This week we have a guest blogger – Griff Griffiths, who shares some thoughts on wicked problems and complexity thinking, taken from beyond the world of international development.

Griff runs Cocomotion, works in the complex area of People and Organizational Development and describes himself as a ‘surprisingly useful person.’ He has been working, thinking and experimenting with the application of complexity thinking for longer than Wasafiri has existed; and has found himself in the midst of everything from large scale IT projects, to working with young people in Gaza, alongside a whole host of corporate world adventures.

I met Griff during a partially successful experiment to get a whole group of people to imitate a flock of birds – and he filled my head with all sorts of ideas about complexity from a world outside of international development. So, I thought we would invite him along to add some new ideas, perspectives and background to some of thinking we have been exploring at Wasafiri over the last few months.

How do we get to grips with wicked issues?

Our most intractable problems are hard to fix because they contain many more factors than we can hope to count, understand or control; because the factors are interdependent in ways we cannot always discern; and because small changes sometimes have big effects, and vice versa.  And when we do fix these problems, they don’t stay fixed. These are the so-called wicked problems and we have many of them, at all scales of human interaction – societies, communities, organisations and groups; between individuals and within individuals.

We could be better at solving them, but we’ve been focussed on other problems for quite a long time, like going to the moon or flying to Europe for twenty five pounds, which are very complicated, but for which we’ve developed sophisticated and successful techniques of planning and control. Now our wicked issues are beginning to bite hard.

So what can we do? Here are some ideas:

Change the way we think about the world

In their wonderful 2015 overview of wickedness Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence, Boulton, Allen and Bowman make the case for complexity as a worldview. They point out that the mindset that this involves  – seeing the world as interwoven process rather than interacting objects, or, as a friend of mine said recently, thinking of people as verbs, not nouns – is one which was common in the distant past, but has long fallen out of favour.

When we intervene in such a world,  we’re confronted not only with risk, but with uncertainty – it’s not merely a question of whether our interventions will work or not, it’s that they may result in the appearance of entirely new phenomena that we can’t predict in advance. Boulton et al give the example of SMS, which was a tiny feature in the then-new digital mobile networks designed to notify users of voicemail; what it became was the conduit for an entirely unexpected global phenomenon of short interpersonal messaging, which itself reshaped the way people communicate.

Use metaphor – with care

In her 1993 paper Chaos and Complexity, What Can Science Teach? Margaret Wheatley also refers to the need for a shift in consciousness and draws rich metaphors from complexity science to illustrate how our thinking about organisations can shift from organisation-as-machine to organisation-as-complex-entity. She challenges assumptions that we commonly make about human organisations based on ideas taken from, for example, mechanics (‘change happens as the result of external influences’) and physics (‘things fall apart’ – entropy). She offers alternatives, drawn from complexity science, which describe what we see in organisations in a more useful way, and suggest different ways of working.

But although models from complexity science can help us in this way with metaphor, they can’t just be transplanted in order to explain the complexity we find in human affairs. For example, chaos can mean many things: it’s been used as a beautiful metaphor for the behaviour of flourishing teams, as an obvious metaphor for anarchy, and Wheatley talks about it as breeding self-organisation and creativity. What are we to make of that?

Search for explanations

Metaphor lets us borrow language from complexity science to describe what we see; explanation gives us insight to understand and influence. We need explanatory theories of  complex human interaction to give us a basis upon which to work with wicked problems.

Glenda Eoyang (Human Systems Dynamics) and Ralph Stacey (Complex Responsive Processes) are two thinkers whose work explores the underlying dynamics of human interaction to develop theories which explain those dynamics, and show why human interaction self-organises into observable patterns. Eoyang’s work seeks to build on this to create further specific models which provide more detail for particular domains, such as community engagement or team effectiveness.

Interestingly, both Eoyang and Stacey’s theories apply at any scale of human interaction – within the individual person; in one to one interactions; within groups and in whole societies. This suggests that there might be scale free ways of working with complexity; approaches which we can use with any size of wicked problem.

Develop processes

There’s a three-minute video by Eric Berlow in another post on this blog, in which he talks about standing back, looking for patterns, choosing a sphere of influence and looking for a ‘simple detail that matters most’ as the place to intervene if we want to change things.

