Systemic Insight as a guided process of discovery

The first week of July is traditionally the week of the Mesopartner Summer Academy. This year, the 11th Summer Academy took place in Berlin – the 4th in the German capital. Systemic Insight was again a central pillar of this year’s Academy. We introduced it in a whole day session as a process of discovery in situations where solutions are not obvious.

systemic insight overview

A process guided by Systemic Insight enables organisations and networks of stakeholders to search for solutions to improve the performance of complex systems or emergent networks. This instrument draws on cognitive science and complexity thinking as well as experiences in the design of participatory social and economic change initiatives such as social labs or cluster platforms. At the same time, Systemic Insight was designed to allow stakeholders to work within complex issues without having to know the theories and understand abstract complexity thinking.

Systemic Insight is an iterative process where stakeholders explore the boundaries and constraints of a system in which the possibilities or solutions are unknown or uncertain. The format of collaboration, be it a multi-stakeholder platform or forum or purely bilateral interaction with the involved actors, is thereby not fixed but depends on the circumstance and can change over time. A high level of self-selection of participants into the process is encouraged. Self-selection means that local actors take ownership of the process by actively opting in, contributing to, investing in, and incorporating change in their own operations based on their interest to solve a problem or their identification with an issue.

In Systemic Insight meso level organisations are seen as central actors of change. Systemic Insight helps them to become more effective in managing change and resilient while assisting firms and networks to adapt to change in the environment. It shifts the focus of actors from responding to change towards actively testing ways to anticipate and actively create change.

The process enables stakeholders to challenge their own assumptions, discover and better understand the system and make sense of the constraints and possible opportunities. It guides them to intervene through portfolios of quick win activities or safe-to-fail experiments. Continuous learning and adjustment ensures an iterative and adaptive approach that is appropriate to tackle complex issues. In order to put learning and adjustment in the centre of the change initiative, monitoring and management functions need to be integrated to allow for decision making that is based on facts and current realities and needs.

As part of the Mesopartner research theme on complexity in development, we will continue to apply and further develop this approach. We seek to work with projects that are stuck and need a fresh approach to infuse the situation with discovery and innovative ideas.

Day 2: Basics of designing a SenseMaker framework

Fragments of Impact ModulatorsFollowing on the brief recap of day 1 of the Fragments of Impact initiative, here a few insights from day 2. This day was largely about SenseMaker prompts and signification frameworks. Signification frameworks are used to allow people to add meaning and interpret their own stories. The fact that expert interpretation usually is missing the point was the inspiration for the title of yesterday’s post: “Why experts don’t get it, and other lessons“.

So instead of interpreting the stories ourselves, we give the people who tell the stories a semi-constrained framework within which they can interpret their stories. Semi-constrained because we need to give it some boundaries in order to get the things out we are interested in. At the same time, we want to give the people the most liberty to express their own meaning of the story. As both, Tony and Dave Snowden like to mention, it happens very often that members of the research team say that the people mis-interpreted their stories when looking at the signifiers. But actually, the person who mis-interpreted the story was rather the researcher.

A SenseMaker framework starts with a prompt. A prompt is nothing else than a statement or question that provokes people to share an experience. Prompts should be formulated as open as possible while still giving the necessary direction to tell the person what experience we would like to hear (from work, home, on the road, etc.). Thus, prompts should place people in a familiar context (like the work place, the pub, home, etc.). One prompt that is often used as an example goes something like this: “You meet an old friend in a pub. He tells you that he has been offered a job in your company. What experience do you share with him if you want to either encourage or discourage him to join the company?”

After the prompt follow a number of signifiers that allow people to interpret their story. Besides interpretation, signifiers also add a layer of meaning to the story that was not evident in what people shared.

Besides learning about prompts and signifiers, the participants also put serious energy into framing their own projects in a way that can be used to design a SenseMaker framework. The idea of the Fragments of Impact initiative is to develop a handful of frameworks that are then used by all projects. So the over ten projects that were present in the room tried to cluster as good as possible in groups that shared some similar issues. Then they started to collect modulators that influence the people or situation in their projects. Based on these modulators, Cognitive Edge will then develop three signification frameworks.

Now all participants are off to their respective countries and projects. In the following months, we will organise story collection in our projects, test the framework, refine it and eventually start collecting stories. Analysis of the stories will be done in January or February 2016 in another workshop, where we all come together.

