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March 16, 2016

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March 16, 2016

Which of these three books on complexity and development is right for you? Review/user’s guide

March 16, 2016
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Dave Algoso (@dalgoso ) with a handy guide to what to read for those wondering what all this complexity stuff is dave algosoabout

In the last few years, complexity thinking has found its way into general development discourse. Anyone reading this blog or others has likely encountered some of the terminology, even if the technical pieces remain elusive to you. Ready to go deeper than the blogs? Time to read a book.

Fortunately, the last few years have also given the development sector three relevant books: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity; and Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development.

It would take a committed development nerd to read the approximately 800 pages (not counting endnotes and indexes) of these three books. Since I am that nerd, let me help guide your reading.

First, the briefest possible explanation of complexity, for those who are new to the subject: Complexity thinking is a way of understanding how elements of systems interact and change over time, often leading to the emergence of unpredictable outcomes.

Ben Ramalingam coverAs a field, complexity lies somewhere between a philosophy and a science; Boulton et al call it a “worldview”. Don’t be misled by this hedging: complexity as a science (complete with computational tools and academic institutes) has found applications in ecology, meteorology, biology, physics, economics, and beyond. Yet there is great variety and even disagreement, so some find it more useful to talk about complexity sciences (plural). The popular intellectual landscape is also littered with concepts drawn from complexity thinking, such as tipping points, self-organization, power laws, adaptation, and wicked problems.

This all seems potentially relevant to the development sector. After all, what could be more complex than promoting development, sustainability, human rights, peace, and governance? Even in humanitarian aid, where the objectives may be more straightforward, the fragile contexts themselves are highly complex.

Each of these books tackles two questions—what complexity is and what it means for development/aid—in slightly different ways. Which you should read depends on what level of depth you want on either of those questions.

Embracing Complexity (Boulton et al) goes deepest on the technical aspects of complexity. The authors are complexity scientists themselves, expert users of the tools across disciplines and comfortable with terms like “equifinality” and “hysteresis”. However, their intended audience is non-specialists, and the result is authoritative yet easily followed.

As for aid and development, the book only devotes a single chapter (though other examples are scattered throughout the book). Boulton et al are actually writing about embracing complexity across many sectors. That said, the development chapter is worthwhile for its greater connection to the technical aspects of complexity described elsewhere in the book. In addition, separate chapters on the implications of complexity for management, strategy, and economics are highly relevant to development work.

Aid on the Edge of Chaos (Ramalingam) starts with a well articulated (if familiar) critique of the aid and Embracing Complexity coverdevelopment sectors. That occupies a full third of the (360-page) book. The middle third then covers complexity thinking. Unlike Boulton et al, Ramalingam’s description of complexity is more conceptual and narrative. A reader leaves with a broad understanding of concepts like emergence and nonlinearity—certainly more than you get from blogs, but without exposure to the more fine-grained details that Boulton et al discuss.

Ramalingam devotes the final third of the book to the implications of complexity for aid and development, covering adaptive strategies like positive deviance and PDIA, as well as analytical tools like social network analysis.

Navigating Complexity (Burns and Worsley) starts similarly to Ramalingam, with a critique of development and a review of complexity thinking, but both are much briefer. Burns/Worsley admit upfront that complexity theorists would find their treatment light while practitioners would find it heavy. In a single chapter, they cover just enough of the conceptual and technical side to then move readers on to the practical implications for development.

In particular, they cover three concrete approaches: participatory systemic inquiry, systemic action research, and nurtured emergent development. They tie each back to complexity concepts, with detailed case studies. Participatory approaches, learning, and network-building feature heavily.

Which should you read?

You’re busy (aren’t we all?), so let’s break it down in simpler terms. While each book is good and deserves a broad audience, each should find its key audiences based on its strengths:

  • Boulton et al’s Embracing Complexity provides the best detailed introduction to complexity, in both its thinking and practical applications. Key audiences: Strategists, managers, and anyone who wants to use complexity thinking in a detailed way.
  • Burns/Worsley’s Navigating Complexity is the most practical guide to complexity in development that I’ve seen. It also does a great job of putting participatory methods in a new light. Key audiences: Direct managers, designers, and evaluators of projects.
  • Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos gives the best insight into complexity’s implications for the sector at large. Key audiences: Donor staff, researchers, and think tankers.

Navigating_ComplexityCover1This three-part review is hardly a summary of each book, but hopefully guides your further reading. Was this enough to whet your appetite, but you’re not yet sold? Duncan has previously reviewed both Embracing Complexity and Aid on the Edge.

Closing thoughts

All three books are selective in which aspects of complexity thinking they apply to aid and development: Boulton et al are selective because they spend relatively little time discussing development, Ramalingam and Burns/Worsley because they have not introduced the more technical components of complexity. But it leaves you with the sense that there may be a richer way to apply the tools and practices.