We are in a world of massively entangled connections. The ‘simple detail that matters most’ is quite likely a detail that also matters in some other web of connections, not just the one we are focussed on, and our actions to influence in one place may give rise to unintended consequences in another – either within our field of view or outside it.

So if we aren’t sure what the outcomes of our interventions will be, or even where or when they will occur, then we are more or less compelled to work in adaptive cycles rather than following a long term, fixed plan. What might the general features of an adaptive approach be?  Look for pattern. Find the detail that matters most. Act to influence it. See if the patterns change. Look for pattern… and so on.

But working like this presents some challenges. DFID’s report From Best Practice to Best Fit, summarised in another post on this blog, notes that “While [development] programmes exhibiting best fit can readily be described at a conceptual level, they have proved rather harder to operationalise.”

Perhaps that’s partly a question of how long people have been trying. The tech industry operationalised software development to a best fit process (Agile), after years of failing to deliver on time or within budget, or even to deliver what the client actually wanted. Agile recognises that the client’s understanding of what they want emerges as the work progresses, and changes direction as a result of that understanding, and as a result of changing environmental (market) conditions during the work.

Software is much simpler than international development, but even so, it took the industry quite a few years to work out how to do it, and several different approaches have evolved under the same broad process. And despite Agile’s success, the transition to it is by no means complete, partly because of a reluctance to let go of deeply held ideas of control – a quick glance at the Agile Manifesto gives a sense of the letting-go required.

Use what we already know

Finally, it’s worth saying that adopting a complexity worldview doesn’t require a celebratory bonfire of the GANTT charts. Some situations respond well to command and control. Some things can be planned. Some can be predicted. At least for a little while!

For more information about Griff and the work that he does check out: www.griffgrifiths.co.uk 

A review and reflections on the ODI working paper: “From best practice to best fit: understanding wicked problems in international development.

 

As philosophers, neuroscientists, pop singers and marketeers have known for years, as human beings the things we notice most in the world around us, are the things already in our own heads and own worlds. So it seems as we at Wasafiri have become more interested in how to apply complex systems thinking to our work, suddenly complexity thinking seems to be everywhere.

While there is a lot of interest in complexity based approaches to development issues, most of this ‘interest’ has stayed at a fairly conceptual and theoretical level. Generally, because whilst the theory might make sense, the application has proved, well, complex.

The ODI, working with DFID, have published a working paper that attempts to confront this gap between theory and application. The paper, ‘From best practice to best fit’examines a number of case studies in using complex systems approaches to deal with ‘wicked problems’ and, whilst acknowledging the limits of seeking generalised lessons, they offer some general points. At 55 pages the paper is far from a quick read – so here is a bit of a premise based on my almost-quick read.

  • Wicked problems are juxtaposed with ‘tame problems’ – (they have a rather nice table comparing the two on page 2). The wicked problems are those where the problem is difficult to define, has many contributing factors, where the solutions are not singular and where there is no ‘end point’ for when the problem is solved. Rather, the aim if to make things ‘better’.
  • Development approaches have been dominated by the logical framework approach – which works well for t­­ame problems (where a linear relationship between problem-inputs-outputs-solution can be mapped), but for problems where there are complex sets of relationships, where the causes of the problem are multiple and where the end point is unclear, logical frameworks have proved limited and are highly criticised.
  • From best practice to best fit – best practice has become a dominant paradigm and assumes that what works in one setting can be applied to another. This approach allows the building of generic tool kits and supports the career paths of ‘technical experts’ (that last bit might be my view). By comparison, best fit emphasises adaptability to local and changing contexts, recognising the imperfect and unique starting point.

So how to work with wicked problems?

The paper cites a number of case studies which give more insight into the messy reality of the work done, in summary:

“dealing with such [wicked problems] requires us to recognise the systemic nature of the issue; understand the interactions among key actors and their behaviours; identify the dynamics and patterns of the issue; pinpoint the range of possible intervention points; work flexibly with a range of approaches; and adapt over time.”

