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Embracing complexity: welcome to our land!

By Michael Heiss under CC license

By Michael Heiss under CC license

This is the first post of a series focusing on how we can better incorporate the complexity paradigm as a key framework to tackle the challenges and questions shared by many of us interested in the interaction between research and policy.

I am increasingly interested in the complexity paradigm since I think it is undoubtedly a key framework to tackle the challenges and questions that many of us who are interested in the interaction between research and policy share. Of course I am not at all the first person to make these links. For instance, Ben Ramalingham is certainly one source of inspiration for me in this direction with very useful papers such as this one where he explores the science of complexity for development and humanitarian efforts, this one on aid in the age of chaos and this very recent one on navigating wicked problems.

The latter is very insightful in terms of providing very specific experiences on how some DFID teams have concretely applied small-scale pilots of selected complex systems methods as a response to acknowledge challenges in the type of projects/programmes which we are familiar with. This is a very valuable contribution to our field, and hopefully as time goes by many others from us, especially in the Southern contexts, can begin to implement similar type of tools and more important systematize what we learn about them so that our capacity to deal with complexity is enhanced and strengthened.

I have done some reading about complexity so far and right now I am very eager to explore how to land very useful concepts and reflections to the current practices of P&I, including how we help others think about policy influence processes and the potential roles research and knowledge could play within them.

So, in the upcoming months I will share some findings and experiences that go in this direction. For example, I have used this excellent video by the ecologist Eric Berlow on simplifying complexity  in diverse webinars as well as to define sequencing and links between modules of online courses on policy influence. One of Eric´s most powerful ideas is that we need to first zoom out (i.e. see the big picture that surrounds our work, be it our long term endeavor in general or the context of a short project in particular). This means that we need to step back, consider the entire system (i.e. do a really thorough and evidence-informed stakeholder analysis), observe all the links between components/parts (i.e. who could affect whom, why and how, especially in terms of power relationships. This is well beyond traditional communication activities where we state we will produce a policy brief to influence X profile of legislators), and from this space hone in the sphere of influence that matters most (i.e changing that policy brief to working with an union that has significant access to advisors of a certain minister). Eric argues that the more you step back and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers and it´s often a simple answer that is different from the one you started with.

This way of embracing complexity can be very well applied to the development of a really good and useful diagnostic/assessment. Let us apply it to the funding model of a think tank.  Embracing complexity when assessing the health of this model means covering all the components and issues related to it, as well as their linkages (for instance, the stress test presented at onthinktanks by Enrique Mendizabal does this very well). However, the challenge is after seeing this big picture to be able to identify where the chance of feasible change is larger. For that one needs to understand within the complex interaction of the components, a) which are most likely to play a heavy role in terms of the near future model, and also b) which of those are really under the sphere of influence/capacities and resources of the staff member or team who desire to change the model. This seems quite obvious, but how often have we found ourselves with super ambitious plans based on an over estimation of our capacity and an under-estimation of the power of other driving forces? Has anyone felt like this before?

It is also true that some people excel at doing this type of analysis very implicitly when making choices on their change agenda. Theoretically they would not need to go through longer processes like the one entailed in performing a sound assessment that acknowledges complexity. Still, they may need to do it so that others who do not have the same capability feel part of change, understand the need for it, and help things happen (or at least do not represent obstacles for change).

Zooming out: looking and listening to others, trying to better understand their interactions, more clearly detecting how we fit within that landscape and where our better opportunities reside. That´s part of embracing complexity. I do want more of it! So, what do others think about using complexity in our work?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This will be a welcome series Vanesa! I look forward to reading some of the resources you flagged.
    There have been several systems thinking and action-learning approaches that have been around for some time that will merit more attention. Of particular interest to me has been Social Analysis Systems (http://sas2.net) that includes not only a set of system thinking tools, but it starts with a review of the nature of the process or intervention itself (finding the right balance of Inquiring, Planning, Evaluating). Multi-stakeholder learning efforts are time consuming (hence not cheap) and very political: the very selection of the boundaries and stakeholders is an early challenge that requires attention. I will be most interested in learning several details about the cases that I hope will emerge in this series: who ‘owned’ the problem, who had the power & legitimacy to convene the stakeholders, what was the duration of the process, who ‘owned the budget’, and how were the outcomes unique or specific to the different parties.
    Thanks.

    • Thanks, Ricardo, it is good that we share interests in exploring this further and sharing resources is always welcome. I think SAS is certainly a tool that contributes to the mentioned challenges but I also believe like you that it takes a significant deal of resources which is not feasible for many Southern organisations (when they desire to be owners or protagonists of projects). This is my main concern: how to find out ways of working within resource-constrained contexts but incorporating complexity at the same time and in a more rigorous manner. How can we make inquiring, planning, implementing, evaluating and learning be more consistent and aligned? I believe that some preliminar answers or pilots could help us detect ways to allow organisations have a healthier way of dealing with these processes (i.e. avoiding overestimating outcomes of a project so that donors and Boards are impressed), being more strategic and honest about what is really attainable and how we can all learn and incorporate that knowledge to address those wicked problems so well described in Ramaligan´s paper. I´ll make my best to learn from people already trying out innovative answers and share them!

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