast with the illusory certainties of project planning. Ask participants ‘Think back to your expectations for your life when you were 16. Has it gone to plan?’ Then stand back, enjoy the incredulity and draw out the connections with aid work (influence of random events, importance of relationships etc etc),

Next the thorny question of ‘critical junctures’ – those shocks that contain huge opportunities for changes, to which we have generally been pretty rubbish at responding. Some CJs are foreseeable – eg elections – and there the challenge is just to get a bit more intelligent in our planning. But others – eg Arab Spring – are not in anyone’s calendar. Can we get better at seeing them as they approach?

Based on her understanding of complex systems, complexity physicist Jean Boulton (who also came up with the life expectation tip) suggested a few telltale signs:

  • Increased swings and instability
  • Trust your instinct/judgement
  • Some early indicators might exist – these could include anything from UN Global Pulse type data harvesting from social media to the entry of intermediate/professional organizations into areas formerly dominated by radical activist groups (a sure sign that an issue is going mainstream)
  • Otherwise look for ‘weak signals’ – a small sense of ‘we’re getting somewhere’, eg anecdotes of new forms of organization/actor emerging, different constituencies saying the same thing, increasing interest from newspapers, traditional leaders or social media.

But this assumes the existence of neutral observers capable of spotting such signals, whereas we NGO types are all too willing to see what we want to see – alleged ‘weak signals’ are likely to proliferate as every staffer tries to persuade their bosses that the revolution is just around the corner, so please could they have some more budget?

My conclusion was that the more realistic option is to concentrate on the foreseeable junctures such as elections, and try and get better at spotting and responding to the unpredictable events once they occur. That means feedback loops based on savvy staff rooted in local realities, empowered to blow institutional whistles, hit red buttons etc when eg food prices rocket or protest movements start picking up pace.

Gandhi v logframe cartoonPersistence is the flip side of jumping opportunistically between critical junctures and it makes my head hurt. If development is in many cases long-term, then aid agencies have to think over 10 or 20 year timespans. It could well be a disaster if a complexity focus led to us hopping madly from issue to issue in a desperate search for the next Arab Spring.

But equally, if you’ve been plugging away at a project for a few years without results, how can you distinguish between a productive long haul that just needs time, and a miserable failure that is going nowhere? Whose judgement can you trust on this? If the answer is only evident in hindsight, how on earth do you make decisions in real time? Suggestions welcome!

Lots of discussion on how to use theories of change to improve our work, but the danger there is that ToCs, complexity etc will become just another toolkit – a checklist that closes down thought and creativity, rather than the opposite. Much the same happened to the logframe back in the day.

The focus needs to be on supporting staff to build the skills, imagination and ability to understand and respond to what is going on around them. That needs lots of discussion, mentoring, and maybe even some suitably non-prescriptive methods, but we need to keep the focus on the people, not the process. With due apologies to Gandhi, ‘Be the toolkit’ seemed to work as a slogan on where to keep the focus.

Another nagging question is how do you fund work based on complex systems? Can you really rock up to DFID and say ‘hey, it’s a complex system, so we have no idea what’s going to happen. Can we have £1m please?’ Answers include:

  • Collecting and publishing narratives where donors get it right: the conventional picture of donors hunched jealously over their logframes, hostile to anything smacking of independent thought, is clearly nonsense. But we don’t do enough to capture some great examples of imaginative donorship, such as DFID in Tanzania or the Swiss in Tajikistan. We need to collect these stories, and work with allies in aid agencies to get them out there.
  • Trust Fund: Push the trust fund model as a way of turning large chunks of aid into lots of small chunks – the right size for the kind of initiative that needs funding, but would be crushed by the big bucks and paperwork that goes with them.
  • Incubation period model: Back to Matt Andrews. How do we get a prolonged experimental incubation phase accepted as a standard (and extended) part of any project application? Interestingly, DFID is starting to do this with some of its research funding – supporting a year-long inception phase during which researchers can clarify and narrow down their agenda.

And finally, a comment from Alan Hudson on my last complexity-related post has stayed with me. ‘One of the things that struck me was that we had a very fruitful exchange without a mention of “complex systems. It just wasn’t necessary.’ Which reminds me of a comment that I think is great, but always seems to produce baffled faces in seminars – ‘talking about ‘non-linear systems’ is like talking about all the ‘non-elephants at the zoo’': i.e. since non-linearity is the norm, not the exception, why does it need to be picked out? Will the mark of success in getting complex systems taken seriously be when they are merely seen as normal and the off-putting word ‘complexity’ becomes redundant?

