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March 7, 2011

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March 7, 2011

How can better models of change sharpen up our work on development?

March 7, 2011
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Regular visitors to this blog will know that I’ve been doing quite a lot of floundering about thinking on different models of change (e.g. what triggered the revolution in Egypt? What does complexity theory add to/subtract from our thinking about development?) Partly it’s because in my ideal world, every time an NGO or research institution publishes some recommendation for change (of policy, practice, attitudes) it would include a power analysis of how/when it might actually come about – the drivers, blockers and waverers among different political and social actors, and the possible triggers for change. The largely meaningless phrase ‘political will’ would be banished forever. Well, I can always dream….

I set out where I’ve got to at IDS last week – there’s nothing like presenting to a room packed with illustrious academics and sharp-witted students to get the mental juices flowing (as well as exposing every weakness and confusion in your arguments).

The powerpoint is here, and you can listen to the lecture here, so I won’t rehearse the whole thing. Rather here’s a few reflections on the discussion.

Levers v Envelopes:
It feels like the discussion on change is getting unhelpfully polarised between two camps. On one side are what I call the ‘levers people’, who prefer to work with predictable, plannable change models – they are basically looking for levers of change they can pull, whether through advocacy or programming, to make change happen. They want lots of rigorous monitoring and evaluation to help improve the quality of such work.

On the other side are the ‘envelope people’, who see change as complex, emergent and unpredictable, essentially an unknowable black box, and so are highly sceptical of attempts to plan (‘log frame-ism’), pull levers or measure impact. Ros Eyben, an archetypal envelope person, reckons (slightly tongue-in-cheek) that if we administered a Myers-Briggs personality test to the two camps, we would find a pretty exact split – levers people need predictability; envelopers relish paradox and surprises. If true, it doesn’t bode well for the dialogue between them.

Horses for Courses:
But surely the most appropriate model of change varies according to the change process? Expanding service 280px-Cynefin_framework_Feb_2011provision, or infrastructure, lends itself to the levers model, whereas social transformation may well be best captured by envelope models. One approach that partly captures this ‘horses for courses’ approach is the Cynefin framework (see diagram), which divides up change processes into four categories:

Simple: relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all

Complicated: relationship between cause and effect requires investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge.

Complex: relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect

Chaotic: there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level

I think we could probably learn a lot from an institution that specialises in (and plans for) working in chaotic environments – the military. How do you combine the planning necessary to make sure troops are equipped, both physically and mentally, for combat, with the improvisation and agility required in combat?

Another (pretty obvious) part of the ‘horses for courses’ approach is that lever people have much more success explaining past changes than future ones (various aphorists are credited with saying ‘I never make predictions, especially about the future’). But we (NGOs, activists, anyone interested in change) live and work at the place where the (largely) unknowable, emergent future and the (on a good day) analysable past collide, namely the present. Shades of TS Eliot and Four Quartets.

The question is, can thinking more analytically about change help us operate more effectively in the present – Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’? I think it can – one example: with better understanding of both envelopes and levers, we should be able to spot opportunities for advocacy much quicker. Change is rarely a single moment, but a process, spread over months and years – the Egyptian and Tunisian upheavals are far from over. Often the earlier you get involved, the more impact you can have. How have organizations been using their change models to develop advocacy priorities, partnerships etc in such countries, or have they merely been trying to work out if there is a humanitarian emergency requiring a relief effort? Indeed, could better change models help development people become as agile and decisive in their response to events as their humanitarian colleagues, showing the same dynamism in responding to advocacy opportunities as we currently do to humanitarian threats?

Which brings me to my final rumination. It’s notable how quickly these discussions revert to what are essentially management and recruitment issues. How do we equip existing advisers on livelihoods, healthcare, disaster relief etc, who may see themselves primarily as technical specialists, to think systematically about change? And that may mean thinking about who we recruit in the first place – working on the cusp between levers and envelopes, spotting opportunities quickly, being entrepreneurial, coping with uncertainty may all require a very different kind of person than simply grinding through the Plan (back to Myers Briggs again).

All comments and suggestions welcome – I’m trying to sort out my work programme on this, and need all the help I can get.

[Update: really useful comments, keep em coming!]


  1. In terms of the two envelope people – One alternative to MBTI is Kirton’s work on Adaptation-Innovation theory, known as KAI. It suggests we approach the world from either an adaptive perspective (working with what exists and making it better) or an innovative perspecive (working on something completely new). People who prefer adaptive and innovative approaches often irritate one another – ie innovators sometimes call adaptors ‘bean counters’ and adaptors call innovators ‘loose cannons’.

