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.

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.