Key specifics they offer include:

  • Use of systems mapping to explore the relationships between actors and make visible the different issues, policies, agencies etc. that impact on the ‘wicked problem’ being explored.
  • A portfolio approach using mapping to identify entry points to influence the problem and then launching multiple, small interventions which act on the problem in different ways.
  • Iteration and real time learning about the impact of interventions, using ongoing monitoring; and being willing to adapt, change and even abandon interventions that don’t seem to have the desired impact.
  • Shorter planning horizons in not expecting to lay out a 5 year plan and keep to it come what may; and rather, knowing “that complexity or wickedness in the environment needs to be respected and uncertainty navigated, not retreated from. This is a particular challenge to the dominance of well constructed business cases, budgets, plans and the optimism bias to which they lead.

Criticising logical frameworks is a well worn argument; and to be fair, for the right job they are still a good tool. However, finding viable alternatives has proved far from easy.

We have been experimenting for several years with developing ways to work with and not despite the complexity we find in our work. I think a key revelation for us is that the nature of the complexity we face is different. So, when working in conflict affected environments, or on countering violent extremism, the way the environment and context constantly changes and evolves make it a ‘wicked problem’ and real time research becomes very important. In agricultural development the context is often more stable, but the way the stakeholders –such as government, private sector and smallholders– interact with and impact on one another, is often underestimated and even ignored in the meta planning process. So stakeholder engagement platforms become fundamental to creating any change.

Ultimately, whilst we and many others will continue to experiment with systems thinking, complexity and wicked problem based approaches, it may well be that the more radical change is applying such thinking to the frameworks, TORs and M&E requirements that drive the funding of development programmes. Be it from NGOs, national donors, or international organisations, if we all want to see more varied and adaptable approaches to development, then we need more varied and adaptable approaches to commissioning and monitoring our work.

The past month has been, in a word, complex.

I’ve found myself in London helping Google grapple with emerging markets, in Somalia with the British Government wrestling with ongoing conflict and then back to Nairobi overseeing projects tackling issues of community security and extremism. And in amongst it all, I’ve become preoccupied with the search to understand these problems better and to figure out how meaningful change can happen; which has brought me to thinking more and more about the concept of ‘complexity’ and how it cuts across all the work we do.

In recent years there has been a lot of talk of concepts such as Systems Thinking, Complexity and Complex Problems. Such thinking proposes that many of the challenges we currently face (whether as an organisation or as a global community), go far beyond being merely ‘complicated’; and that we need entirely new ways of thinking and acting if we are to make change happen.

 Complexity thinkers argue that conventional approaches to problems assume that, however big or nasty an issue is, with enough clever thinking from enough experts, with enough forecasts and models and spreadsheets, we can plan our way to a clever solution – and we can build a logical framework to prove it. In essence, this ‘theory of change’ is a theory of comprehensive planning. (It’s worth knowing the UK’s Department for International Development has pioneered this approach for global development problems).

Don’t get me wrong, this sort of approach has worked well for all sorts of issues – from building hospitals, to putting humans on the moon.

But what about those situations when we don’t even understand the nature of the problem itself? When things are so volatile that the consequences can’t be calculated, or it’s impossible to fully understand what’s going on? Or when the future we desire is difficult to predict or agree on?

These are complex issues. And as Einstein once (apparently) said: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ So it seems our usual ways of thinking won’t help us figure out the kind of complex solutions we need.

Examples include the alarming issue of violent extremism spreading across the Horn of Africa, where we don’t understand the root causes, or the consequences of intervening. Or the problem of a multinational extractives business trying to operate amongst fragile local communities, where it’s difficult to identify myriad interests and agendas. Or climate change, where we don’t really understand what is happening, why, or the future it will bring.

These are all issues we at Wasafiri are helping our clients grapple with. And they can’t be tackled merely with very good planning.

Rather, we need to think in different ways – systemic ways. We must approach such issues not with the metaphor of a machine that can be built and mended and adjusted, but as a complex living system, where there are many different things going on at the same time, connected in ways we may not see and which adapt and evolve constantly.

So my search for the threads which bind our work is helping me realise the need to stop looking for universal, simple solutions, to get rid of the mindset of linear planning and abandon the search for best practice from what has gone before.

But this journey is only just beginning. Over the coming months we will be deepening our exploration of complexity and how to bring it to the complex problems faced by our clients and partners. As we go along we will share our thinking, our questions and, no doubt, our uncertainties.

 We’d love your thoughts and questions, so please drop us a line if there is a question you would like us to explore, or a thought, experience or challenge you’d like to share.