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.
For 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.
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.
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.
One 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
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