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

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.

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.