  2. The Cynefin framework neatly illusrates why promoting ‘best practice’ may not be best, and your discussion also illustrates why different people have different preferred approaches to the management of change. There will always be evolutionists and there will always been revolutionaries.

    I think there three other factors that need to be considered :
    1) the structural changes in the context in which we are working – greater interconnectivity and globalisation means that we are more likely to be spendng more time on the left hand side of the model than the right
    2) Change in complex systems often occurs around a tipping point that often only seen after the event and often may not in itself be a rational or predictable event eg self immolation tunisia
    3) Tipping points are all about timing, and cycles of change are occuring faster ‘in real time’, which further compounds the challenges of ‘planning change’

  3. A nice post on an important issue. But I would argue that it cops out of the key question. It’s easy to conclude that essentially “it depends on the context”, and even perhaps to break down different types of contexts and explain what works in which situation.

    But I, as a committed envelope person, would suggest that very little of development work belongs in the “simple” category, and I’m confident that your “levers people” would disagree.

    Using these categories (simple, complex, etc.) doesn’t change the fundamental disagreement between levers people and envelope people, which is that they don’t agree on what category the problem they’re working on fits into.

  4. My god, Duncan….this is all getting very philosophical, isn’t it? The simple truth might be more in line with that espoused by French post-modernist thinkers like Jean-Louis Lyotard, who back in 1984 argued, with great foresight, that there has been decline of metanarratives, in the sense that people no longer place their faith in all-encompassing theories about the way the world works or about society. The world is a complex place, and we each bring our subjective, partial evaluation to events.I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I am not sure this line of thinking will take you very far. Good luck though….

    Duncan: I know what you mean Andy, but that’s why I chose the title of this post. We use models of change (good governance, it’s all about social movements, growth is key, rights-based approach etc etc), even when we aren’t aware of it, and that shapes how we respond to events around us. A conscious exploration of our assumptions, and alternative models, should help us sharpen up our act. I don’t think we need a new metanarrative, in the sense of a single all-encompassing theory, but we need a more comprehensive menu of options so we can pick the best change model to understand a particular process. eg a model that explains the success/failure of judicial reform is unlikely to be as useful for, say, shifting attitudes to violence against women, or the upheavals in Egypt.

  5. Good post, thanks. Tricky to use the military as an example of planning for chaos: see the oft quoted “Every plan is good until the first shot is fired” or, more bluntly, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” (Mike Tyson), which goes to “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential. (W. Churchill). Isn’t all that about encouraging, enabling people, as you say, to be ready to respond to what happens, what people tell you, rather than believe in your plan, which takes us back to successful military campaigns, and commercial marketing too, as we know from Mintzberg (on emergent marketing) onwards. None of that is new, but it’s never been a way to convince donors to invest

    Meanwhile, small geek point, why not share your slides in an open platform like, which makes it easier to pass on the ideas (and broadens audience)


    Duncan: thanks Pete, I knew people wouldn’t like the military bit! On the geek point, that’s what I thought I’d done. Sigh. Back to the drawing board……

  6. To agree with comment already made… I think it bears reminding ourselves, in this at times overly academic debate, of the reality that we are in the business of ‘investing’ other people’s money – individual donations and public or corporate monies etc in the first instance, but in real terms, money that belongs to those women, men, children, and communities living in poverty for whom and with whom we are trying to contribute to positive change. We have been entrusted with this money on the understanding that we add value to it, and it’s simply not acceptable to say that we are unable to know whether we are putting that money to good use. This isn’t about whether you’re ‘levers people’ or ‘envelopes people’ but about basic accountability, and ‘horses for courses’ argument seems a better fit than polarised camps. Obviously not everything we do will fit neatly into a logframe, and change is not often contained, linear, predictable and/ or replicable, but we nevertheless have a responsibility to act with explicit and, wherever possible, shared intention; to be transparent with our models of change, whatever they may be; explicit with the rationale behind our choice(s) to invest in working on or attempting to influencing X issue in Y way(s); curious and flexible enough to check in on the dynamics we are trying to influence in real time and adapt our contribution(s) in light of what we find; and humble enough to continuously ask, and consider to the best of our ability, the question of whether we are adding value, whether we are actually contributing to positive changes – or whether such changes are taking place despite us, or worse still, whether we are impeding the speed or extent such changes might otherwise manifest. For me, this is the essence of monitoring and evaluation – basic tools of accountability, to help us ‘sharpen our act’ irrespective of our particular model of change, rather than characteristic of one camp or another.

