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.

2 replies
  1. Katie
    Katie says:

    It’s all so complicated that I can’t even think of a question. Environment and ISIS – where on earth do you start. I’m glad there’s people like you Wasafiri lot trying to work it out.

  2. Sian Grigg
    Sian Grigg says:

    Paul Ormerod’s book “Why Most Things Fail” goes some way to explaining 🙂
    If you don’t want to read it all, which I’d definitely recommend, here is a summary!
    and a critique:

    What I remember retaining when I read it was that there is so much information out there (known and unknown) about any given problem or situation that it is simply not possible to map out an optimal strategy because our brain’s calculating capacity is insufficient. And imagine that you could, but then try to adjust that as time and parameters change, and you increase the complexity exponentially. Even calculating all the possibilities on a chess board, which has a set number of pieces, in a set space, with only one other player, is very difficult unless we spend years and years training to do this. The evidence suggests that most plans fail when measured against original goals.

    What to do about this, as the critique above says, and what consulting firms would presumably like to know (!) is more difficult, because accepting that most things won’t end up working is not a great sales strategy. One person who might have have some answers, and another approach, is Esther Duflo, a French economist working at MIT. The following (old) article gives a flavour.
    And this one a nice journalistic, and more recent, overview:

    Basically she suggests taking an experimental approach to policy development. Scientists have known for a very long time that the natural world is very complicated, and when we don’t understand the mechanisms at work we can at least do an experiment and see what happens when the system is perturbed in different ways. So that even if we don’t understand it, we might at least understand how it reacts. Results are hugely surprising, for example that if you charge a nominal amount for mosquito nets, rather than giving them away free, people use them more because they value them more.

    Good luck with the thinking.

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