Relatedly, few of the development approaches described actually stem from the discipline of complexity thinking. Rather, the authors have worked backwards from various approaches to explain their success in terms of complexity. It suggests the possibility for developing entirely new practices with complexity applied more deliberately. To say updated on those, you’ll have to turn back to the blogs.

[Alternatively you could just cheat and read Oxfam’s handy intro to systems thinking in programmes]


  1. Thanks for the very kind comments and the excellent comparison – which I very much agree with and think will be helpful for many readers and practitioners. However, I did want to push back a little against your statement that “few of the development approaches described actually stem from the discipline of complexity thinking… the authors have worked backwards from various approaches to explain their success in terms of complexity.”

    Of the 35 case studies I include in the third part of my book, 31 are based on the explicit, up-front, application of complexity principles and / or methods. Of the four remaining, two are Positive Deviance and Hole in the Wall, where the developers themselves used complexity principles to explain their success and employ a ‘complexity-informed theory of change’ in many of their subsequent articles. One is PDIA, which I include as an example of how adaptive principles are being used in development. And one is M-Pesa, where I don’t claim it is as a result of complexity, but instead use it to explain non-linear growth and dynamics.

    The reason I’m keen to point this out is that I used the criteria of ‘intentional use of complexity principles and methods’ explicitly in the selection of case studies – and many things did not make the cut because of this.

    Thanks again, and really appreciate your great piece and analysis. Ben

    1. Ben, thanks for chiming in. Glad I got the broad strokes, though I take the pushback that I stretched the final comment too far. (In retrospect, I think maybe positive deviance and PDIA stood out in my mind as examples of work that is explained by complexity thinking though not designed using complexity tools. Because of my prior familiarity—especially from Jerry and Monique Sternin’s story, and Matt Andrews’ book—those examples loomed large in my careless assessment of your examples.)

      But I’ll maintain that the statement holds true for the other two books. At least until Danny, Stuart, and/or Jean chime in to tell me I’m wrong. Stuart has already commented elsewhere on how he’s bringing the concepts and tools into his work with Mercy Corps in Ethiopia. I guess if the practical upshot of me being wrong is that there’s a lot more complexity-informed work going on in the sector than I thought, then I’m happy to be wrong!

  2. Hi there, Jean here, Embracing Complexity. I also thought what you said was fair and good – and glad you felt the descriptions of the science was navigable, which was the aim. And/but just to say that the approaches outlined in our chapter on development was derived from work I did do on the ground, and the approaches suggested in that chapter are developed from that work. I think it was more than building on existing approaches. It outlines ideas about programme development, ways of paying attention to emerging outcomes, ways of assessing success of projects, ways to analyse complex contexts which I hope are usable and very much did emerge out of ‘being there’ in various parts of the world. I certainly learned a lot through those trips, through meeting many stakeholders and really having an opportunity to see things through a ‘complexity lens’ and consider what it means should be done differently.

    Thanks for such an informative and balanced post! Jean

  3. Dave Algoso notes in writing about the book Navigating Complexity that “… practitioners would find it heavy.” I realize this is true, but find it troubling that practitioners somehow cannot be bothered, or don’t have time or incentive, to dig deep in complexity theory to gain an understanding which might benefit them much more than a superficial one. If, for example, we give economic advice to a nation I hope we have more than a surface knowledge of economic theory.

  4. Thanks for the heads up on another book (Burns and Worsley) in complexity and development. Having a background in agricultural systems, I clearly see the role of complexity theory (or sciences) and the applications to development. However – and without being seen as challenging current orthodoxy around development-focused complexity theory – I just have to wonder how much of complexity position can be answered by another question. Do we expect too much from development? This, of course, predisposes what we (and in we, I mean the western political, professional and academic development world) deem to be appropriate development. Given that there are challenges in development (as well outlined by Ramalingam and also observed in my professional experience), maybe explaining failures using more theory is limited and we need to have a more honest look at what we are actually doing – and why.

    Without being too blunt, is the over-drive for development actually perpetuating (unnecessary) complexity? (Okay, that is kind of rhetorical). The answer to this may not be found in complexity theory, rather it needs to come from a reassessment of the core ethos of global development practices and agendas. We need to reassess our (western) expectations which remain very different from the communities we serve. And those expectations lead directly to how we construct and argue the development discourse – past, future and present. If those expectations are met (which seems less common in literature), then that will result in a certain discourse. If the expectations are not met (which seems more common in literature), that will lead to another (current?) discourse. The discourse is then path-dependent based on what expectation has been set down. Yet, there seems to be a lot of effort expended in positioning around the path-dependant development (especially in trying to explain failures) while the expectation is essentially left unchallenged to, effectively, become a statement of fact. Ever so interesting.