12 comments

  1. Sitting here in Pakistan and working in the turbulent Pakistan’s northern borders with Afghanistan, complexity is the norm and not the exception. The project that successfully work here are not those with definite linear time lines, but ones where research and implementation have been brought closer by adopting an organisational approach to development. This means creating and supporting organisations rather than projects. Organisations by their very nature work long term. They adapt to the environment, change strategies and plans to do so and thus succesfully deal with complexity. Expecting six months research projects to come up with solutions to the complexities in the field is asking for a bit too much Many of the projects that were established through generous donor funding three decades back are long dead but the organisations that were set up still exist, having successfully dealth with complexity because organisation have within them that capacity to do so but projects with their rigid time lines simply cannot. Its a pity that projects are judgded these days by the qaulity of upward accountabilty within them, and if they had only be judged on the basis of evidence of the change they brought in the field, things would have been very different

  2. Thanks Masood, but Masooda Bano, in her book Breakdown in Pakistan (on my reviews pile) says donor funding destroys CSOs – can you reconcile your two opinions?

  3. Working in the field of complexity is not simple! There is a temptation to want to view complexity through a conventional scientific lens with its assumptions of the existence of certain and precise answers, clear measures and definite methods. So it is tempting to ask questions such as ‘what is a weak signal’ and ‘when should we or should we not persist in a course of action’ or ‘how do we know when there is a tipping point about to happen’ – and, when responses are not precise, to throw away the baby with the bath water, the critical moment with the path dependency.
    In discussing complexity, it can feel as if people want new shiny complexity tools to add to their existing toolbox, but are more wary – or indeed derisory – if such precise tools are not forthcoming. And yet the fact remains that the world, in general, does not work like a machine, and to assume that it does can create more harm than good. Traditional thinking resides on fixedness, on stability. It assumes the incontrovertible existence of ‘things’. Even using the term complex systems assumes that there are definable ‘things’ – systems – that we can understand. Complexity thinking is more about process, about the nature of change, about a world that is becoming rather than a world that is.
    So, to be persistent, what can you say about persistence and about ‘weak signals’ of emerging change? Complexity thinking emphasises the episodic nature of change – that there are periods when little, seemingly, changes and other times when change seems sudden, and radical. But does this occur in practice, in the ‘real world’ rather than the world of theory? I, with a colleague, have been working recently looking at impact assessment with complexity in mind. We’ve been taking broad histories of projects as told by various stakeholders from various perspectives. What is interesting is how people tell the story of the project and of what was happening around it as a series of critical moments – times when there was all to play for, when various factors came together and much could be achieved or, if opportunities were missed, much could be lost. People often told these stories of critical moments with great colour and vigour.
    ‘Yes but’, you say, ‘people always tell stories emphasising their own agency’. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘but when you triangulate such stories with the stories of others who were not actors, you start to feel more confident. And some of these moments can also be checked out with further investigations looking for supporting ‘facts’’.
    ‘Ok’, you say, ‘so what’?
    The point is that investigating critical junctures and what happened around them can tell us a lot about the nature of change and what contributed to it. But that is not to forget that a great deal went on in between these critical moments which built the ground, created the conditions for change. Dealing with complex situations is as much about persistence when there is little to show for it, as it is about agility, about spotting and seizing opportunities. Which gets us to the completely reasonable question as to how to know the difference between persisting and beating your head against a wall?
    If you think about your own life, when do you persist in a job you perhaps no longer enjoy and when do you give up? I think what I do is to look for snippets of evidence about what is happening that is different – weak signals in fact. That is to say they are signs of change that are quite qualitative and indistinct and may develop or may not. Is my boss irritated with me or is it just a passing mood? I was left out of a meeting today. Has that happened before and does it happen increasingly? Do I go home miserable just occasionally or more often? How do my friends perceive the situation? What do I do outside of work? Is the scope of my work slowly diminishing? To decide whether or not to leave a job takes time, needs a range of signals and perspectives and needs some evidence that signals are getting stronger, building over time. It is a matter of judgement but judgement based on evidence, albeit qualitative and fluctuating and subject to interpretation.
    So this is what I mean by weak signals and persisting. You look for change, you look for the building and sustaining of evidence; you pay attention more acutely to what is different. You ask people whose judgment you trust. You ask a range of people. You follow up ‘weak signals’ by looking for any associated evidence and looking for patterns over time. Then you make a decision – to leave a job or to persist, or not, with a project focused on a hard-to-reach goal
    Dealing with ‘weak signals’ is not simple to describe, but if you talk to people who have to make judgments – about whether there is a drought, for example – this is the kind of thing they actually do. And if your networks are not strong enough and if you are not used to reading the signals, then the judgement – should we mobilise or not – becomes harder to call. The temptation is to wait until the evidence is absolutely certain, by which time it may be too late.
    So, a rather long reply, but I wanted to try and show that we will never get anywhere if we try to turn complexity thinking into simplicity thinking. It needs more working through. Interestingly, as my Mother would tell you, complexity thinking is a statement of common sense – but common sense that traditional professional methods and a desire for certaint tries to knock out of us.