Day 1: Why experts don’t get it, and other lessons

This is a brief recap of the first day of the workshop for the Fragments of Impact initiative (I blogged about it here). The aim of the day was to give the participants an introduction to complexity and narrative research with SenseMaker®. Although I have heard many of the things already in earlier events and trainings I participated in, the refresher was useful and there were interesting new aspects I could gather.

Here a few great things I picked up, mainly shared by Tony Quinlan who did the major part of the introduction. I’m paraphrasing here, reflecting the way I perceived the points and why I thought they were.

Many projects in development first pilot their ideas. Then they want to go to scale. Tony borrowed a metaphor from Giulio Quaggiotto (@gquaggiotto) who compared pilots with fish. You put them in a little water and they seem to swim just fine. Then what many projects do is to make a whale. A whale is obviously a totally different beast and will behave in a completely different way. Instead, projects should go for a shoal of fish. They are aligned with the lessons from the pilot but still flexible to adapt to changes in the contexts and new challenges.

In order to show the importance of our history and cultural background, Tony used a simple question: which one is the odd one out from: cow, chicken, grass. The answer largely depends on where you were raised. Psychological research has shown that Westerners choose grass as the odd one out as cows and chicken are both animals. They categorise. East Asians on the other hand choose chicken as the odd one out as cows eat grass. They think much more in relations and networks.

So the above gives already a strong indication that it might be difficult for experts to interpret stories from other people. Especially in multi-cultural settings (which we often find in development). Tony brought three more reasons why experts always get it wrong (i.e. why it is not advisable to interpret stories of others):

  • Metaphors: metaphors are extremely context dependent and difficult to understand if you are not part of the specific culture, region or even village. (Tony made an example related to Cricket and unfortunately I cannot reproduce it.)
  • Sarcasm: how would you detect from a text you read if it was meant the way it was written or not? Tony gave the example of a story he once collected in Pakistan that – reading only the text – would suggest that the person was pretty radical. Using other data collected with SenseMaker, Tony figured out quickly that the text was totally sarcastic.
  • Evolution of language: language changes within generations, if not years. Parents often don’t understand many nuances of the language of their teenage and older children. This makes it difficult for (mostly senior) researcher to interpret stories of others, especially from another generation.

Consequently, the approach used with SenseMaker is to let people interpret their own stories. Today, we will work on a signification framework that we will use over the next six months to collect stories.

SenseMaker® and Systemic Change

Powered by SenseMakerI’m off to Istanbul today. I will participate there in a two-day workshop organised by Cognitive Edge and UNDP. This is part of a new initiative started by the two organisations called Fragments of Impact. The aim of the initiative is to engage with new ways of working on difficult problems in complex and fast-changing situations.

Specifically, the initiative is focused on:

  • generating fast feedback loops
  • capturing data on subtle changes in attitudes, behaviors and perceptions
  • bringing user-centered design methods to development work,
  • implementing projects with the realities of politics and power in mind
  • taking small bets and low-cost prototypes before committing large investments into multi year projects

The initiative will explore the boundaries of using Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® software to work on intractable problems in uncertain, culturally-specific environments. SenseMaker® is a research approach and software package that allows us to capture a large number of narratives around a specific issue. Instead of then interpreting the stories ourselves, SenseMaker® gives the power of interpretation to the people who told the stories. They can interpret their own stories within a given framework. The interpretations give us quantitative material that we can analyse statistically. (There is a brief video if you follow the link above by Dave Snowden, one of the brains behind SenseMaker®).

Mesopartner has already successfully used narrative research approaches and SenseMaker® in various projects. For the Fragments of Impact initiative, I have been asked to support a programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) called Yapasa. It works with rural youth in Zambia engaged in the soybean and aquaculture markets. Mesopartner also supports EDA, an economic development agency based in Banja Luka, Bosnia. EDA is also participating in the Fragments of Impact initiative.

SenseMaker® is a powerful tool to capture changes in the systems we engage with. It does so from the perspective of the people in those systems, not from the perspective of us as a researcher. Using an open prompt for stories, narrative research allows us to find change in unexpected places and shapes. It is not about confirming a hypothesis but about scanning the context widely. Self-interpretation by the people who tell the story empower them to live the stories.

We are very excited that Mesopartner is participating in the Fragments of Impact initiative. We will keep you posted on how it goes.

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.

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.