    In order to formally consider complexity theory in development, we need to critically revisit our expectations. The comments from Richard Manning in Ramalingam are a start in peeling back the first layer on this issue. But it needs to be much more. Expectation has considerably more influential in aid and development then we want to admit and it is much more fundamental than the positivist demands of performance and accountability (for example).

  5. In response to Murray’s point, I agree with most of this. Organisations do often perpetuate complexity both in themselves (their internal structures and processes) and in the way they engage with their environments. And we don’t need another theory to tell us what to do in one sense. But we live in a world dominated by two other theories – the stance that the world works like a machine with all that that means for planning, standardisation, economies of scale and evidence; AND/OR the stance that the world, if left to itself, will reach a happy balance – the unregulated free market. Complexity theory is the science of open systems, it is how physics explains evolution. It occupies the middle ground between machine and free market. When you really engage with what complexity theory is -it validates our experience, our intuitive sense, our learning about what works and what does not. Complexity theory, I would say, is the statement of the obvious – when I explain it to people who live in volatile and complex contexts they get it immediately.

    So I would argue that the power of complexity is that it gives some ‘scientific’ underpinning to help navigate between the two positions of traditional management and laissez-faire. It gives support to the idea of really immersing in the issues we are trying to engage with and to find ways forward that bring together multiple interests and stakeholders; notice and respond to what changes; work with the long-term in mind. I think complexity is at its most useful when positioned as a change in mindset; it is not a method, not a tool-kit, not particularly sexy, but a reframing of the way we see things.

  6. Dave
    I think this was a great overview and accurately describes the complementarities of the books. I would encourage readers to read all of them. Certainly the focus of our book has been on what complexity tells us about how change happens, and from there how to design – support – nurture – catalyse processes that are congruent with that understanding of change. Systemic Action Research as a methodology explicitly builds on complexity and systems thinking and has been used at scale in a range of development settings. I think that Ben is right that in our books we describe a mixture of processes. Some can be described as congruent with complexity (even though this was not an explicit framing in their development) and some are explicitly framed as complexity based responses. I would for example place our case study of Community Led Total Sanitation in the first category. It is similar in nature to the M-Pesa example that Ben elaborates. The way in which initiatives like this are seeded, nurtured, grow and spread (what we call Nurtured Emergent Development) displays the core elements of complexity based change that we articulate in chapter 3 (participation, learning and intentional networking leading to ownership and appropriate action, leading in turn to sustainability and scale). Recognising these patterns helps us to be more deliberate about what I call ‘movement based change’ strategies. Some of the other work that we highlight in the book is more structured and designed as a complexity based intervention. The Myanmar community peace example started with week long trainings for community activists in systems thinking, complexity theory and methods which would help them to understand starting conditions, engage with emergent process, understand how to make interventions in non linear change processes and think about how to recognise latent attractors and model the development of alternative attractors. This has led to the emergence of rapid unpredictable change in the form of new activities, narratives and pathways for change. The Participate research which fed into the post 2015 debates also had an explicit complexity framing. I think complexity describes well how change happens? so our challenge is to understand how change happens and might happen in the domains that we care about, and develop methods to engage with it. The dominant tools of international development either ignore the hard stuff (we only do what we already know how to do, because this means that we can predict a linear set of outcomes which we can write into a log frame) or directly contradict it (scaling through roll out for example which often produces inappropriate and sometimes damaging interventions on a quite staggering scale).

  7. Thanks for the review. The methodological approach that we describe in “Navigating Complexity in International Development” has been an attempt to document key lessons and approaches that have worked, and to make sense of this through complexity thinking. Danny and I wrote the book as a distillation of experience, both from before our time working together and then from shared work. We have defined three critical initial elements – participation, learning and networks – that together enable people that live at the “point of pain” to build action around issues that are important to them, to work with these in search of solutions, and as they learn, to test and spread new evidence through networks. This, we argue creates the means for adaptation and ownership, that become the basis of “movement based change strategies”. This we argue can change system attractors and foster new patterns. And when this happens, system dynamics tip and a new system wide phenomenon is manifest. This is sustainable scale.

    Here in Mercy Corps Ethiopia, we are starting a new process of developing “social resilience.” This is in contrast to, and accompanies other work we do on economic resilience, and ecological resilience. Here, with social resilience, we are now trying to establish permanent inquiry strands that run alongside programmes, with a view to creating a live feedback mechanism that advises the actors themselves, us, other development practitioners, other actors, and importantly regional policy makers. While Navigating Complexity in International Development was born out of a sense making process, the methods and approaches we describe can be variously applied to assure that development interventions and development research do pay heed to complex social dynamics. The grounding in participation ensures that we start from an engagement with those that understand system dynamics. As such then, we are spawning an approach that is in itself emergent.

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