    Duncan: nice synthesis Claire, but how do we prevent that ‘responsibility to act with explicit and, wherever possible, shared intention’ from pushing us towards spending our money in areas where it’s easiest to prove attribution (‘bore holes and goats’ to caricature), even when it may not be the priority from the point of view of poor people (domestic violence and freedom from official abuse, say)?

  7. Great to see more people discussing complexity and aid. Here is a nice video of Dave Snowden explaining the framework in which hem emphasizes the point yo make about people’s preference to work in one or other domain of the Cynefin framework and also how each different domain implies different methods of action.

    What would be really interesting is if more people would explore these ideas in terms of what they mean for we should design and implement aid programmes. Most aid practice and tools and prctices are firmly in the “simple” or “complicated” domain but lots of the issues we are dealing with include economic, political and cultural issues as well as “technical” ones and so are more likely to be “complex”.

    Ben Ramalingam has written a lot about complexity and aid on his excellent blog Aid on theedge of Chaos

    Here is my own attempt to show that while complexity is well, complex – there are strategies for adressing it in how we do aid that are not actually that difficult to do, but are different from how we usually do things at present:

  8. Point taken Duncan, and of course a very live conversation at the moment with concerns that the Value For Money discourse shifts the focus of funding, and programming with it, towards ‘easy wins’ issues in ‘easy’ contexts. But I’d argue that the danger you’re alluding to – that efforts to isolate the question of attribution will lead us to only do what can easily be measured and solely attributed to easy to isolate interventions- sits predominantly with a parallel, though related, discussion among equally polarised camps around experimental designs vs participatory approaches. At the most basic level, what I’m saying is simply that good intentions are not enough, that even those that argue that change cannot be predicted are making choices about where and how to intervene and there is a responsibility there to ‘sharpen our act’, as you put it, and at a minimum be explicit with our intentions, transparent with our choices, humble and curious about our value added, and flexible in our engagement. Much of the work we do is about standing in solidarity with those who rights are being denied or abridged, and building their abilities, in the broadest sense, to redress these issues themselves. These are difficult spaces to work in. Change is slow, messy and often painful. And we mustn’t shy away from these challenges, but we need to move beyond an intention to help, to really think about where we can add value and act purposely, all the while questioning our own assumptions about how change happens, and being prepared the rethink our engagement if we find that we’re not adding value, or not adding as much value as we might. And that means drawing on appropriately robust, reliable and unbiased information to help us understand (not isolate) and reflect on our contribution(s) in real time.

  9. A nice post, with a great spread of replies.

    As I understand it, you’re looking for useful material on theories of change. Great idea to work on. Have you read John Kotter? Peter Singer’s biography of Henry Spira? The War of the Flea?

    Unfortunately, I think that the material you’ve cited here is virtually useless. It fails some very basic tests, such as:

    (a) Do people who promote these theories have a proven ability to make things change? No.

    (b) Do people with a proven history of making change, use these theories? No.

    (c) The theories draw on the authority of recent popular developments in mathematics and physics. Are they true to that material? No.

    (d) Do mathematicians and physicists point to this material as a useful contribution to their field? No.

    (e) What are the implications of the theory being true? Well, one implication would be that you could gain a slight advantage in responding to the stock market. Since leveraging the market can quickly make you a billionaire, are the proponents billionaires? No. Someone who does understand the mathematics of chaos and is a billionaire is George Soros. Read him. Also Nicholas Taleb, who knows about statistics, and how not to fool yourself.

    What you are looking for in the initial dream of “possible triggers” for change is likely impossible. If you knew these things, you would be one of the most powerful people on earth, able to direct the future of entire societies. Though I can understand the dream in terms of wanting to alleviate suffering, I think we’d agree it would not be so healthy for individuals to possess such a power. But if one person could know, then so could others, and if they had all different desires for the future, as they would, then they would fail: not all their futures could come true. And that’s why its not possible.

    I’m surprised at this question: “What triggered the revolution in Egypt?” As far as I know, the answer was simple: Tunisia. What triggered Tunisia? A man self-immolating.

    Can we predict that a man self-immolating in Tunisia will trigger the fall of the leader of Libya? What complexity theory actually says is: no. We can’t know in advance what the trigger of such a cascade will be, or what the consequences of the trigger will be.

