Systemic insight: an alternative to Theory of Change

This blog has first been published on my personal blog site.

I have been blogging quite extensively about the Theory of Change (ToC) approach in recent months. My blog posts reflect a process that I have been going through as part of my different work engagements: adapt ToC approaches to be more sensitive to the complexities development programmes face in their day-to-day work.

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Different phases of Systemic Insight

In parallel, with my colleagues at Mesopartner we keep doing research on understanding complex realities and our human reaction to them based on cognitive science, understanding the process of economic change, making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and managing highly resilient organisations. In these contexts, ToC has limited applicability and a number of drawbacks. Therefore, we have been working on an alternative approach to the ToC approach which we built from the ground up based on our growing understanding of how complex systems work and how involved actors can lead a process of exploration and change. The approach is called Systemic Insight. Continue reading

A new framework for assessing systemic change

Over the last year or so I was hired by a large market systems development programme in Bangladesh to develop a new framework for assessing systemic change for them. We did an initial feasibility study and then a larger pilot study. The report of the pilot study has now been published. Rather than to bore you with the whole report, I would like to share the conceptual thinking behind the framework and the framework itself in this post. In a later post, I will share the methodology. This is not the end of all wisdom and the silver bullet framework everybody has been looking for. For me this is an important step to bring my work and thinking over the last couple of years together into something practically applicable. But this work is not done as I am embarking on a longer research project on systemic change. So there is more learning to come and with it more development of this tool. Please share your thoughts, which would help me to further improve the framework. Continue reading

A new blog post on Systemic Insight at IDS

Shawn and I wrote a blog post on the IDS website about our recent article for the IDS Bulletin. Here is how it starts:

The company we work for, Mesopartner, supports development organisations to address the challenge of innovation and change towards economic development, cluster and value chain promotion and the strengthening of local innovation systems.

In our work in economic development, we often find ourselves in situations where we don’t know which interventions will work and what exactly a good outcome will look like.

As a result, those working to plan and deliver development interventions may have divergent views on what must be done and why. These situations are complex (PDF)  and uncertain (following Frank Knight’s definition of uncertainty).

Read more at the IDS blog

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.

Economic development is about introducing options, not bringing solutions

In our work in economic development, we find ourselves often in situations where we don’t know what interventions will work and how exactly a good outcome of these interventions could look like. Even the probabilities of certain things happening is unknown, and people may have divergent views on what must be done and why. Under conditions of such uncertainty, a more exploratory approach is called for to start with, where development programmes and practitioners see their role as introducing options and variety into a given context. Such an approach encourages development actors to help stakeholders explore options beyond what seems to be optimal or silver bullets from the donor’s perspective.

To give direction to such a process and enable development actors to make a judgment on whether the change that is observed is positive, we suggest agreeing on a strategic intent rather than a fixed goal or target. After an exploratory phase, we can scale up interventions and solutions that were found to work in a consistent way, spending more resources on them to see wider spread change. A move-out phase could subsequently focus on capitalization and communication with the intent to capture learning and communicate achievements.

We have recently published a journal article where we reflect on our recent thinking and experience of applying complexity thinking to the economic development field. The article was published in the IDS Bulletin (Vol 46.3) and is titled “Explore, Scale Up, Move Out: Three Phases to Managing Change under Conditions of Uncertainty”. A pre-peer reviewed version of the article can be found here.

Here is the official abstract:
Private sector development is dominated by the use of ‘good practice’ solutions, driven by a desire of the development donors to control the outcome of development initiatives – with limited success. Bottom-up participatory approaches are more appropriate to find solutions for the complex challenge of market and private sector development. Theory-based approaches are used to design and deliver solutions to economic development challenges. We argue that these approaches have limited potential to manage interventions that target systemic change in complex contexts. On the other hand, alternative approaches based on emergence have some essential shortcomings from the perspective of the international development system. Based on our own working experience, we propose a pragmatic way forward that aims to build on the strengths of emergence-based approaches in complex contexts but is designed to work in the current development environment.

This article is based on our experience in working in economic development and our study of complex systems sciences and complexity thinking. Until now, our work has predominantly focused on helping existing projects based in developing countries when they are stuck, or when they realize that their original planned approach is not yielding the desired results. In a sense, this is easier than trying to set up a completely new project that is following all principles and heuristics of emergent approaches. Thus, we need to take an experimental approach to this as well. We need to find a donor that is ready to test these ideas and can also absorb some failure before we have come to a fine-tuned approach that works. Management and steering arrangements have to be developed and tested. The relationship between donor and implementer has to shift significantly from one based on top-down control to one that is marked with the motivation to achieve change together.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts, concerns and experience of introducing options in order to increase variety in economic development.

Shawn and Marcus

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.