The next step in systemic change

Over the course of 2016, Shawn and I worked on a piece of research on systemic change in market systems development, funded by the BEAM Exchange. In this work, we question the utility of the concept of systemic change in market systems development (though this is valid in the wider field of economic development) as it is currently used and suggest a rethink. To do so, we went back to search for a fundamental understanding of economic change. This is what we found.

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Blog series on Theory of Change

If you are not following my personal blog, I would encourage you to check out my recent blog post series on the use of a Theory of Change approach in complex development programmes. There are four blog posts in the series:

Enjoy reading!

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

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.

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

Episode 2: Interview with Shamim Bodhanya

In the episode Marcus interviews Dr. Shamim Bodhanya. The podcast explores the origins of complex adaptive systems research and the application of its findings to development work. Bodhanya explains the characteristics of complex adaptive systems and their consequences in social systems such as the economy. He stresses the need to include multiple perspectives to develop a systemic view on markets and allow for solutions from within the system to involve rather than prescribe top-down solutions. In this sense, he points out, development project need to be co-constructed by multiple stakeholders. Project goals should not be predefined and be flexible enough to be able to change as the project traverses though time.

This episode was produced in partnership with the SEEPnetwork.

What is Complexity?

Our work in economic development is generally taking place in complex systems. But what, exactly, does complexity mean? In their award winning article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making“, published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2007, David Snowden and Mary Boone feature a box in which they describe the main characteristics of complex systems. I found this to be a very comprehensive and yet understandable description an that’s why I want to share it here. Continue reading