    The Cynefin Framework is based on an assumption that there are distinct states of the world called “simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.” There are no such states. Take a billiard table: what you would think is a classic, simple, Newtonian system. But the fact is that in order to predict where a ball will be after ten caroms, you have to take into account the gravitational effects of the people standing in the room, and the position of nearby stars. That’s because it’s position after 10 caroms is enormously sensitive to initial conditions.

    Another pop distinction is this one: “…scholars who study the science of complexity distinguish among simple problems (addressed by defined steps like cooking recipes), complicated problems (such as landing on the moon that require many experts of different types) whose eventual solutions are repeatable, and complex problems (raising a child) that feature variable characteristics and unpredictable challenges.”

    Well, anyone who has a raised a child or engaged in a big project knows well that child-raising is full of recipe-like solutions, solutions that require experts, and problems that have unpredictable challenges. And so too do does landing on the moon. Or even walking to the store… depending on what happens.

    You and various respondents draw parallels to MBTI, simple dichotomies like adaptive/innovative, or levers and envelopes, evolutionary/revolutionary… (I like farmers and hunter-gatherers myself). All of these are cute, and useful in their way, but they are thin, and tend to dissolve on even the slightest inspection. Is the iPhone evolutionary or revolutionary? I can see both. Was Marx evolutionary or revolutionary. He was both. Were Jobs and Marx thinking in these terms when they changed the world? Absolutely not.

    All of these are simple whiteboard games, useful in brainstorming and workshops, but with limited if any deep application in the real world. In fact, they tend to be used in workshops, and they tend not to be used in difficult real world situations: like North Africa today. I doubt that Clinton, Gates and Obama are currently dichotomising or constructing fourfold diagrams. They are most likely using far more powerful tools: brains, experience, feeling, conversations.

    What actually matters, then? I’m going to suggest something wholly different: that what matters in a development context is not any kind of simple frame or theory, but experience… or what Aristotle called “phronesis”, sometimes translated as “practical wisdom”: knowing what to do in context.

    Studies of expertise have shown that its only early entrants to a field that use these kind of simple models. As students become experienced practitioners, whether of music or development, these kinds of models fall away in importance, and are replaced by something else: expertise.

    I understand phronesis in terms of case-based reasoning, a way of seeing is used most explicitly by lawyers in argumentation and doctors in diagnosis. The more experienced you become, the more cases you have in your memory palace, and the more experience you have in applying cases correctly. This is far from the simplistic if-then statements of models.

    If you want to know who an NGO should put on the ground in Egypt or Libya, the answer (already known) is someone experienced in such situations. The idea that you would send somebody selected by some MBTI-style test, on the basis of somebody else’s analysis of the political situation as being in one of four categories… surely, that can’t sound right to you.

    Rick Davies cites Chris Rodgers as reaching the following conclusion:

    • life is complex all the time, not just on those occasions which can be characterized as being “far from certainty” and “far from agreement” …
    • this is because change and stability are inextricably intertwined in the everyday conversational life of the organization …
    • which means that, even in the most ordinary of situations, something unexpected might happen that generates far-reaching and unexpected outcomes …
    • and so, from this perspective, there are no “levels of complexity” …
    • nor levels in human action that might usefully be thought of as a “system”.

    and then dismissed it as too “Zen”. It’s not Zen, it’s just true, and demonstrably so.

    This may seem like a non-answer. There is an answer, but not in the terms you’ve asked for it. The answer lies not in attempting to build models that tell you how to behave. If you are behaving according to a model, you are almost certainly blowing it, because any model is vastly simpler than the faculties of that complex organism that you are. You are replacing a complex system (you) with a simple system (one of the models.)

    Your faculties cannot, should not, and — thankfully, usually are not — reduced to models. Ask yourself, truthfully, whether you would want to be operated on by a surgeon, defended by a lawyer, or flown by a pilot who was practicing their craft by thinking about first and second order cybernetics. And if not, what you would want of them. If we development practitioners want to develop the same kind of standing in our community, we have to be look what makes such professionals trustworthy. And pursue that.

    The alternative to model-making is to engage with the situation. Engage with others who have experience in such situations (either directly or in text.) And do that over and over, for as long as you practice. And if that answer doesn’t sound surprising, it’s because that’s how good innovators, peacebuilders, revolutionaries, diplomats and leaders already work. Read them, and see how they think.

    I recommend too, along these lines
    • current literature on expertise;
    • current literature on influence
    • Lakoff and Johnson on embodiment
    • Hubert Dreyfus on Heidegger.

