The importance of outliers

When you do an analysis to promote local economies and innovation, who is your target group? We at Mesopartner have always emphasized that it is of key importance to understand the system in which a business acts. This involves the informal and formal relations in which businesses interact with others (e.g. in clusters, buyer-supplier networks, value chains and innovation systems), the perspective of businesses, including their perception about themselves, their markets and their business strategies, and finally the market forces that are in place in related subsectors.

Getting a preliminary feeling for the reality does not always require lengthy analysis. Rapid appraisals and direct interaction can be a starting point and provide a first insight into the system. However, it also requires a good selection of interviewees from businesses and supporting institutions. How would you select the target group for such an analysis? Many analysis frameworks take the following approach: businesses are first selected from a sector, cluster or value chain, followed by important institutions in the environment (technology stations or centres, knowledge providers, R&D organisations, training institutes, etc.). They are interviewed, conclusions are drawn and interventions designed.

For some time Mesopartner has been reflecting on how to improve the way in which we do analyses to better understand the complexity of the environment in which we work and promote interventions.

One important aspect for gaining a better understanding of patterns in complex systems is to ask yourself once the overall analysis has been done, What is really going on here? What patterns of behaviour can we identify? An important aspect which we now stress is to look at outliers, which behave and act very differently from the majority.

In economic development promotion, this outlier perspective is often not much taken into consideration, and often businesses and institutions with similar patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking are visited. What is needed far more is the identification, already at the preparation stage of the analysis, of outliers as an important aspect; not only as an add-on, but as a key perspective. Which outstanding businesses and supporting knowledge institutions are behaving differently from the usual way of doing things? What is driving them? What are their patterns of positive and negative behaviour? How do they deal differently with the reality and the system around them?

In our work in Mesopartner we firmly believe that you have to start working with what you have rather than building parallel structures. Just few weeks ago in a Mesopartner meeting I was introduced to a methodology called “Positive Deviance” (Thanks Sonja!, @sonjabl) and the insight greatly aroused my interest. It assumes that in every community there are positive deviants that have specific attitudes, cognitive processes and behavioural patterns that differentiate them from the majority. They generally find different and new solutions, they follow new paths – they can be very small and typically not show up on the radar screen. Instead of making heroes of these businesses or people, it is rather the objective of the approach to demonstrate that in a specific community, cluster or sector there are uncommon behaviours which have proven to be successful and which can be adopted by all because they are already being practiced by a few within the network.

While the positive deviance approach looks very much at positive examples, it is my understanding that it is as important to look at outliers in order identify negative behaviour patterns that are in place. Both perspectives are important and necessary to gain a better sense of the dynamics of the system.

In his commendable book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell especially tries to overcome the argument that the success or failure of outliers is related only to individual experience, (lack of) talent and motivation. He places much emphasis on the role of the system that shapes the development of outliers:

The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn, it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight before it matured. We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them…?

An intensive search for outliers in our daily work can provide us with deeper insight into how the social system, innovation system or cluster works and where to test interventions to promote interrelations.

Systemic Insight and complexity: looking forward

This week, the five partners of Mesopartner and Marcus are meeting in South Africa for the annual partner meeting. The meeting is an important event for mesopartner where knowledge and learning is exchanged, new ideas and theories are shared, the Summer Academy is planned, and many other strategic issues are discussed.

One of the central topics this year again was complexity and our Systemic Insight approach. We revisited some of our work that we have done last year building on our learning about complexity and connected tools. For example we shared the learning of the narrative research we did in Latin America as part of a larger study for the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Funds (MIF).

Today, we were joined by Sonja Blignaut (More Beyond / @sonjabl), talking about her experiences with working with narrative and opportunities to work together in various projects. One of the discussion points we had in particular was the difference between systems thinking and complexity thinking. Sonja explained that complexity thinking is not just an evolution of systems thinking, but actually a completely new paradigm. And as it goes with paradigms, if you stick to the old one, you either get stuck or more likely you loose out. So the question is how we get international development to make this paradigm shift. The problem is that most of international development has not even arrived consistently in the systems thinking paradigm!

After Sonja’s visit we continued our discussion around Mesopartner tools and approaches and whether we need to adapt them based on our new learning. We agreed that our Systemic Insight approach is still valid, but that we should stronger tie it to the Cynefin framework and the intervention strategies of the framework – in particular the probe-sense-respond logic in the complex domain. Again, understanding the underlying theory and principles is more important than the tools.