    1. Great reply Jean, and we obviously aren’t going ever to agree on this (and that is, of course fine!). My point in always pushing you/myself/others on the ‘so whats’ is that we have to convince others that this (whatever it is) will make their daily work more effective, and – in an NGO world where money is always both in short supply and a crucial means of influence – change the allocation of scarce funds towards approaches that recognize and respond to complexity. If we come up with an approach that only really works if you are a genius/complexity PhD, or that merely makes everything more, errm, complicated, then we will have failed – got to get it down to some kind of ‘simplicity’ (sorry!), or it will remain arcane and offputting (as many people find the word ‘complexity’ itself). and will not be taken up as it should. To be continued!

  4. One of the reasons complexity is difficult to take on board is the reliance on long-term contracts. These make it very difficult to change track after an assessment.
    Some options that I notice NGOs explore way too seldom:
    – just be clear on the goals, and if change happens ask for adaptation on the result levels of the logframe. If well documented, it will nearly always be accepted.
    – instead of going for long-term contracts, ask long-term commitments of donors. Especially DFID has this moving circus approach on development, where with every new government there is something new ” the most important thing to do” such as resilience now, coördination 2 years ago. A more rolling approach on the priorities would authorize the partners to plan better, even with shorter contracts. I notice most NGOs just jump on the next bandwagon and start relabeling immediately.

  5. I’m starting to think that ‘complexity’ in development is like a plant that’s been given too much light at an early stage and is now far too big for its roots to sustain.

    I genuinely believe that complexity theory(/ies) has great potential not so much in itself as in a way to bridge and fundamentally improve existing theories from the social sciences. E.g. neoclassical, and postmodern or actor approaches. (Ta-dah, guess what I’m trying to do myself.)

    Before such work becomes more mature and widespread, however, I don’t think complexity has a whole lot to offer except as metaphor. And, as I think Alan or someone else commented on a previous post, say messy instead and no one will be put off.

    Sorry.

  6. Ps. Not that metaphors won’t be good and useful in getting people thinking in new ways. I’m just sensing you’re after something more that just isn’t yet.

  7. In response to Duncan’s comment – Duncan, we may be at cross purposes! I could not agree more about the importance of so whats. It’s just the so whats may not be as crisp as people would like. In fact I think the important thing about all this complexity stuff is really to get out there and see what it means in practice. That is what I was trying to say and it is what I am trying to do in my work. I’m not sure what having a PhD has got to do with it, but I do agree that most of the language of complexity gets in the way. My gripe with your piece is that is it easy to dismiss the idea of looking for emerging signs of change, for example, if you just think about it in principle as you can take it to the extreme – e.g. as you said – suggest that it could be an excuse for everyone to ask for more budget because they have seen a weak signal of change. Similarly it is easy to dismiss the importance of persisting just because there is not a neat answer as to when to persist and when not. I was trying to point out that if you see what people do in practice, these ideas seem to stack up, seem to be things that people understand and do in nuanced and sensible ways. So, my focus these days is to downplay theoretical considerations and really explore, in real life with real situations what is means to work with the real complexities of the real world (maybe a few too many reals in the sentence)! That was what my reply was supposed to be saying!

    1. Thanks Jean, I think the whole question of rules of thumb may contain some of the answers I’m looking for – a bit more explicit than just ‘instinct’ or ‘judgement’ and so more amenable to discussion, challenge and improvement, but flexible enough to notice and respond to weak signals. In my work, I use loads of them, plus mental checklists to try and spot things I’ve left out of the analysis. The checklists are more tangible, but not sure I even known what rules of thumb I use. Have you seen any work on how people develop rules of thumb and how they evolve over time? There again, one person’s rule of thumb can be another’s kneejerk prejudice – think of how economists talk about their ‘priors’…….

  8. Here’s an idea. Wouldn’t it make sense taking the complexity approach to a complexity methodology itself? I.e. experimentation, iterative adaptation etc.? Perhaps in collaboration with some scholars even?

  9. Let me be honest I have not read Masooda Banos book because I cannot find it. However, I would not agree with the statement that all aid destroys CSOs in Pakistan. We have just got the preliminary report of a third party evaluation of an AusAid funded project in over 270 remote villages of Malakand Division, where aid did make a difference in villages where the State has not reached all these years. These villages now have access to drinking water, roads and bridges, micro hydro electricity. The projects were done through communities and succesfully implemented and maintained more than a year and a half after they were completed. I think the crucial question is how is aid delivered. Some very resilient communities which survived in very harsh environments have become dependent on aid to a point where they will not lift a single stone to rebuild an irrigation channels which the community had been maintaining for centuries, while others are so resilient even today they would make a significant contribution to a small amount of international aid to make a major difference in their lives. I find the crucial difference to be in how aid is delivered. Is it delivered in a way that builds autonomy in a community or creates dependencies. Sadly most organisations delivering aid will not care about this and destroy collective action and CSOS. But there are other instances where this is not true

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