    Duncan: Great post David, thanks. It feels like it’s partly based on frustration of sitting too long in arcane academic debates on change models that have little connection with the real world (whatever that is). That certainly doesn’t reflect where I’m coming from. Oxfam’s full of the kinds of people you describe – with huge experience at dealing with complex situations. And ‘get experienced people into difficult situations’ is a pretty good description of how we and many other development practitioners work. So I’m not arguing that development organizations should give themselves over entirely to scholarly contemplation of models of change – no chance of that, given the overriding activism of the kinds of people who go to work for them. But a little contemplation and reflection would, I think, make us more effective activists!

  10. Since it is International Women’s Day, I thought it was a good moment to mention the impact of this agenda on women’s rights and gender equality. Like previous posts, I am also concerned that emphasis on value-for-money and evidence can lead to over-simplification and focus on what is most easy to measure, rather than what is needed. A good example would be the Girl Effect videos, which -whilst compelling and media savvy- also paints an unreal picture of linear change. Rosalind Eyben has an interesting discussion about this here ( I’m sure this agenda is being felt everywhere, but I think this is particulaly pertinent for women’s rights and gender equality work. I think it’s is a myth that there is a ‘magic bullet’ for contesting deeply imbedded power structures – yet development organisations are being increasingly being pushed to come up with these. I agree with Claire when she says change is slow, messy and often painful. For programmes tackling gender inequality, we have to get better at tracking this messiness – particularly the negative change, reversals and backlash. Pittman and Batliwara discuss some of these issues in this interesting paper, “Capturing Change in Women’s Realities”:

  11. Plus, here’s a quick plug for an interesting event being organised by the Gender and Development Network:

    Women’s Rights in the Current International Aid Environment: Challenges and Opportunities

    Join us on Thursday 7 April as Rosalind Eyben discusses the implications of the new aid agenda for women’s rights. Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, working on power and relations in the international aid system. She convenes the global policy programme of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium. She has published extensively on aid relations, and is currently working with a network of practitioners seeking to influence donors to use a broader range of conceptual and methodological tools for impact assessment.

    3.30-5pm: Afternoon Seminar on Women’s Rights in the Current International Aid Environment: Challenges and Opportunities – Open to all
    Venue: CAFOD Romero House, 55 Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7JB

    Space is limited. Please RSVP by Thursday 31 March to the Gender and Development Network ( cc’d if you would like to attend.

  12. Sorry, I’m coming late to this fascinating post and discussion. My expectation was to see proposals for improved projects based on verifiable change models – well, I guess I was wrong and I walk away with a sense of confusion.

    Actually, I’m worried: for example, how can you consider a “chaotic” model something practical to follow (and I won’t discuss here the other elements of the Cynefin framework – just to keep my argument simple) ? And when I write “practical”, I mean “accountable to the donor”.

    Does it imply that one jumps in a situation (say post-revolution Egypt) with money in one’s hands and runs around looking for “useful” things to do in the on-going chaos?

    I presume – from reading the interesting commentaries – that you send someone with previous experience in this kind of context so that the “looking around” will be expertly done. And that the “usefulness” of what you eventually end up doing will be things the aid beneficiaries (victims?) have asked for. Yeah, because aid is supposed to be participatory, right?

    So how about not having any model at all? You could simply start with (a) an in-depth survey of the situation from a team of experts (= to get different angles on the situation) plus involvement from the locals (the victims of the situation). Follow this with (b): a well-defined action targeted to a well-defined goal. Finally (c): launch in the field carefully selected aid workers both international and local to accomplish the afore-mentioned well-defined action…

    But I guess the logframe approach, even updated with a participatory dimension, is out of fashion…

    Duncan: Thanks Claude, but without an idea of how change happens, whether it is likely or unlikely etc, how would you decide where to send these wise men and women, and what budget they should have? Humanitarian aid has a metric – immediate human need, but there is no obvious equivalent in long term development. ‘Poverty’ ignores the fact that it’s easier to have an impact in some times and places than others – however inexact, a change model helps you think about those times and places.

  13. Hi Duncan,
    I think I’m in a similar place to you on this – fascinating, but what do you do with it? I have a lot of sympathy with David’s demolition job on the whole area, and “everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face” seems to sum a lot of this up. I work in the NHS, and the critical insight is that we can’t plan as if we are working in a mechanical system (levers thinking), we work in a complex adaptive system, where small changes can have big impacts, outcomes cannot be predicted etc. Paul Plsek has done some interesting work on large scale change in this environment ( [sorry, cant hyperlink] need to understand “patterns” [behaviours, system dynamics etc], structures and processes to initiate sustainable change). Having said that I’m still trying to work out what you actually do with it ….

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