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Navigating Complexity - Navigating Complexity 2008

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Navigating Complexity – An innovation dialogue

May 26-27, 2008
What does complexity thinking mean for development interventions?  This innovation dialogue offers a unique opportunity for exploring how emerging insights from the complexity sciences and systems thinking, combined with field practice, could reshape assumptions about the design, monitoring and evaluation of development work.  What does it mean to shift from compliance with external standards to investing in capacities for navigating complexity?
What is the problem? -
The development sector is under much pressure to show impact, with its performance in terms of poverty alleviation under considerable critical scrutiny in recent times. Think of Easterly’s critique and unabated efforts in all agencies and across agencies (e.g. 3IE) to show pathways of concrete impact as planned. Amidst these trends, those active in the sector face a series of dilemmas. For example, while development sector actors generally acknowledge the non-linearity of change pathways, logical framework matrices still rule as the main instrument to track progress.  Also, despite the agreement that change requires simultaneous actions by many actors at different levels, impact attribution is still considered possible and necessary. Notwithstanding everyone’s recognition that all is in flux and cannot be predicted, the aid system still demands precisely defined anticipated outcomes many years in advance of expected realization – and uses the achievement of these outcomes in performance assessment and resource allocation decisions.
In recent times, complexity thinking (including dealing with uncertainty), evolutionary theory and sense-making have emerged as potentially important ideas. These ideas can shed light on some dilemmas and challenge long held assumptions that have led to these dilemmas. The ideas, emerging from sectors as diverse as natural resource management, cognitive psychology, business management and biology, have not yet informed the development sector.
How do these ideas and the new assumptions they offer affect the nature of development interventions and the process of accompanying these through planning, monitoring and evaluation? How, if we are essentially dealing with systems thinking vs rational and linear planning logics, can we best learn about what we are doing in order to adapt? These questions bring us to processes and procedures, methodologies that align with assumptions.
“…in decision-making at both policy-making and operational levels, we are increasingly coming to deal with situations where these assumptions [of order, rational choice and intentional capability] are not true, but the tools and techniques which are commonly available assume that they are.” (Kurtz and Snowden 2003: 463)
Learning from the Titanic
Navigation involves the art and science of knowing when to adjust a process within a dynamic environment. The Titanic famously sank due to wrong assumptions, inadequate reading of signals and inappropriate adapting of actions. The upcoming innovation dialogue will focus on the question of how those managing development efforts can position interventions appropriately and effectively to avoid Titanic-like consequences, thereby manoeuvring to the aspired/desired future. Management processes are needed that enable up-to-date contextual insights in the face of complexity. What ideas and approaches currently exist to navigate complexity? And can this be undertaken systemically rather than through a patchwork approach?
The development sector is guided by protocols that are essentially based on a linear approach to meeting objectives and on processes that are assessed in comparative isolation of the dynamic context. Many efforts work with limited and out-of-date insights on their operational contexts. The consequence for those managing development efforts is a reduced capability to guide strategic engagement, which affects effectiveness. Any planning process is based on many assumptions. Some of these assumptions will be quite predictable, while others may be but wishful thinking. If assumptions are based on invalid theories of change (incl. the nature of cause-effect relationships) and on inappropriate tools and procedures derived from that, we jeopardise the impact that we are seeking to see realised.
Expectations of the workshop -
This Innovation Dialogue creates an opportunity to start articulating the potential relevance of emerging insights from the complexity sciences and systems thinking, combined with field practice, for the design, monitoring and evaluation of development work. To achieve this means taking time to examine the concepts and to relate them to the diversity of issues and actors that influence the aid nexus.  In particular, it will mean identifying problematic assumptions.
A Programme with a Difference
As we are dealing with questions to which there are no clear-cut answers and which require debate and exploration, this event is neither a workshop nor a seminar. We will be aiming for a process that allows for interactive exploration of innovations leading to shared recommendations that participants can take back home and that can be shared with a broader audience in the development sector. We have invited experts to share key ideas that can have far-reaching consequences for mainstream planning, monitoring and evaluation thinking and practice. With these ideas in mind, groups will then identify practical implications and options. After a round of sharing that focuses on promising approaches and methodologies, new groups will tackle the implications for specific themes in management of development efforts to integrate the diverse ideas and approaches that have been heard and shared.