Thinking out loud: Is aid systematically unsystemic?

Dr Shawn Cunningham:

This a cross posting from my own blogsite. Marcus and I decided that the content also fits the Systemic Insight blog.

Originally posted on Shawn Cunningham's Weblog:

I am taking a risk with this post, but I am sure my regular readers will tolerate this attempt to think out loud. I have been fortunate in the last months to focus my praxis almost completely on the topic of complexity and systems thinking in development, with a particular emphasis on innovation systems and the technological evolution of industries and regions. This is partly why you have not heard from me in the last 2 months. Shifting from advocating for a different approach to actually assisting with the shift has been a really exciting venture.

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and not of Mesopartner. 

In Mesopartner, systems and complexity thinking is now central in our work (see your Systemic-Insight theme page). Not surprisingly, my main customers for working on systems and complexity is not development programmes per se, but meso level institutions tasked with supporting…

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New Mesopartner working paper on complexity theory and development

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 12.20.50For the last 3 years we at Mesopartner have been purposefully experimenting with complexity and systems theories in our practice. Not only did we change our company logo and strapline based on our new learning, we started to dismantle and question almost every aspect of our instruments, tools and theories.

This was a steep learning curve for us and for our key customers who agreed that we could embark on these serendipitous journeys together. While we still believe in bottom up development, we are wondering about how to achieve developmental change within the typical timelines and resource constraints that development projects often face.

One of the results of this process is this website, where we want to share our thoughts and invite our followers to contribute to the discussions we have.

A new Mesopartner working paper now provides a theoretical grounding for the work we have done in the last three years and will continue to do. We consider some definitions, ponder the implications and try to formulate some responses to some of the key challenges that systems and complexity theories confront us with in our field of bottom up economic development.

We see this paper as an input into a broader discussion with our close collaborators, our close clients, and the broader network that we form part of. We ask  you to send us your thoughts and add your comments to this and future posts.

Gaining Systemic Insight

We have updated this website with the Mesopartner Systemic Insight Approach. This approach has been developed by Mesopartner as a guide for practitioners that are entering into a complex environment to implement a change initiative.  It guides organizations and practitioners through a whole cycle of a change initiative and can be applied in all different fields of economic development like local and regional economic development, (global) value chain development, making markets work for the poor, cluster development, etc. The approach is based on the principles and ideas around intervening in complex systems. It also takes into account, that not all problems we are facing are complex and we need to be able to differentiate between different types of problems as we need to use different strategies to tackle them.

We see Systemic Insight as a very organic and evolving approach, not something that is finished and can be published. We are applying it in our daily work. Still, we keep improving and adjusting the approach as we go along. We hope to capture these developments and more in the Systemic Insight Blog. We always appreciate your feedback, comments, and experiences to keep improving.

Find more about the approach here.

We are also working on a background working paper providing you with the theoretical introduction to complexity and complex systems that builds the basis for the Systemic Insight Approach.

Episode 4: Interview with Jeanne Downing

We have just published this interview with Jeanne Downing of USAID under our Podcast page.

Jeanne Downing, Senior Enterprise Development Advisor, Office of Microenterprise Development, USAID talks about the discussions she and her colleagues have within USAID about the necessity of using a systemic approach in development. She mentions the need to switch away from linear approaches towards approaches that are better able to capture the complexities of real world phenomena, especially when taking into account the new focus on resilience, which puts a further layer of complexity on the work in market systems. With regard to Monitoring and Evaluation frameworks, Jeanne gives examples of work that has already been done to make them more systemic, for example the Degrees of Evidence paper. M&E in complex systems mean accepting that the route a project takes from the baseline to the projected endline cannot be planned or predicted. Projects that take a facilitation approach need to be nimble and adaptable, which ultimately translates into increased sustainability. Jeanne also stresses the importance of collaborative learning between practitioners, donors, and researchers.

This episode is part of the Systemic M&E series and was produced in partnership with the SEEP Network.

What is complexity? II

607px-cynefin_framework_feb_2011One concept I like when I’m thinking of complexity is the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden (see the picture on the right).

The beauty of the framework is that it helps you to categorize problems in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it gives you a strategy for each of these domains how to design your problem solution. For example for complicated problems the strategy would be ‘sense – analyze – respond’, meaning that first you have to sense the problem, analyze the system (or call in experts who know the system) and respond based on the analysis. Continue reading